‘Through dead men's eyes'
Country Life UK|September 15, 2021
The tradition of ‘eerie’ literature and art, invoking fear, unease and dread, has flourished in the shadows of British landscape culture for centuries, says Robert Macfarlane
Robert Macfarlane

IN July 1925, M. R. James published one of his most disturbing ghost stories, A View From A Hill. It begins on a hot June afternoon, when a Cambridge academic called Fanshawe arrives at the house of his friend Squire Richards, deep in the rural South-West of England. Richards proposes an evening walk to a nearby hilltop, from where they can ‘look over the country’. Fanshawe asks if he can borrow some binoculars. After initial hesitation, Richards agrees—and gives Fanshawe a smooth wooden box. It contains, he explains, a pair of unusually heavy field-glasses, made by a local antiquary named Baxter, who died under mysterious circumstances a decade or so earlier. In opening the box, Fanshawe cuts his finger on one corner, drawing blood.

The two men go out for their walk up to the viewpoint, where they stop to survey the ‘lovely English landscape’ spread out beneath them: a ‘fertile plain’, ‘green wheat, hedges and pastureland’ and ‘scattered cottages’. The smell of hay is in the air, and there are ‘wild roses on bushes hard by’. Constable could have painted the scene into being. It is, writes James, ‘the acme of summer’ —the pinnacle of the English pastoral.

Then, however, Fanshawe raises the binoculars to his eyes—and that ‘lovely landscape’ is disturbingly disrupted. Viewed through the glasses, a distant wooded hilltop becomes a treeless ‘grass field’, in which stands a gibbet, from which hangs a body. There is a cart containing other men near to the gibbet. People are moving around on the field. When Fanshawe takes the binoculars from his eyes, the gibbet vanishes and the innocent wood returns. Up, ghostly; down, lovely. Up, corpse; down, copse. He explains it away as a trick of the midsummer light. From there the story takes further sinister turns, however. The next day, Fanshawe bicycles out to ‘Gallows Hill’, as it is locally called, to investigate the illusion. In the wood on the hilltop, he becomes convinced that there is someone watching him from the thicket, and ‘not with any pleasant intent’. Panicking, he flees.

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