"The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It first appeared in print in the June 4, 1913 issue of the magazine Cambridge Review. It was published again in 1919 as part of the anthology A Thin Ghost and Others. Although M.R. James famously entertained his friends and students for many years by telling them ghost stories at Christmastime, "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" is the only one of his published short stories in which some of the action takes place on Christmas Day.
The story is told in the form of four letters that the narrator, known only as W.R., writes to his brother Robert. The action takes place in the early 19th century, between December 22 and December 26, 1837. The plot is set in motion when W.R. receives a letter which informs him that his Uncle Henry, a clergyman, has gone missing. W.R. travels to his uncle's town to join in the search for him. W.R. soon accepts that his uncle is dead. After a traveling salesman tells W.R. about an excellent puppet performance that he saw, W.R. has a nightmare about a horrific puppet show. The dream ends with the vengeful ghost of a clergyman taking revenge on one of the puppets.
A short British animated film adaptation of "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" was released in 2016. It was directed by Richard Mansfield. The screenplay was written by Silas Hawkins, who also narrates the film.
On December 22, 1837, W.R. writes to his brother Robert to say that he will probably be unable to join Robert and his family for Christmas that year. The reason for that is because W.R. has been informed that his and Robert's Uncle Henry, the rector of a church in a town referred to only as B--, has disappeared. Mrs. Hunt, Uncle Henry's housekeeper, has written to W.R. and asked him to come to B-- to join in the search for the rector.
On arrival in B--, W.R. finds that most people are resigned to the idea that the rector is dead. W.R. quickly accepts the idea that his uncle is dead also. Mrs. Hunt is very upset by the rector's disappearance. The curate tries to be sympathetic towards W.R..It is, however, obvious that the disappearance of the rector has not made any real emotional impact on the curate. W.R. finds that, although his uncle was respected, he was not particularly well liked. It is acknowledged that the rector worked hard and did a lot for charity. He was, however, not a very friendly person. W.R. has to admit that his uncle was a stern man and a strict disciplinarian. He was also somewhat old-fashioned. He was one of the few clergymen in England who still wore bands, a kind of traditional white necktie.
W.R. says that fields have been searched and ponds and streams have been dragged in the search for his uncle. W.R. searches the rectory for any clues to his uncle's disappearance. He finds nothing. Both Mrs. Hunt and the rector's doctor say that he was in good health and was unlikely to have died suddenly of natural causes.
At about 5:00pm on Friday December 19, the rector went to visit a sick parishioner in a cottage two miles from the church. He left the cottage at 6:30pm. One of the sick man's children accompanied him as far as a stile that led to a neighboring field. That was the last time anybody saw him alive. W.R. visits the cottage. Its only inhabitants are the sick man who is confined to bed, his wife and children. W.R. is certain that they did no harm to his uncle and cannot believe that they were part of a plot to do harm to him either.
W.R. says that some Bow Street Runners are coming from London to investigate his uncle's disappearance. He thinks it is unlikely that the Bow Street Runners will find anything because there is no snow in which they could follow footprints.
W.R. stays at an inn called the King's Head. He says that the innkeeper, a man named Mr. Bowman, is someone who really needs a writer of the caliber of Charles Dickens to describe him properly. Mr. Bowman also tries to be sympathetic towards W.R., although it is obvious that he did not get on very well with the rector. The two men had some sort of disagreement over a small barrel of beer. The exact nature of that disagreement is not revealed because W.R. does not want to hear about it.
Fearing that having admitted to W.R. that he did not like the rector very much may have implicated him in the man's disappearance, Mr. Bowman joins W.R. and the Bow Street Runners in their search the following day. Mr. Bowman does not help very much. He keeps shading his eyes with his hand and looking into the distance, as if he expects to see the rector or his abductors. He approaches several old women, has long conversations with them, and then announces to W.R. and the Bow Street Runners that they know nothing about the rector's disappearance. The Bow Street Runners soon leave town after they have come to the conclusion that no clues to the rector's disappearance can be found.
At the inn, W.R. speaks to a traveling salesman. The traveling salesman, who has heard about the rector's disappearance, says that he has not come across any suspicious people on the road. He talks enthusiastically about a Punch and Judy show that he saw in a nearby town. He says that W.R. should see the show if it comes to B--. The salesman says that the Toby Dog, a character recently introduced to Punch and Judy shows, was the best Toby Dog that he had ever seen.
On the night of Christmas Eve, W.R. has a nightmare. He dreams that he is part of an audience of stern-faced people who are about to watch a Punch and Judy show. W.R. notices that there is no Toby Dog. The booth which serves as the puppet theater appears larger than usual. A sign above the booth says that the puppeteers' names are Kidman and Gallop. W.R. is certain that those are not the names of the puppeteers who put on the show about which the traveling salesman told him. W.R. expects that, as usual, the start of the Punch and Judy show will be heralded by panpipes or a bugle. Instead, it is heralded by the single toll of a large bell. W.R. feels that there is something Satanic about Mr. Punch in the show. His yellowish-white face makes him look like a vampire. Punch kills his victims in various different ways. He lies in wait for some before attacking them. He talks politely to others, lulling them into a false sense of security. When Punch hits his victims on the head with his stick, W.R. can hear their skulls crack. He can also see them twitch and kick before they die. The baby, whom Mr. Punch strangles, seems much more like a real baby than a puppet to W.R. Each time that Punch murders somebody, the stage becomes darker. The last murder is committed in total darkness. Although he cannot see anything, W.R. can hear heavy breathing and muffled cries. Punch then reappears with blood on his shoes. He sits on the edge of the stage and laughs to himself. The backdrop behind him suddenly changes from the exterior of a house to a grove of trees on a realistic looking moonlit night. W.R. no longer feels that he is watching a puppet show. The shape of a human figure rises up. Its head is covered. It is dressed in black and wearing bands. Instead of walking, the figure crawls towards Punch. When Punch becomes aware of the figure, he flees in terror. For a long time, the figure chases Punch through the trees and over fields. Eventually, Punch falls down exhausted. The figure falls on top of Punch. It removes the covering from its head and sticks its face into Punch's face. Everything goes dark again and a long loud scream is heard. W.R. then wakes up. He hears the single toll of the bell again.
On Christmas Day, W.R. goes to church. Some arrangements appear to have been erroneously made for a funeral because a bier and a pall have to be removed. The sermon is given by the curate. He has the difficult task of giving a sermon which is suitably cheerful for Christmas Day and which also reflects the parishioners' worries about their missing rector. W.R. feels that he fails in that task. Throughout most of the sermon, the sad sound of a bell tolling can be heard. The organ stops working several times while carols are being sung.
W.R. goes back to his room at the King's Head. He reads some of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers before falling asleep. He wakes up at about 2:30pm when he hears noises coming from the market square below. Preparations are being made for a Punch and Judy show, obviously the same one which the traveling salesman saw. A sign above the booth says that the puppeteers names are Foresta and Calpigi. W.R. gets a member of the inn's staff to pay the Punch and Judy men a crown so that they will perform the show facing the window of his room. W.R. finds that, in spite of his nightmare of the previous night, he enjoys the show very much. The only problem is that the Toby Dog howls at inappropriate times. At one point, the dog gives a particularly sad sounding cry before running off. After a brief pause, the puppeteers appear to decide not to go after the dog.
The moment comes when Punch is to be hanged. W.R. briefly sees someone with a sack on his head who is dressed in black and wearing bands in the Punch and Judy booth. Nobody in the market square, however, appears to see him. One of the puppeteers then appears with a look of terror on his face. He is lifted up to the tiny gallows on the stage. The booth falls over backwards. W.R. sees one puppeteer run away. People in the market square say that they saw two men run away. The audience chase after them. W.R. joins in the chase. The chase ends when one of the puppeteers falls into a chalk pit, breaks his neck and dies. There is no sign of the second man. W.R. suggests that he might still be in the market square. He is found dead inside the Punch and Judy booth in the square.
The body of the rector is also found in the chalk pit. A sack had been put over his head. Marks on his neck suggest that he had been hanged. W.R. finds out that the real names of the Punch and Judy men were Kidman and Gallop.
It is implied that Kidman and Gallop murdered the rector. Their motive for doing so, however, is not revealed.
- Other M.R. James ghost stories take place in late December. Some of the action of "Martin's Close" takes place on the days preceding and following Christmas Day but not on Christmas Day itself. The action of "The Experiment" begins on New Year's Eve.
- The Bow Street Runners were the first professional police force in Britain. The organization was founded in 1749. it became less important after the Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829. The Bow Street Runners were disbanded in 1839.
- A Punch and Judy show is a traditional British puppet show that evolved out of Italian commedia dell'arte. The first recorded performance of a puppet show featuring the character of Punch in Britain was on May 9, 1662. The show was originally performed with marionettes but has been performed almost exclusively with glove puppets since the late 18th century. The antihero Mr. Punch is the main character in the show. Punch kills his wife Judy, his baby (in modern performances, the death of the baby is usually accidental) and several other characters. Who those characters are varies from performance to performance. Several different characters have been added to the show and then dropped from it over the years. Punch's victims usually fall down dead quickly after he hits them on the head with a large stick. There are many variations of the Punch and Judy show story and no definitive version of it. In one traditional ending of the story, Punch is finally arrested for his crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. When the time comes for his execution, Punch pretends to be confused. He asks Jack Ketch the hangman to show him what he is supposed to do. Jack Ketch puts his own neck in the noose. Punch escapes after hanging Jack Ketch.
- The first recorded appearance of a Toby Dog at a Punch and Judy show was in 1825. As in "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance", Toby Dog was originally played by a real performing dog. The dog would usually wear a costume similar to that of a clown. Toby Dog is one of the many characters that once regularly appeared in Punch and Judy shows but which now rarely do so. If the character does appear in a modern Punch and Judy show, it is much more likely to be a glove puppet rather than a live dog.
- Text of M.R. James' "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" on Wikisource.
- Fan-made audiobook of "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" on YouTube.
- Video of the 2016 short animated film The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance on the official YouTube channel of its director, Richard Mansfield.