Themes and Meanings
The story exists primarily to chill the reader’s spine. It does, however, underline the danger of dismissing as impossible everything that is not scientifically explicable, and suggests that dreams and folklore contain truths of a different kind. Perhaps because he was a medievalist, perhaps because he was director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, M. R. James’s stories frequently turn on the uncanny power of objects to call back the past, or to call up the dead and the dreadful. A belief in immortality implies the continued life of both good and evil spirits, the existence of powers of both light and darkness. Thus, James equates the scientist who does not believe in ghosts with the biblical Sadducees who did not believe in life after death. It is the bluff and commonplace characters, Rogers and Wilson, admitting the existence of evil, who repel its invasion, while Parkins, armored in scientific ignorance, calls up the foul fiend.
James also makes ironic use of the word “enlightened,” and plays with ideas of light and darkness. In his “unenlightened days,” Parkins believed in ghosts. His enlightenment, confronted with the experience of darkness, is shown to be false. He is truly enlightened when he admits the possibility that evil and inexplicable things exist in this world.