"The Fenstaanton Witch" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. Although James completed the story, he chose not to have it published during his lifetime. It first appeared in print in 1990 in the twelfth issue of the newsletter Ghosts & Scholars. Since then, it has also been published as part of the M.R. James anthologies The Fenstanton Witch and Others (1999, ISBN 090615331X), A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James (2001, ISBN 1553100247), The Haunted Doll's House and Other Ghost Stories (2006, ISBN 014303992X) and Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James (2012, ISBN 0857388045). The manuscript of "The Fenstanton Witch" is undated and it is not known when the story was written. Similarities to "There Was A Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" suggest that it was written around the year 1924. "The Fenstanton Witch' is clearly referred to, somewhat inaccurately, in M.R. James' 1929 essay "Stories I Have Tried to Write". The mistakes which James makes in his description of the story suggest that he had written it a few years earlier and had half forgotten it.
The story takes place in the early 18th century. The two main characters are faculty members at King's College, Cambridge who dabble in the occult and believe themselves to be magicians. One night, they go to the grave of a recently deceased woman who was reputed to be a witch in order to obtain materials to use in their spells. They take precautions to protect themselves against any demons that might be in the locality. They find, however, that those precautions are ineffective.
Nicholas Hardman and Stephen Ashe have been friends since they were both six years old. They studied together at Eton and then at King's College, Cambridge. They are now both members of the teaching staff at that college and share a room there. Nobody else at the university knows them very well and they have a reputation for being quiet and dull. Secretly, they have a strong interest in the occult and wish to become powerful magicians.
After dinner one October evening, the other faculty members at King's College discuss recent events in the nearby village of Fenstanton. An ugly red-eyed woman in the village known as Mother Gibson had long been suspected of being a witch. To determine whether she was a witch or not, other villagers placed her in a ducking stool and she died as a result. A freshly dug grave in Fenstanton churchyard is believed to be hers. Harman and Ashe say nothing during the conversation about the Fenstanton witch but they listen intently.
Later that evening, Hardman and Ashe head off to Fenstatnton. They plan to use magic to make Mother Gibson rise from the grave and give them part of her shroud and some hairs from her head. The two men plan to use those objects as part of spells to make them rich and powerful. On the way to Fenstanton, they pass a torchlit funeral procession. Coming from the other direction to the funeral procession, they see seven people clustered around another person who is being taken prisoner. Hardman and Ashe cannot help staring at the face of the prisoner. It is the face of a terrified person who has lost all hope. They do not notice the faces of the prisoner's seven captors. After the prisoner has been taken away, Hardman and Ashe realize that none of the mourners at the funeral appeared to see the prisoner or the seven other people.
Hardman and Ashe climb over the wall of Fenstanton churchyard. They approach the grave of Mother Gibson, the only one in the unconsecrated ground to the north of the church. On the ground, they draw a magic circle, marked with symbols, the names of angels and names of God, which is intended to protect them from demons. At midnight, Hardman reads a spell in Latin from a book which was printed about a hundred years earlier. Ashe gives appropriate responses. The spell is intended to provide further protection from demons. While saying the spell, both men look at the grave of Mother Gibson. Sitting on the grave, Hardman sees what at first looks like an enormous bat with folded wings. He notices that the creature has an almost human-like face and eyes like fire. The creature rises up to its full height and looks around for a "victim whom it knew to be near." Hardman is very frightened but believes that he will be protected by the circle in which he is standing. He is wrong. The symbols and sacred names do not prevent the creature from going straight towards Hardman. As the creature raises its claws to his face, Hardman loses consciousness.
Both Hardman and Ashe survive their experience but they are never the same again. They leave the university after having renounced black magic in front of its authorities. In order to prevent a scandal, the reasons for their departure are kept secret. Ashe spends the rest of his life caring for the invalided Hardman.
- ↑ In "Stories I Have Tried to Write", M.R. James says that he attempted to write a story about, "two students at King's College in the sixteenth century ... and their nocturnal expedition to a witch at Fenstanton ... And of how arriving at Fenstanton they learned of the witch's death." In "The Fenstanton Witch', the two main characters are no longer students, the story takes place in the 18th century and the two main characters already know that the witch is dead before they leave for Fenstanton.
- Text of M.R. James' "The Fenstanton Witch" from Ghosts & Scholars. The story appears courtesy of its copyright holder.