Friday, 20 March 2009

A warning to the curious

We drove across to the Suffolk coast to stay in this superbly situated National Trust property at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge. It was the owner of this house - Mrs Pretty - who instigated the excavations by a Suffolk antiquarian called Basil Brown, of the nearby burial mounds where, in 1939, they found the extraordinary 7th century Anglo-Saxon ship burial and iconic helmet (among many other things). The buried man was clearly very important and most people seem to think he was Raedwald, king of East Anglia.

I wonder if Basil Brown had ever read any M R James. If he had he might have been less keen on digging about in ancient barrows. It is hard to believe that a Cambridge man like Charles Philips who took over control of the excavation did not know his work. M R James (an antiquarian himself) wrote his classic ghost story A Warning to the Curious with this part of the world in mind. It predates the discovery at Sutton Hoo but has weird echoes of it. James even mentions Raedwald.

It tells the story of an man called Paxton who digs into an Anglo-Saxon barrow and finds a crown: a crown of one of the ancient kings of East Anglia. But the grave has a guardian of course. . .

And when I actually laid it bare and got my fingers on the ring of it and pulled it out, there came a sort of cry behind me - oh, I can't tell you how desolate it was!

M R James description of this guardian is brilliant in its precise vagueness:

Sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don't, just as he pleases, I think: he's there, but he has some power over your eyes.

A Warning to the Curious has been a favourite story of mine ever since I saw the BBC adaptation in the Christmas of 1972. They transpose the story to Norfolk and the chase sequence with Peter Vaughan running across the beach at Holkham, the thing visible as a blur over his shoulder has always stayed with me. It is such a clever piece of direction (by Lawrence Gordon Clark): so simple, yet so effective.

That story (and the Sutton Hoo burial) was in my mind when I wrote Redwulf's Curse, one of the my Tom Marlowe books I did for Random House in which an ancient guardian of a royal burial seems to have been awakened in the salt marshes of the North Norfolk coast. I returned to the theme of barrows and curses for the story called The Island in Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth to be published in October.

In The Island, two brothers decide to investigate an 'island' of trees in a farmer's field of barley. The trees are growing out of a mound. As one of the boys tries to take a closer look the mound collapses and they discover that it is a barrow.

But the bones buried inside are not human. They are of some strange animal. And there is a spear sticking out of the skeleton. . .

With that, he threw the spear and it flew in a shallow arc, landing with a thud in the ground between them.

But Henry did not see the spear land because as he had released it into the air, there was a noise behind him that made him turn in alarm. Something large seemed to have shifted noisily nearby. He wondered if another part of the barrow had collapsed.

'Henry!' Martin shouted crossly. 'That was really stupid. You might have broken -'

Henry looked back across the barley towards his brother, but Martin was no longer there.

He stared around in confusion. It was as if Martin had simply vanished mid-sentence. But then he detected a movement some way off, near to where he had last seen his brother. The barley was being flattened in a narrow channel coming back in a wide arc towards the island. . .

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