"A Warning to the Curious" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It first appeared in print in the literary journal London Mercury in August 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 a young antiquary and archaeologist named Paxton. While on vacation on the south-east coast of England, Paxton hears the legend of the three holy crowns. According to the legend, England was kept safe from being invaded when three crowns were buried long ago at sites near the coast. One of the crowns was later dug up, one is now beneath the sea but one still remains buried in the earth and keeps England safe from invasion. Members of a family named Ager long guarded the site where the crown was buried. When the last surviving member of the family, William Ager, died at the age of 28, the crown was left without a living guardian. Paxton finds out where the crown is buried and digs it up. He soon comes to regret doing so. He feels that a ghost is constantly watching him and presents a genuine danger to him. He decides to put the crown back where he found it. He is uncertain, however, that the ghost will forgive him even if he does return the crown.
"A Warning to the Curious" has been adapted to other media, most notably as the second TV movie in the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas.
One April at the start of the 20th century, the story's unnamed narrator and his friend Henry Long come to the town of Seaburgh on the coast of East Anglia for a golfing vacation. There are few tourists in Seaburgh at that time of year. Consequently, there are not many people at the hotel where the narrator and Long are staying and its public rooms are almost empty. The narrator and Long are therefore surprised when a young man enters their private lounge. They notice, however, that the young man, whose name is later revealed to be Paxton, obviously wants company and allow him to stay. After some time, Paxton reveals that he knows who the narrator and Long are, they have a mutual acquaintance, and he has come to speak to them about a problem that he has.
A week earlier, Paxton cycled to the neighboring town of Froston to visit the church. The sexton let him into the church and showed him around. On leaving the building, Paxton noticed a coat of arms on the church's porch. It was the coat of arms of East Anglia on which there are three crowns. The sexton said that the three crowns on the shield represent the three holy crowns that were, "buried in the ground near by the coast to keep the Germans from landing." The sexton insisted that England would have been invaded by the Germans if it were not for the three holy crowns. He could tell that Paxton did not believe him. At that point, the priest arrived. The sexton asked the priest to tell Paxton the legend.
The priest said that, according to legend, three crowns were buried at different places near to the coast to prevent England from being invaded. One of the crowns was later dug up and one is now under the sea. Only one crown is left in its original burial place and continues to protect England. The fact that an Anglo-Saxon crown was dug up, and melted down soon afterwards, in 1687 and the fact that the site of a former Anglo-Saxon palace is known to now be under the sea lend some credence to the legend. The priest goes on to say that, for a long time, the members of the Ager family considered themselves to be the guardians of the one remaining crown. During times of war, Nathaniel Ager spent every night camping out at the site where the crown was buried. His son William Ager did the same thing after him. William Ager's son, whose name was also William Ager and who died recently at the age of 28, did the same. The second William Ager moved to a cottage nearer to the site where the crown was buried. He suffered from tuberculosis and the priest believes that camping out constantly hastened his death. William Ager had no children. His death left the crown without a living guardian.
Paxton decided to dig up the crown but did not know where to begin looking for it. In a curiosity shop, he chanced to come across an 18th-century prayer book. The owners of the book had written their names inside it. Its first owner had been a man named Nathaniel Ager in 1754. Its most recent owner had been William Ager, who came into possession of it a few years ago. Paxton bought the book. From the shopkeeper, he found out that William Ager moved to a cottage in the North Field before he died. Paxton went to the only large cottage in the area and spoke to its current occupant. She said that it was sad that William Ager died young as a result of spending cold nights sleeping out on a hill. She pointed out the nearby hill to Paxton. Not having permission from the landowner to dig there, Paxton had to return to the hill at night to retrieve the crown.
Paxton offers to show the crown to narrator and Henry Long. They follow him to his room. At the time, the narrator thinks that there is a member of the hotel staff in the corridor. Thinking about it later, he is not sure that was the case. Paxton keeps the crown locked up and wrapped in handkerchiefs. Although he allows the narrator and Long to look at the crown, he does not allow them to touch it. The narrator is very excited to be one of the first people in hundreds of years to see a genuine Anglo-Saxon crown. Paxton, however, says that he has to put back the crown. Long asks Paxton to come back to their lounge to continue to discuss the matter. Paxton asks Long and the narrator to go first and check that there is nobody about. They tell him that there is nobody there, although they both feel the presence of a "shadow, or more than a shadow".
Paxton says that he has not been alone since he touched the crown. While he was digging, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man standing in nearby trees. When he looked directly at the trees, the man was not there. Paxton says that he heard a kind of scream when he took the crown out of the ground. After he left the site where the crown had been buried, Paxton got the impression that people were looking at something behind him. Paxton took a train back from Froston to Seaburgh. A guard held the door open for another passenger to enter the carriage, although Paxton could not see anybody. Paxton believes that he is being pursued by a ghost which has power over people's eyes and can choose to make itself either visible or invisible. Paxton also says that he returned to his hotel room many times to find the Ager family prayer-book on his table, open at the page with the names written on it and with a razor placed across it to keep it open. Paxton goes on to say that he fears that he will not be forgiven, even if he does put the crown back, and begins to cry.
The narrator and Henry Long want to help Paxton. They decide to help him put the crown back that very night. They tell a member of the hotel staff that they are going out for a walk. The hotel staff member agrees to wait up for them. Paxton carries the crown, still wrapped in handkerchiefs, under a coat on his arm. The narrator, Henry Long and Paxton pass through the graveyard. The narrator has the feeling that there might be, "some one lying there who might be conscious of our business". All the way to the hill, he has the feeling of being watched by several "dim presences" and that there is a stronger presence awaiting their arrival. Paxton digs very quickly. He asks the narrator and Long to hand him the crown. They start to unwrap it but manage not to touch its metal. Paxton reburies the crown and covers it up. On leaving the hill, Henry Long notices a dark shape on it. He tells Paxton that he left his coat behind. Paxton shows that he has his coat with him. After the hotel staff member opens the door for the narrator, Henry Long and Paxton, he continues to hold it open for a little while longer, saying that he thought he saw another man behind them.
Henry Long and the narrator try to reassure Paxton that everything will be all right. They tell him that he can use their lounge the following morning while they are playing golf and that they will go for a walk together in the afternoon. Paxton continues to say that he does not think he has been forgiven and that he will still have to pay for what he has done.
The following afternoon, the narrator and Long go to their lounge and find that Paxton has left. A hotel staff member says that he thought he saw Paxton leave with the narrator and Long. Through the window, he then saw Paxton running down the beach. The narrator and Long see Paxton running along the beach, waving a walking stick as if trying to get the attention of some people ahead of him. They see Paxton's footprints on the beach and prints of bare feet in front of Paxton's which show "more bone than flesh". The narrator remembers that Paxton said the ghost has power over people's eyes. He concludes that Paxton is running towards the ghost, believing it to be Henry Long and himself. The narrator believes that, when Paxton eventually catches up with it, the ghost will take on its true form once again and attack Paxton. The narrator hears a "breathless, lungless laugh". He and Henry Long find Paxton's dead body. His jaw and teeth are broken and his mouth is full of sand and pebbles.
A witness, the keeper of a martello tower, sees Paxton fall down dead before Long and the narrator approach him, thus clearing them of suspicion of murder. The narrator and Long choose not to mention the crown at the inquest into Paxton's death. They say that they only met him the day before he died and that he believed that someone named William Ager posed a danger to him.
The narrator concludes his story by saying, "I have never been at Seabridge, or even near it, since."
"A Warning to the Curious" was adapted as the second TV movie in the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas. The film was first shown on British television on December 24, 1972. It stars Peter Vaughan as Paxton, Clive Swift as Dr. Black (an amalgam of the unnamed narrator and Henry Long from the original short story) and John Kearney as William Ager. There are a number of differences between the film and the original short story. The film's opening sequence takes place twelve years before Paxton's visit to Seaburg and Threxton (as the towns are called in the adaptation), at a time when William Ager is still alive. It establishes how seriously William Ager takes his role as guardian of the crown. When an archaeologist (played by Julian Herington), ignores Ager's demands to stop digging at the crown's burial site, Ager hacks him to death with a knife intended for cutting peat. In the film, Paxton is not a young man and is a Londoner of working class origin. He has recently become unemployed after the company where he worked for twelve years went out of business. He is only an amateur archaeologist and is entirely self-taught. In the film, Paxton already knows the legend of the three crowns before traveling to East Anglia. He goes there with the specific intention of finding the one remaining crown. He wants to prove that a successful archaeologist does not have to be a university man, make a name for himself and make his fortune. Paxton's poverty is established early in the film when the soles of his shoes are shown to be cracked. At the film's climax, the ghost of William Ager chases Paxton back to the hill where the crown is buried. Paxton is hacked to death, as the other archaeologist was twelve years earlier. The film ends with the suggestion that, after the death of Paxton, the ghost of William Ager has begun pursuing Dr. Black.
An abridged version of "A Warning to the Curious" is read by Christopher Lee in the fourth and final episode of the BBC TV mini-series Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas. The episode first aired on British television on December 31, 2000.
A 15-minute radio play based on "A Warning to the Curious", starring Mark Gatiss as M.R. James, was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on December 20, 2018 as the fourth episode of the five-part mini-series The Haunting of M.R. James.
- The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas is made up of fourteen TV movies that were first shown on British television between 1971 and 2019. Of the other thirteen films in the series, three are original stories. The rest are adaptations of the short stories "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", "Lost Hearts", "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", "The Ash-tree", "A View from a Hill", "Number 13", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", "The Tractate Middoth" and "Martin's Close" by M.R. James and the short story "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens.
- In the four-part BBC TV mini-series Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas, first shown on British television in December 2000, Christopher Lee plays M.R. James, telling his ghost stories by candlelight to friends and students at King's College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve. Other stories told in the series are "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", "The Ash-tree" and "Number 13".
- The other episodes of The Haunting of M.R. James are based on "The Mezzotint", "Casting the Runes", "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" and "Rats"