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MaliceInanimateObjectsAlisdairWood

Recent illustration for "The Malice of Inanimate Objects" by British artist Alisdair Wood.

"The Malice of Inanimate Objects" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It is the penultimate story which M.R. James wrote and the last of his stories to be published during his lifetime. It first appeared in print in the June 1933 issue of the Eton College magazine The Masquerade. It was not included in any of the anthologies of James' works which were published in the 1930s and was not published again until 1984 when it appeared in the sixth issue of the newsletter Ghosts & Scholars.

The story describes how a vengeful ghost uses a variety of everyday objects to take revenge on a wrongdoer.

Most of the first three paragraphs of the story are made up of a retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Herr Korbes" (which James calls "Squire Korbes"), in which someone who was "either a very wicked or very unfortunate man" is made to suffer by a group of animals and inanimate objects.

Plot

The story's protagonist is an old man named Mr. Burton who is visiting his old friend Mr. Manners. Mr. Burton is convinced that he is going to have a bad day when he starts his morning by cutting himself while shaving and spilling his tooth powder. Mr. Manners reads in the newspaper that George Wilkins, someone with whom Mr. Burton had some difficulties, has committed suicide by cutting his throat. Mr. Burton and George Wilkins had a disagreement about a will. Mr. Manners wonders if it was that disagreement which drove George Wilkins to suicide, a suggestion which Mr. Burton angrily denies.

Mr. Manners needs to go to the village on business and asks Mr. Burton to accompany him on the walk. On the way to the village, Mr. Burton nearly trips over a step, is scratched by thorns and trips over the string of an unattended kite. Mr. Burton wants to take the kite to punish whichever child has left it lying around. As he approaches the kite, a gust of wind makes it stand on end. The kite has the letters "ICU" on it and what look like two big red eyes. Mr. Manners notices that the homemade kite is made out of an old poster and that the letters "ICU" are part of the words "FULL PARTICULARS". Mr. Manners finds this funny but Mr. Burton does not. He destroys the kite with his walking stick.

In the village, Mr. Manners and Mr. Burton hear a "rather muffled and choky voice" say, "Look out! I'm coming." Mr. Manners sees a parrot in a cage in an open window and assumes it was the bird that spoke. He says that Mr. Burton might like to talk to the parrot while he takes care of business. When Mr. Manners returns, he finds that Mr. Burton has walked on some distance and has not spoken to the bird. Mr. Manners remembers that the parrot would not be able to talk back. It has been in the window for many years and is dead and stuffed.

Mr. Burton chokes on his lunch, breaks his tobacco pipe, trips on a rug and drops his book into a pond. He claims to have received a phone call telling him that he has to return home early. Before he leaves the following morning, Mr. Burton tells Mr. Manners that he plans to see a doctor. His hand is shaking badly and he was unable to shave.

There are no other people in the train carriage in which Mr. Burton travels home and it is not connected to any other carriages by a corridor. Nevertheless, he is found dead there with his throat cut by a shaving razor. Written in red on a white napkin on his chest is, "GEO W. FECI"[1]

Footnotes

  1. The message could be understood as meaning, "George Wilkins did this." The literal translation of the Latin phrase, however, is, "Geo W. made me", suggesting that George Wilkins created an avenging demon.

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