M. R. James, The Ash-Tree LP - Read by Robert Lloyd Parry , score by Chris Bozzone
"Random" color vinyl edition
* Limited pressing on 150 gram vinyl
* Printed on a deluxe heavy weight gatefold tip-on jacket
* Includes liner notes by S. T. Joshi
* Newly commissioned art by Matthew Jaffe
"The Ash-Tree" by M. R. James comes from the renowned author's 1904 story collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. That book also contains "Number 13," adapted by Bleak December into a full audio play and released by Cadabra in January of 2022, as well as "Count Magnus," released by Cadabra in late spring of the same year. This is all to say that James' century-old tales are as ripe for the scaring of the 21st century's populace as those readers barely out of the Victorian era.
As with "Count Magnus," James' "The Ash Tree" is read by Robert Lloyd Parry, whose conversational style is once again a brilliant choice to read a story which is just as much a historical reflection on a bygone era as a story meant to raise the hair on the back one's neck. This story of several generations visited by a witch and the dying curse which she left upon a family is equally the tale of a home as it is a bloodline.
Appropriately enough, James drew from history to craft his tale. Not only is the manor house of Castringham Hall likely drawn from the author's memories of Livermere Hall in Suffolk, but its resident, Sir Matthew Fell, is also alluding to a real person, Sir Matthew Hale, a member of Parliament and a judge who presided over two witchcraft trials. These are but two ways in which James uses his historical knowledge to bring “The Ash-Tree” to vibrant life, but the most effective is likely the one only to be noted by those of a particularly scholarly bent. As noted by scholar S.T. Joshi's liner notes for this release, James “exemplifies his thorough familiarity with the era by a superbly faithful imitation of the English prose of the period,” making Parry's reading all the more superb.
Parry is avuncular as he relates the particular appeals of a certain style of old manor house at the story's outset, but the manner in which he eases into the darkness of "The Ash-Tree" results in a tightening of the nerves by the time he is quietly, tensely, and not a little eerily relating just what might have occurred in the bedroom which also saw the death of his grandfather, Sir Matthew Fell, some 60 years prior. We listeners are being let in on a secret, it seems, and Parry's only too delighted to have someone with whom he can finally share it.
This audio adaptation is scored by Chris Bozzone. While Bozzone's musical skills have proven themselves perfectly-suited to backing the voices of Anthony D.P. Mann and Laurence Harvey, this marks his first solo work with Parry after having partnered with Pentagram Home Video for “Count Magnus.”
As befits the reader's tones and the story's far-flung historical past, here the musician primarily uses guitar and piano to place the listener in the early half of the 18th century, accenting the tale's slow burn of horror and allowing Parry's words to do their work. The light electronic flourishes here and there serve to delineate transitional passages, rather than acting as the main focus, with the end result being that "The Ash-Tree" is a trip to the past well worth taking, thanks to the expert blending of voice and music on display here.