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S0302 The Earlier Service by Margaret Irwin
Episode 214th January 2022 • Classic Ghost Stories • Tony Walker
00:00:00 00:47:27

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The Earlier Service by Margaret Irwin

The Earlier Service is a tale of what happens in a remote English church late at night.

A Listener suggested I record The Earlier Service by Margaret Irwin. I hunted it down via the internet and found it in an anthology called Bloodstock, published in 1978 by Ian Henry Publications in 1978. I believe the collection was initially published in 1953.

Bloodstock is split into three sections: Stories From Ireland (five stories here); Uncanny Stories (four stories) and two ungrouped stories: Mrs Oliver Cromwell and Where Beauty Lies. Margaret Irwin doesn’t include any biographical information in this book so I had to go looking elsewhere.

As usual, Wikipedia came up trumps and I gave them $2 for their great work. 

Margaret Irwin was born in Highgate, London in 1889, and she died in 1967 in London also. 

Her father was an Australian from Perth and her mother was English and her mother’s father was a colonel in the 16th Lancers, a British Cavalry regiment. She was brought up by her uncle in Bristol after her father died.

She started writing professionally in the 1920s and specialised in historical fiction, particularly the Elizabeth and early Stuart periods. As well as historical novels she did ghost stories and two fantasy novels, one about a time slip and the other about a wizard’s daughter.

She married a book illustrator who did the covers for some of her books.  

The Earlier Service

The story seems to hark back to a different England: a rural England of evensong and churchgoing that no longer exists. We have examples from the work of R H Malden and M R James of country vicars going about their business in rural parishes where they and the doctor and the solicitor are the only educated and literary people but where they service and minister to the illiterate throng. Most country churches now in England are dead or dying and this therefore is a picture of a world that once was and is no longer.

The story begins with the rector’s family going to church. It’s dad’s job so it is the daughters’ duty to go to each service. The younger daughter Jane has developed an irrational fear of the church, though at the beginning, neither she nor we know why. There is some hint that that gargoyles on the church spire are stretching out their necks to get into her room, but that is not what’s happening and is just a little spooky detail thrown in to create atmosphere rather than foreshadowing proper.

In the same way the bits of dried black stuff on the church door is said to be the skin of flayed heathens. Imagine torturing people just because they don’t think the same things you do. How awful. I’m glad we’re not like that now.

When I was young, I used to collect plastic figures of crusaders. In films they were great heroes, but apparently they are the bad guys now. In any case, the crusader is a great defender in this story. I’ve been to lots of churches with tombs in them with knights and ladies in relief. There was a chapel near Chilingham Castle that I used to take my ghost tours to, usually in the middle of the night. It was always so cold and it was easy to believe in that quiet, chill atmosphere, that they might come back to life. 

But of course this is a witchcraft/satanism story. In the old days the two were thought to be the same thing. Of course this is what happened to the old pagan gods—they became demons.

Jane sees the little dark man with the sharp object in his hand. Of course this is the old Giraldus atte Welle who was defrocked for demonism back in the day. It seems her mother gets a hint of it, but doesn’t see it as clearly as Jane. This is probably because she is not the next victim.

It reminded me of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), that folk horror classic film. This story was written long before that so perhaps it was cribbed by writer Robert Wynne-Simmons and director Piers Haggard. 

If you don’t know how the Anglican Church works: children are usually baptised as infants and then in their teenage years become confirmed in the church and after that are allowed to take the communion of wine and bread. 

In general, the story feels very Jamesian in that it is about middle-class, bookish types who quote latin and who go rooting around in old churches finded old texts and deciphering them to no good end.

As in a proper M R James story, the Latin text gives it all away. Cleave to Evil and I Remain. It’s Giraldus atte Welle who is still hanging about the church, the little dark bloke with the sharp knife.