"A Vignette" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It is the last story that James wrote. It was first published some five months after the author's death in the November 1936 issue of the literary journal London Mercury.
The story's unnamed narrator and protagonist describes a ghostly event from his childhood. As a boy, the narrator lives in a rectory in the countryside. Next to the rectory is a small wood known as the Plantation. Although he is not really certain why, the narrator becomes increasingly scared of the Plantation and starts to have nightmares connected to it.
It is widely believed that "A Vignette" is based on a genuine experience from M.R. James' boyhood. As a child, M.R. James lived in the Suffolk village of Great Livermere where his father was rector. A small wood in Great Livermere known as the Oldbroom Plantation is reputed to be haunted.
The narrator's childhood home is a rectory in the countryside with a large garden. At one end of the garden is a wooden gate. In order to open the gate, it is necessary to put one's hand through a square hole and lift a hook. Beyond the gate is a small wood known as the Plantation. An iron gate separates the Plantation from a park. Although the Plantation does not look frightening in any way and the narrator is not aware of any unpleasant stories connected to it, he gradually becomes increasingly scared of it.
As a small boy, the narrator walks home through the park one evening. He is accompanied for part of the way by a villager. The villager leaves the narrator before he reaches the iron gate. The narrator notices, however, that the villager is standing still and watching him. It is beginning to get dark by the time the narrator enters the Plantation. He is not certain but he thinks that there is somebody in the wood with him. The person is not anybody that the narrator knows and appears to be wearing a cloak or a hood. The narrator walks home more quickly than usual and makes sure that he shuts the wooden gate. Afterwards, the narrator looks out of his bedroom window at night and thinks that he sees movement by the wooden gate.
The narrator begins to have a recurring nightmare. At the start of the dream, he is looking out of his bedroom window and watching the gardener and his assistants at work. When evening comes, all of the workers leave without delay. The narrator looks around the empty garden for signs of movement. He sees some at the wooden gate. While the narrator is still looking out of the window, he hears the sound of footsteps on the stairs and a hand on his door. At that point, he wakes up.
The narrator notices that people hurry past the wooden gate and are glad of company when they approach it.
One sunny afternoon when there is nobody else in the house, the narrator is reading in his bedroom. He reads a frightening passage from a novel then looks out of the window towards the Plantation. He sees that the wooden gate is shut and that there is nobody on the path behind it. There is, however, something "white or partly white" visible through the small hole in the wooden gate. Less out of bravery than out of a determination to know the worst, the narrator goes outside and looks through the hole in the gate. He sees a face. Although its forehead appears to be covered by a shroud, the face is not ghostly or monstrous in any traditional sense. It is pink and hot looking with large eyes. It stares straight at the narrator. Although its expression is completely blank, the narrator feels that the owner of the face wishes him harm. He runs off and does not look back until he gets inside. He then looks out of his bedroom again. He does not see anything white at the wooden gate but he sees a hooded figure walking through the Plantation.
Later that day, the narrator's parents notice that he is upset but he manages to avoid talking about the incident. He still remembers it many years later, however, and would still prefer not to walk past the Plantation gate.
The narrator concludes his story by wondering if strange creatures, like the one that he saw as a boy, were once common but are now only seen from time to time at specific locations.
- Text of M.R. James' "A Vignette" on A Thin Ghost.org. The story is still under copyright in the United States.