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Lost Hearts is a short story from "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary", published in 1904.

It is a lesser tale,
and although appealing to modern tastes, is not a typical tale from M.R. James.

The tale begins with the description of an old country house, Answarby Hall in Lincolnshire, towards
which a young boy, Stephen Elliot, is travelling. He has been recently orphaned and a distant cousin, a
Mr Abney, who is much older, has agreed to give him a home. This is a surprise to the people who know
Mr Abney, as he is something of a recluse; a Professor of Greek at Cambridge University and particularly
interested in Pagan religions. He is not known to have any interest in children.

He welcomes Stephen effusively, strangely asking the boy how old he was twice within the first few
minutes. Steven and the reader find this rather puzzling. Perhaps it is just eccentricity on the part of an
old man.

Steven settles into the household, and questions the servants - Mrs. Bunch and Mr. Parkes - about Mr
Abney. They tell Steven that the Professor is very kind. They remember for instance, that he has
befriended two children on earlier occasions. [ The first child was a gypsy girl, who stayed for only three
weeks before mysteriously disappearing. The next was a boy called Jevanny. He was also homeless and
had arrived playing a hurdy-gurdy one day. Mr. Abney took him in, but he also mysteriously disappeared
after a short time. Although the servants do not feel at all surprised by this, the reader feels that Steven
at least should have been.

Steven has a couple of very unsettling experiences. Once he sees an emaciated body of a young girl lying
in the bathtub. He concludes that it was a trick of the light through the glazed bathroom door. On
another occasion his nightgown is found by the servant to have been slashed over and over again, and
there are scratchmarks on the door, both of which are inexplicable. On yet another occasion he
overhears the butler telling the servant about some rats whom he heard whispering and talking in the
cellar. When he catches sight of Stephen, the butler makes out that he had been joking. At this point the
story loses some credibility. A sense of dread should have been conveyed, but there is no sense that the
characters are made to feel jittery in any way.

After Stephen has been living at Answarby Hall for a while, Mr. Abney asks him if he could come to see
him at 11pm one evening in March. It is a strange request, he says, but he would be busy with his papers
and not have any time before then, and he would like to talk to Stephen about his future. Stephen
agrees, and while he is waiting sees two strange apparitions outside the house - a boy and a girl. The girl
reminds him of the image he had seen in the bathroom. She is clasping her hand over her chest, and as
she moves it aside, Stephen sees a gaping hole in her chest. Despite this frightening experience, Stephen
keeps his appointment and knocks on the Professor's door at 11pm.

Before he can go in however, there is a frightful shriek. When the door is finally opened Mr Abney is
found to be dead, with his chest slashed and his heart exposed. He has a ghastly expression on his face.
A knife lies close by, but the knife is perfectly clean. Papers and diagrams are spread about chaotically.
The verdict of the coroner later is that a wild beast must have entered the house and attacked the man.

However, later papers come to light which mean that the adult Stephen comes to a very different
conclusion. Mr Abney had been obsessed by the concept of immortality, and kept a journal of his
experiments. The journal detailed theories which he had held, derived from occult practises.

One of them was that the consuming of the hearts of 3 children, before the age of 12, would make him
able to fly and make him immortal. It was important that the hearts be cut from the living body, burnt,
mixed with port and consumed. The professor wrote that he had hidden their bodies in an unused
bathroom and a wine cellar. In other parts of the diaries Mr Abney recorded the "psychic forms" of the
children, their leaden features and hideously long nails. They returned after their death, but had little
weight or substance, so he thought they were weak and did not pose a threat to him. He viewed these
"psychic forms" as a small price to pay for immortality. (hide spoiler)]

This is a much more explicit horror story than we are used to from the pen of M.R. James. The themes
are the same - the interference with arcane mysteries, the supernatural element, the remote musty
setting, the scholar at the heart of the story and the ideas of both obsession and guilt. But the sense of
menace and dread is largely lost. Perhaps it has been sacrificed [ along with the children in order (hide
spoiler)] to make the tale more gruesome and explicitly horrific. Or perhaps it is simply that the
protagonist is a child, and M.R. James did not manage to convey such feelings of trepidation and dread
from a child's point of view as easily as he managed to with his adult characters. It is a popular story
nonetheless, and often dramatised to enhance its "shocker" elements, but it is not one of his best.

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