Casting the Runes (1998)

These are my photographs illustrating my adaptation of the M. R. James story.
All the photographs have a rune hidden in them somewhere.

Click on the thumbnails to enlarge images

There was really nothing to be said for Mr. Karswell of Lufford Abbey. Nobody knew what he did. He had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no one could tell what appalling rites.

The first winter he was at Lufford, Karswell offered to show the school children some magic-lantern slides. He produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own woods in the evening. This poor boy was pursued, overtaken and torn in pieces by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw dodging about among the trees.

Another slide showed a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings, and somehow or other he made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience; and this was accompanied by a sort of dry rustling noise which sent the children nearly mad.

Karswell also brought out a History of Witchcraft sometime back. It was an evil book researched from an ancient work that was written entirely in cipher. He had spent his life trying to decipher it and he said that he had learnt many strange and terrifying secrets. He believed that the ancient sorcerers who wrote it knew their information was far too valuable to trust to any known language.

I had recently rejected a paper that Karswell had written for The Royal Society of Medieval Studies and I hoped he would not discover that it was I who was responsible. The only danger was that Karswell might find out, if he was to ask the British Museum people who was in the habit of consulting alchemical manuscripts. I hoped it would not occur to him. However, Mr. Karswell was an astute man.

On an evening rather later in the same week, I was returning from the British Museum. A train took me to within a mile or two of my house. The light was not such as to allow me to do more than study the advertisements on the panes of glass that faced me as I sat. There was one at the corner of the car farthest from me which did not seem familiar. It was in blue letters on a yellow ground; the advertisement was not of the usual type. It ran thus:

After some careful research I discovered that John Harrington had studied at St. John's in Cambridge and had written an article criticising Karswell's book. He had died suddenly in 1997.

It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that I passed on the following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum. After a few minutes I thought I heard my own name being whispered behind me. A stout gentleman at the table behind me, who was just rising to leave, and had collected his own belongings, touched me on the shoulder, saying, "Miss, may I give you this? I think it should be yours," and handed me a missing quire. I had a conversation with the assistant in charge, and asked him who the stout gentleman was. "Oh, he's a man named Karswell."

The night I passed is not one on which I look back with any satisfaction. I was in bed and the light was out. I heard the unmistakable sound of my study door opening but no step followed it on the passage floor. The electric light was not working. The obvious course was to find a match and also to consult my watch, so I put my hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What I touched was, according to my mind, a mouth with teeth and with hair about it, and, I declare, not the mouth of a human being.

I was in a very odd state for some weeks after this incident. There were several things; the sense of being watched whenever I was alone was the most distressing. Also something came for me by post during those weeks. A woodcut, roughly torn from a page of a book, which showed an awful demon creature. Under it were written the lines out of the "Ancient Mariner" ... 'walks on, And turns no more his head, Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread.'

My portfolio of papers was gathering dust on the writing-table. As I took it up I found a strip of thin paper; it had Runic symbols drawn on it. The parchment acted as if it were alive, it pulled from my hand and flew into the fire. It was only saved by the grate that held it back from the flames.

I remembered Karswell's book and one chapter in particular in which he spoke of 'casting the Runes' on people, either for the purpose of gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way. At that moment I guessed what Karswell had done to me. I was under some kind of witch's spell, my mind was in the balance. I was only sure of one thing: the parchment must be returned to the source from whence it came.

I remembered that three months had been mentioned on the inscription on the car-window. April 23rd was the day at the Museum; that brought me to July 23rd. The intangible barrier which had seemed to rise about me on the day when I received the paper had gradually developed into a brooding blackness.

At last, in less than a week before the date I had come to look upon as the end of my earthly activities, I discovered, from a friend, that Karswell was due to give a talk in London on Friday and was planning to leave Cambridge by train Thursday night. I, disguised as far as might be, would mark down Karswell at Cambridge.

My suspense, as I waited on the Cambridge platform, I need not attempt to describe. If Karswell had eluded me now, all hope would have been lost. Still, the train came. I got in at the farther end of the corridor carriage, and gradually made my way to the compartment where Karswell was.

There was a pile of coats on the seats opposite Karswell. During the journey a jacket slipped off his seat and fell with hardly a sound to the floor. Karswell went out of the carriage and passed out of range of the corridor window. I picked up what had fallen and within very few seconds the parchment was in his pocket.

As Karswell re-entered, the carriage seemed to darken about us and grow warmer. Karswell grew fidgety and oppressed. He drew the heap of loose coats near to him and cast it back as if it repelled him; and he then sat upright and glanced anxiously about him. I busied myself in collecting my belongings.

On the afternoon of the 23rd, an English man examining the front of St.Wulfram's Church at Abbeville, was struck on the head and instantly killed by a stone falling from the north-western tower. His business papers identified him as Mr. Karswell.