"Lost Hearts" is a classic ghost story by the British author M.R. James. James read an early version of the story at a Cambridge literary society gathering in 1893, and the short story was published in the December 1895 issue of the Pall Mall Magazine. The story was later collected in the anthology Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904).
The story opens with a young orphan named Stephen arriving at Aswarby Hall, the country estate of his elderly uncle, Mr. Abney. Although Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, Stephen learns that he is a kind man who has taken in other disadvantaged children in the past. Those children did not stay long, but Stephen is quite happy in his new life at the Hall. A few months after his arrival, however, Stephen begins to experience some mysterious and disturbing events.
"Lost Hearts" was one of the earliest stories written by M.R. James. Although the author himself did not care much for the story, some consider it one of James' best. The story has been adapted for television and radio.
In September of 1811, a young boy named Stephen Elliot arrives at Aswarby Hall in Lincolnshire. Stephen was recently orphaned, and his elderly cousin, Mr. Abney, has generously invited him to come live at the Hall. The invitation was unexpected, for Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, an expert on ancient pagan religions who is wrapped up in his books.
Mr. Abney eagerly welcomes his young cousin, and he appears delighted to learn that Stephen's twelfth birthday is nearly a year away. He tells Parkes the butler to take Stephen to the housekeeper, Mrs. Bunch. Mrs. Bunch makes Stephen feel completely at home, and they quickly become great friends. Stephen, an adventurous and curious boy, learns much about Aswarby Hall and its gardens from Mrs. Bunch who has been at the Hall for twenty years.
One November evening, Stephen asks Mrs. Bunch "Is Mr. Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?" Mrs. Bunch tells him that his uncle is the kindest man. She then talks about other children Mr. Abney has taken in. The first was a little girl who had no family. Mr. Abney brought her back with him from his walk one day about two years after Mrs. Bunch first came to the Hall. After three weeks, the girl suddenly left before anyone else was up in the morning. Mr. Abney was distraught and even had the ponds dragged, but the girl was never seen again. Mrs. Bunch believes she was taken away by the gypsies who were seen in the area. The second was a young foreign boy who came around with his hurdy-gurdy seven winters ago. Just like the girl, the boy left suddenly one early morning. Mrs. Bunch has no idea why he left or what he did, for he left his hurdy-gurdy behind.
That night, Stephen has a strange dream. He is looking through the glazed door of an old disused bathroom down the corridor from his bedroom. Lying in the bath tub is a thin figure wrapped in a shroud. There is a faint and dreadful smile on its lips, and its hands are pressed tightly over the heart. Then it begins to moan and move its arms. Stephen wakes terrified and finds himself standing in the passageway. He walks up to the bathroom door and takes a peek to see if the figure is there. Finding the bath empty, Stephen goes back to bed. Upon hearing about the dream in the morning, Mrs. Bunch puts a new curtain over the bathroom door. Mr. Abney also shows interest in Stephen's story and makes notes in his book.
As the spring equinox approaches, Mr. Abney repeatedly advises Stephen to take care and shut his bedroom window at night. He explains that the time of year was considered by the ancients to be critical for the young. One day, after Stephen has a particularly uneasy night, Mrs. Bunch finds his nightdress torn. There are long parallel slits on the left side of the chest. Stephen cannot explain the slits but tells Mrs. Bunch that there are similar scratches on the outside of his bedroom door. Mrs. Bunch goes to look at the door. The marks, which are too high up to have been made by an animal, look like fingernail scratches. She advises Stephen not to say anything to Mr. Abney and to lock his door at bedtime.
The following evening, Stephen is in Mrs. Bunch's room when Parkes comes in looking uncharacteristically flustered. Not realizing Stephen is there, the butler begins to complain about the wine cellar. He is disturbed by noises coming from the far storage room. Mrs. Bunch points out that there are rats. Parkes replies that, if those are rats, they must be the kind that can talk. Mrs. Bunch protests that he is frightening Stephen, and Parkes finally becomes aware of the child. Stephen asks questions but Parkes will not say any more on the subject.
On March 24, Mr. Abney speaks to Stephen after lunch and asks him to come to his study at 11:00pm. He wishes to show Stephen something important connected with his future life, and tells Stephen not to mention it to anyone else. That evening, Stephen sees his uncle in the library. There is a silver cup filled with red wine and some sheets of paper on the table. Mr. Abney is sprinkling some incense on a brazier from a silver box. Stephen goes up to his bedroom unseen.
Around ten o'clock, Stephen looks out from his bedroom window over the country. The night is still and there is a full moon. He hears strange cries from time to time, not quite like owls or water birds, from across the pond. They seem to come closer and closer, but then the cries stop. Then Stephen sees a boy and a girl standing on the terrace along the side of the Hall. The girl reminds Stephen of the figure in the bath he saw in his dream. She stands half smiling, with her hands over her heart. The boy, thin and in ragged clothing, raises his arms in a gesture of hunger and longing. His nails are fearfully long, and on the left side of his chest is a gaping rent. Stephen hears, not with his ears but in his brain, those desolate cries he heard earlier. Then the boy and the girl noiselessly move away and disappear.
It is now nearly eleven. Stephen, although quite frightened, decides to go down to Mr. Abney's study. He knocks on the door but receives no reply. He hears his uncle speaking. Then he hears him trying to cry out and choking. In the silence that follows, Stephen frantically pushes open the door.
Later at the inquest, the coroner concludes Mr. Abney was killed by a wild animal that entered the study through the open window. Mr. Abney was found in his chair with a terrible laceration on his chest exposing the heart, and his expression was frozen in a mixture of rage, fear, and horrible pain. There was no blood on his hands or on the knife that lay on the table.
Some years later, Stephen Elliot studies Mr. Abney's papers and finds a different explanation for his uncle's death. Through his studies of ancient texts, Mr. Abney had become convinced that one could gain supernatural powers – such as the ability to fly or become invisible – by consuming the hearts of three human beings below the age of twenty one. The hearts were to be removed from living victims, reduced to ashes, and mixed with red wine. Mr. Abney chose children who would not be missed. The first heart was removed from a gipsy girl on March 24, 1792, and the second from a wandering Italian boy on March 23, 1805. The children's bodies were concealed in the disused bathroom and the wine cellar. Mr. Abney chose Stephen as the third subject in his experiment. He hoped to gain powers to enable him not only to escape from justice but also to defeat death itself. Although he was aware of the ghosts of the children, called "the psychic portion of the subjects" in his papers, Mr. Abney believed them incapable of harming him.
"Lost Hearts" was adapted for television as an episode of the Mystery and Imagination series with Freddie Jones as Mr. Abney. The episode was first broadcast on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on March 5, 1966.
The story was adapted as a short television film for the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas series with Joseph O'Conor in the role of Mr. Abney. It first aired on British television on December 25, 1973. The movie features hurdy-gurdy music, and the ghost of the boy is seen playing the instrument.
On December 26, 2007, BBC Radio 4 aired a 15-minute dramatization of "Lost Hearts" as part of the M.R. James: Ghost Stories series. Derek Jacobi, as M.R. James, introduces the story which is told as a recollection by the grown-up Stephen Elliot (James D'Arcy).
- The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas consists of fourteen TV movies which 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", "A Warning to the Curious", "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.
- Other episodes in the five-part BBC radio mini-series M.R. James Ghost Stories from December 2007 are based on "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", "The Tractate Middoth", "The Rose Garden" and "Number 13"