"A View from a Hill" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It first appeared in print in the literary journal London Mercury in May 1925. It was republished later the same year as part of the anthology A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories.
The story concerns an antiquary named Fanshawe who visits the country home of his wealthy friend Squire Henry Richards. Fanshawe, who is keen to explore the area, asks Richards to lend him some binoculars. The binoculars which he borrows were made by a man named Baxter, a watch-maker and amateur archaeologist who died in mysterious circumstances some years earlier. Through the binoculars, Fanshawe is able to see objects which no longer exist. He also, however, begins to have some very unpleasant experiences.
"A View from a Hill" has been adapted for television.
At the end of June, an academic named Fanshawe travels to the countryside in the south-west of England to spend his summer vacation at the home of his friend Squire Henry Richards. At the age of about sixty, Richards is an older man than Fanshawe and they have not known each other for very long. They do, however, have many interests in common.
As evening begins to fall on the day of Fanshawe's arrival, Richards suggests that they walk to the top of a hill from which they will be able to get a good view of the surrounding countryside. Fanshawe says that he lent his binoculars to somebody who did not give them back and asks Richards if he can borrow some. Richards says that he can but adds that the only binoculars he has are old-fashioned and heavy. They are also kept in a box which Richards cannot remember how to open. The box has no lock on it. Fanshawe is able to open it by pushing its sides. He cuts his finger on one of the box's sharp edges while doing so.
On the way to the top of the hill, Richards points out the site of something which he calls "Baxter's Roman villa". Richards goes on to explain that Baxter made the binoculars which he lent to Fanshawe. Baxter was a watch-maker and an amateur antiquary and archaeologist. He uncovered several ancient artifacts. After Baxter's death, Richards bought the artifacts, along with the binoculars, He donated the artifacts to the local museum. In spite of his talents, Baxter was not popular and Richards did not like him.
At the top of the hill, Richards tells Fanshawe that he will be able to see Fulnaker Abbey if he looks through the binoculars. Fanshawe does so and remarks that the abbey has a fine tower. Richards says that Fanshawe must be looking in the wrong direction. He says that, instead of looking at the ruined abbey, Fanshawe must be looking at the church in the village of Oldbourne, although Richards does not think its tower is particularly fine. Fanshawe continues to insist that the tower looks impressive. Richards asks Fanshawe to look through the binoculars at a hill and asks him to guess its name. Fanshawe immediately answers that it is called Gallows Hill. Richards asks how Fanshawe managed to guess correctly. Fanshawe replies that it is obvious because there is a fake gibbet with a dummy hanging from it on the hill. Richards says there is no fake gibbet and the top of the hill is covered with trees. Without the binoculars, Fanshawe sees nothing but trees on the hill. With the binoculars, he sees the gibbet, a crowd of people and men in a cart. Fanshawe says that, the following day, he will go to Gallows Hill to see if the fake gibbet is there. He will also go to see Oldbourne Church.
When Richards and Fanshawe return to Richards' home. the elderly butler Patten appears to be worried. It turns out that Patten is surprised to find that the binoculars, which Richards has never used, have been taken out of their box.
That night, Fanhawe has a bad dream. He dreams that he picks up a stone and then finds that it had a label on it which read, "On no account move this stone. Yours sincerely, J. Patten", A hand then emerges from the ground and tries to grab Fanshawe.
Fanshawe gets up late the next day. He spends a lot of the morning looking at copies of the journal of the County Archaeological Society. There are many articles in the journals that are written by Baxter. Fanshawe finds that he does not like Baxter's writing because it is written in a, "patronizing tone as of one possessing superior knowledge". In one of the journals, Fanshawe sees a sketch by Baxter that was found among his papers after his death. It is an artist's impression of what the priory church at Fulnaker Abbey used to look like. Fanshawe notices that its tower looks exactly like the one that he saw through the binoculars the day before. Fanshawe thinks this could mean that Oldbourne Church was built by monks from Fulnaker Abbey.
In the afternoon, Fanshawe tells Richards that he is going out on his bicycle to see Oldbourne Church and Gallows Hill. Richards says that he should also go to Lambsfield Church to see its stained glass window. He asks Fanshawe if he is going to take the binoculars. Fanshawe says that he is. Richards says that Patten has some concerns about those binoculars and would like to talk to Fanshawe about them and about Baxter. Richards seems to think it is likely that Fanshawe will get into some difficulty and return later than he expects. His concerns turn out to be well founded because Fanshawe does not return until nine o'clock that evening.
Fanshawe says that he went to Lambsfield Church. He tried to use the binoculars to read some writing on the stained glass window. He found that he could see nothing through them and concluded that they did not work indoors. He went to Oldbourne Church and found that its tower looked nothing like the one that he saw through the binoculars the day before. Although the tower that he saw looked just like the one in Baxter's sketch of Fulnaker Abbey, there is now no tower at the ruined abbey either. The remains of the abbey indicate, however, that there was such a tower there once.
Fanshawe went to Gallows Hill. He found it to be completely covered with trees with no fake gallows. While he was there, the tires of his bicycle got badly punctured. Fanshawe also began to feel very uncomfortable. He had the impression that that there were people walking behind him and moving quickly in front of him. He felt a hand on his shoulder. He also had the sensation that somebody was watching him from high up in a tree. When he got to three stones, Fanshawe picked up his bicycle and ran away. Patten asks him if he walked between the stones. Fanshawe says that he did not. Richards says that the remains of hanged men were once left on the stones.
Patten tells Fanshawe about Baxter. Although he often visited Baxter's home to see the historical artifacts which he found, there was something about the man which Patten did not like. Baxter never attended the local church or chapel. A priest once visited his house. All that the priest would say about the visit afterwards was, "Never ask me what the man said". Laborers going to work in the morning would often see Baxter returning home after having spent all night on Gallows Hill.
One evening, Baxter was heard screaming in agony. Neighbors found that he had scalded his leg and tongue after having knocked over something that he was boiling in a pot. The pot was found to contain brown bones. Baxter would not allow his neighbors to pick up the bones but insisted that they be covered up with a tablecloth before the doctor arrived.
Richards interrupts Patten's story. He says that, while he was at Baxter's house, the doctor tried on a mask that was covered in black velvet. Baxter stopped him by shouting, "Do you want to look through a dead man's eyes?" The doctor later said that he thought the mask may have been made from part of a skull.
Patten continues to say that Baxter recovered from his scalding and lived on for a few more years. One of the last things that Baxter did before he died was finish making the binoculars. He had made their body long ago but told Patten that they needed to be "filled and sealed" before they could be used. Baxter later told Patten that he had finished making the binoculars but that Patten could not look through them because he had, "put 'em to bed for tonight." He added, "you'll have to pay for peepin'."
A week later, a neighbor heard a sound like someone being pushed and pulled coming from Baxter's house. He saw Baxter come out and walk in a strange way, as if he were being forced to move against his will. He cried out for mercy and then suddenly stopped, as if someone had placed a hand over his mouth. At that point, Baxter's hat fell off. The neighbor put his head out of the window to offer to help Baxter. A voice told him, "'Tis best you mind your own business. Put in your head." The voice did not sound like Baxter's, although there was nobody else there. The neighbor looked outside again soon afterwards. He saw Baxter continue to walk. He noticed that the hat was back on Baxter's head, although Baxter had not stopped to pick it up. A week later, Baxter was found between the three stones on Gallows Hill with his neck broken.
Patten asks Fanshawe if he said he used the binoculars inside a church. Fanshawe replies that he did. Patten asks Fanshawe to look through the binoculars again the next morning. The following morning, Fanshawe finds that he is able to see nothing through the binoculars except blackness. Richards finds that he can see nothing through them either. Richards drops the binoculars. They crack and a foul smelling black liquid oozes out of them. Richards realizes that, in order to see through a dead man's eyes, Baxter boiled the bones of men hanged on Gallows Hill and poured the liquid he created into the binoculars. The ghosts of the hanged men did not like the way Baxter treated their bones and took their revenge on him. Richards gets a spade to bury the binoculars.
"A View from a Hill" was adapted as the ninth TV movie in the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas. The film, the first one in the series to be produced since 1978, was first shown on British television on December 23, 2005. It stars Mark Letheren as Fanshawe, Pip Torrens as Squire Richards, David Burke as Patten and Simon Linnell as Baxter. In the adaptation, Fanshawe and Squire Richards are not friends and there is never anything more than a business relationship between them. Fanshawe works for a museum and has been sent to Richards' home to catalog the collection of historical artifacts which Richards inherited from his father. The impoverished Richards plans to sell off the collection. As a result of his unpleasant experiences, Fanshawe never finishes cataloging the collection. Fanshawe is often attacked by invisible ghosts. At the film's climax, he is dragged to Gallows Hill and hanged. Fanshawe escapes death because a search party, led by Squire Richards and Patten, reaches him in time.
- ↑ The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas is made up of twelve TV movies that were first shown on British television between 1971 and 2013. Of the other eleven films in the series, two are original stories, the rest are adaptations of the short stories "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", "A Warning to the Curious', "Lost Hearts", "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", "The Ash-tree", "Number 13", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "The Tractate Middoth" by M.R. James and the short story "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens.
- Text of M.R. James' "A View from a Hill" on Wikilivres. The site is hosted in New Zealand where the story is in the public domain. It is still under copyright in the United States.