"The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It first appeared in print in 1910 in the Contemporary Review magazine. It was republished in 1911 as part of the anthology More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
The main character in the story is an ambitious clergyman named John Haynes. Haynes becomes an archdeacon after having his predecessor killed in a manner which makes the death appear accidental. His crime goes unpunished until he touches a carved wooden figure inside Barchester Cathedral. The figure, carved out of wood from a tree that may once have been a center for human sacrifice, had a spell placed upon it by its creator. The spell stated that misfortune would befall any murderer who touched the wooden figure.
"The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" has been adapted to other media, most notably as the first TV movie in the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas.
While looking at a copy of the Gentleman's Magazine from almost a hundred years earlier, the story's unnamed narrator comes across an obituary for John Benwell Haynes, Archdeacon of Sowerbridge and Rector of Pickhill and Candley whose duties included the upkeep of Barchester Cathedral. Haynes died suddenly and violently at the age of 57. The obituary writer speculates that he might have been murdered by people who were influenced by the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and Voltaire. The narrator is somewhat curious and would like to learn more about Archdeacon Haynes if he has the opportunity. Some time later, the narrator is asked to catalog the books and manuscripts in the library of the Cambridge University college which Archdeacon Haynes once attended. The librarian shows him a tin box which has never been opened. A label on the box says that it contains the papers of Archdeacon Haynes which were donated to the college by his sister Letitia in 1834. The narrator requests permission to take the box home. He finds that its contents consist mostly of diaries and letters. From those papers, the narrator is able to piece together the events of the final years of Archdeacon Haynes' life.
John Haynes arrives in Barchester in the year 1810. He is unmarried and shares a house with his sister Letitia. Haynes has proven himself to be a talented clergyman and is expected to soon be promoted to Archdeacon of Sowerbridge. Although very old, the incumbent archdeacon, Dr. Pulteney, refuses to retire. Haynes is finally promoted to archdeacon when Dr. Pulteney dies shortly after his ninety-second birthday. Dr. Pulteney dies after falling down the stairs and breaking his neck. A stair rod is missing and Dr. Pulteney slips after putting his foot where the stair-rod should have been. The maid Jane Lee is blamed for not telling the archdeacon about the missing stair-rod, which is found under the carpet on the stairs shortly afterwards, and she loses her job as a result. Shortly after he becomes an archdeacon, John Haynes begins to makes payments of twenty-five pounds four times a year to someone whose initials are J.L. He continues to do this for the rest of his life. Archdeacon Haynes also makes a one-off payment of forty pounds to J.L. after he receives a letter from Jane Lee which says that she and her husband badly need the money. In her letter, Jane Lee says that if Haynes does not send her the money, "steps will have to be took which I should not wish". She reminds Haynes, "you know best what I could say".
In his first three years as archdeacon, Haynes is kept very busy attending to his duties, which were sadly neglected by Dr. Pulteney, and has little time to attend services at Barchester Cathedral. At the end of those three years, he begins attending services at the cathedral regularly. He notices that the stall reserved for him has three carved wooden figures on it. The figures represent Death (which could easily be mistaken for a hooded monk at first sight), the Devil and a cat. Haynes finds out that the figures were made fairly recently, around the year 1700, and that they were carved by a local man named John Austin. The tree which they were carved form came from a small forest called Holywood. One of the trees in Holywood was known as the Hanging Oak. At certain times of the year, local people used to hang dolls made of sticks or straw from its branches for good luck. When the tree was cut down, a number of human bones were found underneath it.
At the beginning of autumn, Archdeacon Haynes' sister Letitia goes away to the coast for her health and stays there until the start of spring. Haynes finds that he dreads the coming of the "dark season".
One evening in November, Haynes finds himself starting to fall asleep during a service at Barchester Cathedral. He puts his hand on the carved wooden cat in his stall. He is surprised to feel, "a softness, a feeling as of rather coarse fur, and a sudden movement, as if the creature were twisting round its head to bite me."
After having touched the wooden cat, Haynes gets the feeling that there is somebody there when he goes up to his bedroom at night. He begins to hear voices. He is aware that hearing voices is a sign of insanity but he shows no other signs of going insane and there is no history of insanity in his family. On January 1, he distinctly hears a voice say, "Let me wish you a happy New Year." Two weeks later, while climbing the stairs, he hears a voice say, "Take care." He feels a cat pass between his legs. It occurs to him that it might be a cat which the servants keep in the kitchen to catch mice but he thinks that is unlikely. On the night of February 27, he hears a tapping at the door and a voice asking, "May I come in?" Thinking that it is one of his servants, Haynes gives permission to enter. Nobody comes in. Haynes also gets the feeling that there is constant movement in his almost empty house.
With the coming of spring and the return of Letitia, Archdeacon Haynes becomes cheerful once more. When Letitia leaves for the coast again at the start of September. Haynes becomes even more troubled than he had been the previous year.
Haynes now avoids placing his hand on the carved wooden cat in his stall. One evening in October, he places his hand on the carved wooden figure of Death. He gets the impression that the wood has become, "chilly and soft as if made of wet linen". That night, he is even more aware of the sound of whispering in his house. Although he now knows that the servants do not keep a cat in the kitchen, he clearly sees a cat on the stairs. He is certain that the cat remains on the staircase at all times.
In January, Haynes invites his cousin Allen to stay with him. Allen comments that Haynes' house is a very noisy one and that Haynes' cat is, "an unusually large and fine specimen, but very wild." Allen also complains of maids dressed in gray and white moving about after eleven o'clock at night.
Haynes' diary entry for January 11 reads, "Allen left me today. I must be firm." After that, Haynes writes the words "I must be firm" in his diary again and again. For some days, those words are the only entry in his diary and they are written, "in an unusually large hand, and dug into the paper in a way which must have broken the pen that wrote them."
On the morning of February 26, following a stormy night, Haynes' servants find him lying dead on the stairs. The carpet on the stairs is loose in one place and Haynes' broken back could be explained by a fall. However, Haynes' face has also been badly scratched, to the point of making it unrecognizable. The scratches look like they were inflicted by a wild animal.
The narrator is certain that Archdeacon Haynes murdered Dr. Pulteney. He also thinks that the wooden figures in Haynes' stall were made from wood from the Hanging Oak. In order to find out more about the wooden figures, the narrator visits Barchester. Barchester Cathedral has been completely refurbished since Archdeacon Haynes' time and the carved wooden figures are no longer there. At the museum, the narrator is told that an old man found the carved wooden cat in a wood yard and took it home for his children. The carved wooden figure no longer exists. The man burned it because his children were frightened by it. While the old man was carrying the wooden cat home, it came apart in his hands and a piece of paper fell out of it. The paper is now in the possession of the museum curator. The curator thinks that the writing on it might be a spell. The writing is signed by John Austin and describes a dream which Austin had in the year 1699. It opens with the lines, "When I stood in the wood I was water'd with Blood. Now in the Church I stand", and goes on to say that anyone with a "Bloody hand" who touches the figure is likely to die soon afterwards. The text warns that the murderer may die any time after touching the wooden cat but that it is most likely to be, "when the wind blows high in a night of February".
Under the title The Stalls of Barchester, the story was adapted as the first TV movie in the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas. The film was first shown on British television on December 24, 1971. It stars Robert Hardy as Archdeacon Haynes and Clive Swift as Dr. Black (a character roughly equivalent to the narrator in the original short story who comes across Archdeacon Haynes' papers while cataloging the library of Barchester Cathedral). The adaptation is a largely faithful one, although Archdeacon Haynes is depicted as suffering from a guilty conscience and already hearing ghostly voices before he touches the carved wooden cat. His suffering intensifies after he touches it. John Austin, the carver of the wooden figures, is said to have been known as "Austin the Twice Born" and to have had the gift of "second sight".
Christopher Lee reads an abridged version of "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" in the first episode of the BBC TV mini-series Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas The episode first aired in the United Kingdom on December 23, 2000.
A 15-minute radio play based on "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", starring Mark Gatiss as M.R. James, was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the United kingdom on December 19, 2018 as the third 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 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 "A Warning to the Curious", "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. The other short stories read in the series are "The Ash-tree", "Number 13" and "A Warning to the Curious".
- The other episodes of The Haunting of M.R. James are based on "The Mezzotint", "Casting the Runes", "A Warning to the Curious" and "Rats".