The title is taken from William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. In Act II scene i of the play, the child character Mamillius begins to tell his mother Queen Hermione a story of "sprites and goblins". He says, "There was a man dwelt by a churchyard", but is interrupted before he can tell any more of the story. In "There Was A Man Dwelt by a Churchyard", M.R. James imagines the ghost story which the boy was going to tell. In his introduction to the tale, James says, "It was not going to be a new story. It was going to be one which you have most likely heard and even told."
The village priest moves out of his house because his wife does not like the fact that its back windows look out onto the cemetery. John Poole moves into the house. He is an old widower who lives alone, does not socialize much and does not spend much money. He seems to enjoy living next to a cemetery. From one of his windows, he always watches the funerals, which usually take place at night by torchlight.
The village is also home to an ugly old woman known as old mother Wilkins. Although she is rumored to be a witch, old mother Wilkins leaves a lot of money to the Church when she dies. She also leaves a lot of money to pay for her funeral. No mourners attend it but it is witnessed by John Poole from the window of his house. The old woman is buried wrapped in a shroud but without a coffin. At the end of the funeral, the priest throws "something that clinked" into old mother Wilkins' grave and says, "Thy money perish with thee." The following day, churchgoers complain to the sexton about how untidy the new grave looks. The sexton thinks that it looks worse than he left it the night before.
A change comes over John Poole. He seems happier but also more nervous than before. He starts going to the inn in the evening, says that he has "come into a little bit of money" and is going to move into a better house. The smith, another customer at the inn, says that he would not like to live in John Poole's current house next to the cemetery in which people have seen lights. The smith says that if he lived there, he might imagine someone like old mother Wilkins getting out of her grave and climbing up to his bedroom window.
That night, John Poole has difficulty sleeping. He takes "something that clinked" out of a cabinet and puts it in the pocket of his nightgown. He looks out of his window at the cemetery. He sees a shrouded figure rise out of the ground. He runs into bed and lies very still. The shrouded figure comes in through the bedroom window. The sound of dry earth falling to the floor is heard. The figure says, "Where is it?" and searches the room. It goes to John Poole's bed, raises its arms and screams, "You've got it!"
M.R. James concludes the story by saying that a boy telling the tale would yell the ghost's final words and jump on one of his listeners at the same time.
- ↑ M.R. James probably named the character after John Poole (1786-1872), a comic English playwright whose works include parodies of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Othello.
- Text of M.R. James' "There Was A Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" on Bibliowiki. The story is in the public domain in Canada but is still under copyright in the United States.