At the end of the Victorian era people were still very much in the thrall of spiritualism and a fervent belief in the afterlife and everything that dwelt there. As a result there was taste for the mysterious and the macabre, and ghost stories fit the bill perfectly.
M.R. James produced as solid a collection of short and neatly crafted ghost stories as you’ll find anywhere. Each one is set up in the most understandable and natural fashion, with men at work, at study, at prayer and noticing, all of a sudden something not quite right, something amiss. A story they’re told that seems odd, an engraving that doesn’t look as it did before, something out of the window they weren’t expecting to see. These men are always unflappable and clear-thinking intellectuals, not prone to dalliances with fancy, which is why the stories succeed. They succeed because, far beyond needing to convince the reader, who is by definition looking for a strange thing to happen, James is making sure he creates a sufficient device to convince his own character, who is entirely unlikely to believe in a strange event.
And so, we have the most well known of all M.R. James stories, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad’.
Parkins, Professor of Ontography takes a summer break on his own to the coast, ostensibly to improve his golf game, but actually to remove himself from other’s company, for he’s a neat and private man, not given over strongly to interactions with others. Whilst away a colleague asks if he would take a look at ruined Templar site on the east coast at Burnstow. Although he’s put out to have to carry out such a task he does so anyway and, looking around the scrub at he base of what could be a gravestone, he discovers a flute.
The disturbance of this ancient site and the removal of the flute is one thing, but the Latin inscription, roughly translated to the name of the story, and this blog post, is quite another. It is nothing less than a warning, even though it reads as innocently as a message, maybe a greeting or saying of sorts.
Inevitably the Professor blows the flute and emits simply an edge of the hearing single note, of infinite strength, but complete softness, that cries out across the dunes and beach he’s walking home along. Almost immediately, the middle distance, he sees the outline of a figure, if only for a second. Blowing the whistle again in his room causes his windows to blow in and bizarre visions of figures running and being pursued on the beach start to infect his sleep and even his waking, but closed, eyes.
What follows is a terrifying series of night-time visitations, where figures, apparitions or ghosts appear in Parkin’s room. The man, a man of learning, cannot reconcile his education with his senses, and his room neighbour, a Colonel of some stoical stuff attempts to help him make sense of it all. He can see that Parkin is in some trouble, but he can’t do anything to help him.
The atmosphere is kept in a clever mix of suspense and complete normality, with the comings and goings of a sleepy guesthouse punctuated with the raw terror of this visitor, called from an ancient grave by this man.
Ultimately it becomes to much for Parkin, driven half-mad by the bed sheets moving and windows crashing, to say nothing of the shadow running figure in the distance, always running, never getting closer, and he rids himself of the flute.
The James put this all together in such a short amount of pages is a real craft and his anthology, which he somewhat sniffily put together, has around 30, each more surprising and creeping as the next.
‘Oh, Whistle…’ epitomises these stories though and is the stand out. For extra amusement you can also track down the short film, with Michael Hordern as Parkin. Chilling.