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Botanicult Fiction: The Ash Tree

August 12, 2020

By Alex Henderson, Curator of Living Collections, Royal Botanical Gardens.

In recent years we have become familiar with the decline of ash trees thanks to the invasive pest Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis). In 1904 however, M.R. James in his book Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, penned a story about an ash tree with a much more nefarious and preternatural pest problem resulting in the direst of consequences.

Set in 1690, The Ash Tree is a short story of witch finding and revenge set in the pastoral, East Anglian countryside of Suffolk, in the UK, and is rife with accusations of witchcraft and spell casting. This mayhem leads to the accusation that a local noblewoman has been acquiring wealth and property by practicing the dark arts. The only evidence of her witchcraft are false accusations by Sir Matthew Fell, squire and owner of a local estate named Castringham. Despite her pleas, the noblewoman is found guilty and hanged. Before the noose is pulled, she curses Sir Mathew warning “There will be guests at Castringham Hall”. She is buried in the local cemetery.

Weeks later, Sir Matthew and the local vicar are walking by an enormous old ash tree growing outside Sir Matthew’s bedroom. At dusk they spy a strange creature in the branches that disappears before they can identify it. As the night is warm the squire leaves his window open. The next day, he is found dead in his bed with a horrific look of terror on his face. No cause of death can be found.

Sir Matthew’s son, Sir Matthew II, inherits Castringham and refuses to stay in his father’s bedroom. After forty years he dies peacefully in 1735. When the family plot in the local cemetery needs to be expanded to fit his remains, the noblewoman’s resting place is exhumed to make room and the coffin is found to be empty.

Sir Matthew II’s son, Sir Richard, then inherits the estate. In time his bed is moved into the room where his grandfather died previously. During the night, he keeps his window closed but is mystified to hear scratching at the glass. He presumes this to be the branches of the ash tree, yet they do not reach the window. The next day, after a party, the guests retire to their rooms. Sir Richard sleeps with the window open. In the dead of night something horrific climbs through the window, bites him and the next morning is found dead.

As party guests congregate, they discover the curse of the ash tree. A gardener climbs a ladder and looks into a hollow. Seeing something terrible he drops his lantern in alarm. As the tree is set ablaze the visitors watch in terror. Innumerable large, venomous spiders crawl out of the tree on fire, dying on the lawn. Upon investigation, the tree reveals a cave beneath ground level. The cave contains a large spider’s nest and the withered skeleton of the noblewoman whose curse of the dead has haunted Castringham Hall for fifty years.

The Ash Tree is available to read in MR. James’ Penguin Classics edition Count Magnus and Other Stories (Curator’s copy pictured). An atmospheric 1975 adaptation by Laurence Gordon Clarke for the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas can also be viewed on YouTube.

MR James ash tree cover
M.R James. Count Magnus and Other Stories. The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James Volume I. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by S.T. Joshi with Cover Illustration by James McBryde. Penguin Books

Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation

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