In the introduction to the story, M.R. James states that "old-fashioned books" often refer to grandmothers telling ghost stories to children by the fireside in the winter. Unfortunately, none of those books give any details of those stories. In "An Evening's Entertainment", M.R. James imagines a story which an old woman would tell her grandchildren to give them a "pleasing terror".
The story is about two men who are followers of a pagan religion and about the strange occurrences that happen after their violent deaths.
"An Evening's Entertainment" was adapted as an episode of the American radio series The Black Mass which first aired on the listener-funded stations KPFA (Berkley) and KPFK (Los Angeles) in 1964.
One evening, the old woman who is the story's main narrator is sitting by the fire and knitting. Her son is sleeping nearby. The narrator tells her grandchildren, Charles and Fanny, that if they are good and do not wake up their father, she will take them to pick blackberries the next day. Charles says that the best blackberries grow in a certain lane. The narrator tells the two children that they should never pick or eat any blackberries which grow in that lane. She says that the blackberry, currant and gooseberry bushes in the lane once surrounded a cottage. She then goes on to tell a tale which her mother told her about events which took place before she was born.
The tale concerns a man named Mr. Davis. He is wealthy enough not to have to work. He does not interact much with other villagers, except when he goes to the post office once a week to collect his mail. One day, a young man, whose name is never revealed, accompanies Mr. Davis back from the post office. The two live together for three years. Whether the young man is just Mr. Davis' servant or whether they have a teacher-student relationship is uncertain.
Once a month, Mr. Davis and the young man walk to the hill which has a figure of a man cut into it. They sleep there at night in the summer. The Squire, the narrator's father, tells them that he would feel lonely sleeping on the hill at night. The young man says, "We don't want for company." Davis then makes a sign for him to be silent. The young man goes on to say how beautiful the countryside looks at night. He mentions all the barrows they can see. Mr. Davis interrupts and asks the Squire if he knows what the barrows are. Having disturbed some while farming, the Squire knows that the barrows are graves. He thinks that they are Roman ones. Mr. Davis thinks that they are older. He says that the people buried in them do not wear armor like the Romans. The Squire says that Mr. Davis speaks as if he has seen those long-dead people. Both Mr. Davis and the young man laugh at that suggestion. Mr. Davis says that he would like to know more about those ancient Britons and their religion. The Squire says that they probably worshiped the "old man on the hill". He goes on to say everything that he knows about pre-Christian religion in Britain, including accounts of human sacrifices. Mr. Davis and the young man listen intently but the Squire has the feeling that they already know everything that he is saying.
One autumn morning, a woodman finds "Mr. Davis' young man" dead. The young man is dressed in a white gown and is hanging by his neck from the branch of an oak tree. A bloody ax is lying at his feet. The woodman goes immediately to the home of Mr. White, the local clergyman. Mr. White sends a boy to Mr. Davis' cottage. The clergyman and some other villagers lead a horse to the place where the young man is hanging. Mr. White is not happy when he sees the robe that the young man is wearing because it looks similar to a priest's vestments. The young man is also found to be wearing a necklace with something "like a wheel" on it. The villagers put the young man's body on the horse. The horse appears very frightened and the men have a lot of difficulty controlling it. They eventually have to blindfold it.
In a street in the village, Mr. White and the other men find the boy that was sent to Mr. Davis' cottage. The boy is "as white as paper" and unable to speak. The men go on to Mr. Davis' cottage. The horse becomes very frightened again as they approach it. Inside the cottage, they find the dead body of Mr. Davis lying on a long table. His feet are tied together with a linen band. His hands are tied behind his back with another band. He was killed by an ax blow to his chest which split open his breastbone. The cottage is examined and herbal medicines that could put people to sleep are found. It is determined that the young man put some of the herbal medicine in Mr. Davis' drink, killed him and then committed suicide out of guilt.
Mr. White and other clergymen further examine the cottage. Documents are found which reveal that Mr. Davis and the young man were guilty of the "dreadful sin of idolatry". It is agreed that the two men cannot be buried in the churchyard. Their bodies are wrapped in black cloth and carried on biers to a crossroads. Horses still do not like to go near the place where Davis and the young man are buried. There were reports of mist lingering and lights being seen there.
Shortly after the two men are buried, the Squire sees crowds of agitated people saying, "It's the blood! Look at the blood!" On each spot of blood which fell to the ground from Davis' body when it was taken to be buried is a large swarm of flies. The Squire gets the sexton to fetch some earth from the churchyard and spread it over the spots of blood. When he does so, the flies rise up and head towards Davis' cottage. The sexton says nothing but, "Lord of flies". The Squire has Davis' cottage destroyed. The ghosts of Davis and the young man are sometimes reported to haunt the lane where the cottage used to be, especially in the spring and autumn.
Many years later, one evening in March, shortly after her wedding, the narrator and her husband go for a walk and do not pay much attention to where they are going. In the lane where Davis' cottage once stood, the narrator is bitten on the back of her hand by an insect. She immediately kills it. When her husband sees the dead insect, he says that he has never seen another one like it. Shortly afterwards, the narrator's hand and arm become badly swollen. She is eventually cured by a "wise man". The "wise man" has seen that kind of swelling before and advises against going to the lane at the times of year when the sun is growing weaker and when the sun is growing stronger. He puts something on the narrator's arm and says some words over it. He refuses to tell her what those words were or what he put on the swollen arm. The narrator says that there have been fewer reports of people being bitten by strange insects in the lane recently and that, "maybe things like that die out in the course of time."
After having concluded her story, the narrator sends her grandchildren to bed. She tells Fanny that she cannot have a light in her room and warns Charles not to frighten his sister.
- ↑ The symbol on the young man's necklace is probably a solar cross.
- ↑ In Europe, people who were believed likely to have unquiet ghosts, such as executed criminals and suicides, were routinely buried at crossroads until the 19th century. It was believed that a ghost would become confused and not know where to go if it found itself at a place where four roads met.
- ↑ A reference to the idea that Beelzebub can take on the form of a swarm of flies.
- Text of M.R. James' "An Evening's Entertainment" on Bibliowiki. The story is in the public domain in Canada but is still under copyright in the United States.