James’ ghost story begins in a curious way; the first few paragraphs put the reader off-guard, with nothing to suggest the supernatural or the unnerving. Quite the opposite – the narrator takes the reader into his confidence with a genial conversational style, reflecting happily on his happy childhood memories of the small seaside town of Seaburgh. He describes the topography in great detail, leading the reader on an imaginary walk through the town to the heath and ‘a rather well-defined mound’. ‘Why do I encumber you with these commonplace details?’ the narrator asks the reader directly. His reason is that the thoughts ‘come crowding’ as soon as he ‘begins to write of Seaburgh’, but James’ reasons are to set the location, specifically that mound, so innocuously introduced, and to lull the reader into a false sense of security. The narrator then reveals that the story to be told is not his own, but one told to him by an acquaintance, giving us another example of a story within a story and resulting narrative detachment.
The Young Man’s Story
The acquaintance’s narrative begins in a Seaburgh inn, where he is staying with a friend, and soon includes yet another narrative, from ‘a rabbity and anaemic’ young man who seeks their advice. His story is substantial, detailed and contains direct speech, even with phonetic representation of an old rural man’s accent: ‘it warn’t nothink, only I was telling this gentleman he’d ought to ast you about them ‘oly crowns.’ Considering the reader is hearing this voice at third hand, James is stretching the credibility of the Russian doll narrative structure, but of course it presents the original story in a vivid, engaging way.
There is much in the story which is plausible. Seaburgh is a rough approximation of Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast in eastern England, while Rendlesham is a nearby village and several villages have been lost from that coast to sea erosion over the years, making the siting of the three crowns credible. There has been archaeological interest in Suffolk for a long time, although the famous Sutton Hoo archaeological discoveries were made in 1939, fourteen years after James’ story was published. Suffolk is also dotted with small architecturally interesting churches, so Paxton’s cycling tour is fitting.. We may also perhaps see why a story about the fierce protection of national coastlines from invasion was an emotional topic in the years following the First World War.
James introduces the uncanny elements carefully. First there is the Ager family’s role as guardians of the last crown, which they take extremely seriously – the last guardian is a young man in severe ill-health, but he still sat up ‘night watching’ even in ‘cold weather’, up ‘on the hillock’, which the reader will connect with the ‘mound’ of the story’s second paragraph. And then throughout his story-telling, there is Paxton’s agitation, his ‘rueful eye’ and his admission that, having successfully retrieved the Anglo-Saxon crown, he now wants ‘to put it back’. The growing sense of unease about the crown is developed when he does not allow his two new companions to touch it, and in his increasingly odd behaviour, then finally his revelation that ‘I’ve never been alone since I touched it.’ His explanation of a man ‘standing by one of the firs’ and then ‘someone scraping at my back’ as he dug moves the story further from myth into the genre of the supernatural and working within the conventions of a ghost story. For example, for reasons of the narrative but also appropriate setting, the replacement of the crown in the mound takes place at night, but also the night of the first full moon of spring – ‘the Paschal moon.’ James also includes details which serve to remove the possibility that that ‘ghost’ is a figment of Paxton’s imagination, such as Long’s observation about the coat, apparently left behind, but hanging over Paxton’s arm.
Such indications also mean that even as James seems to be returning the characters to the normality of golf and walks, the reader is waiting for the inevitable dénouement. James uses a number of key tropes – the mystery voice calling out for Paxton, the frantic chase and the gathering sea mist ‘coming up very quickly from the south’. There is also the important uncanny detail of the sand showing the prints of Paxton’s shoes following someone running barefoot before him. The end is sudden: ‘You don’t need to be told that he was dead.’ Indeed not, as the narrative has securely led us to this point with unerring inevitability. The violence, though, is surprising: ‘his teeth and jaws were broken to bits’.
The last few paragraphs return the story to the ordinary business of inquests and investigations, of witnesses and leads. But the ordinariness is superficial, as the tale has had lasting effects on the narrator: ‘I have not been at Seaburgh, or even near it, since.’ The parenthetical placement of ‘or even near it’ between the commas emphasises the narrator’s continuing sense of dread, and they are the last words James gives to the reader.