Thursday, 9 October 2014
Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad: A Review by Caroline Gregory of M. R. James
Montague Rhodes James is, without a doubt, the ‘Founding Father of the Modern Ghost Story’ (Peter Haining, The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, 2007, p.xix), and our concept of the quintessentially English ghost story was perfected by James through the publication of over thirty supernatural tales during his lifetime. To read his stories of apparitions and the paranormal in the twenty-first century, one needs a quiet, dark candlelit room with the autumn winds howling outside. Or how about the 600 year old Guildhall in the heart of Leicester city; a place where history and mystery merge, apparently hosting five ghosts of its own before R. M. Lloyd Parry introduced further horror on the night of Wednesday 1 October to perform a reading of two of James’ tales – 'The Ash Tree' and 'O, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,' the latter which will be reviewed later in this article.
James was always interested in the supernatural. The superb 2013 BBC documentary, M. R. James: Ghostwriter, written and narrated by Mark Gatiss, explores the author’s early fascination with this topic and Gatiss reads an excerpt of a short ghost story written whilst James was in Sixth Form college (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOGZ4WQT2vg). He clearly had a knack for the genre from an early age.
Later, in 1893, just before Halloween, M. R. James enraptured his audience at the Cambridge Chit Chat Society gathering with the telling of ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ and James would continue to entertain fellow scholars with further readings throughout his lifetime, including what we now consider to be the traditional telling of horror stories on Christmas Eve. Indeed, most of his stories sound as though they should be read out loud, as shown during the Guildhall’s event, and the narrator’s voice often comes through as though he is talking directly to the reader, with comments and asides as if he knows the characters personally.
That first reading of ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ set the template for James’ work yet, somehow, he is never repetitive, or if his style is, the writing is so tight, the audience doesn’t notice or simply enjoys the similarities between his stories whilst waiting for the next twist in the tale.
His style is now known as the Jamesian technique, and his stories were either set in an idyllic country / coastal location or an ancient European town; the protagonist is usually an erudite scholar with a hint of naivety or a reactionary view on the world outside his understanding, and something is discovered which is linked to the past and, therefore, becomes the conduit of whatever malevolent force James will unleash onto his hero and the expectant audience.(See http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/oct/31/how-to-tell-ghost-story).
Another key aspect of his tales, as laid out in his Some Remarks on Ghost Stories, is that his stories were set in present day. What could be more spookier to his Chit Chat Society friends than hints of the supernatural experienced by characters that sounded like them, who visited the places they visited, and had the same interests; as opposed to the Gothic novel, popular in the earlier part of the Victorian era, which often created distance between the reader and the events because there was little, if any chance, of the reader experiencing the horrors of Gothic events.
M. R. James is described as combining the ‘mundane with the horrific’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOGZ4WQT2vg), and this is what piques our imagination because James will describe something ordinary, if not a tad boring, and then suddenly we are presented with the horrific. James developed the technique of not giving too much away and he seemed to appreciate that the imagination of the reader is far more creative than anything he could write. He never truly explains what is actually happening so our minds are left to their disturbed devices.
‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Comes to You, My Lad’ published in M. R. James’ 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary contains all these tropes and, even now, the 21st century reader relishes the chills that tingle down the spine because we don’t really understand what is happening to the protagonist, Professor Parkins.
Parkins is visiting the East Coast for a golfing holiday with the Colonel and where he will also take advantage of exploring a part of the shoreline where the Templars were reported to once live. Whilst rambling and excavating, he comes across a small object. He knows it is of ‘considerable age’ but Parkins quickly forgets about it, until the servant of the Globe Inn tells Parkins he has placed what appears to be a whistle, on his chest of drawers in Parkins’ room after finding it in latter’s coat. The fact he has forgotten it rings alarm bells for the reader who knows instinctively it will be the cause of later mayhem and should not have been dismissed.
On finally examining the whistle, Parkins sees there is a Latin inscription which translates as ‘Who is this who is coming?’ Can a single line be any more haunting and loaded with mystery? Parkins blows the whistle and seems to become entranced by it. Only when he realises that the wind is howling outside, is he shaken out of his reverie.
That night, Parkins has a distressing sleep, tormented by a bad dream. The nightmare is universal in the sense of who has not experienced a dream of being chased by something, trying to get away from something and ‘looking up in an attitude of painful anxiety’? (M. R. James, ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Comes to You, My Lad’ in Peter Haining, ed., The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, p. 12). When he awakes, James continues to appeal to our own experiences of waking up, confused and distressed, convinced there is something in the room with us, and we all know the feeling of that blurred reality between waking and sleeping which James plays on so sinisterly.
Parkins is established from the beginning, though, as a rational man and even when the maid comments on the dishevelled state of the second bed in his room, he has a logical explanation. Again, whilst playing golf with the Colonel, Parkins continues to dismiss any notion of the supernatural or myths of ‘whistling the wind’ and he only seems mildly perturbed by the young boy who crashes into them, when they return to the Globe, saying he has seen something in the window that turns out to be the Professor’s room.
Professor Parkins’ refusal to acknowledge there is any malice associated with the whistle until the final act, as it were, makes it all the more terrifying when he is finally confronted that night by the ‘thing’ that is in the second bed:
Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realised, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion. (p.19)
The description of the professor’s cries, as the thing comes towards him until he is half out of the window, is actually very limited. We don’t need James to give us any extraneous detail because we can ‘see’ it. An author can never know the true limits of an individual’s imagination, but our own mind certainly does! Our own supernatural ‘horror’ haunts us in this final scene because leading up to that point, James provides all the mechanism for our imagination to fill in the gaps at the crucial moment.
M. R. James is succinct in his endings. It is jarring when the Colonel saves Parkins yet there is no discussion of what has happened. The protagonist is clearly affected by the horror in his room, but that’s all we need to know and we are always left wondering.
About the reviewer
Caroline Gregory is a Leicester born writer who is finally gaining the courage to share her work! She specialises in Victorian Studies, graduating with an MA from the University of Leicester, and her favourite genres are sensation fiction and the supernatural (although she makes a clear distinction between horror and the horrific, and you’ll never catch her watching Saw!). She is also passionate about animal welfare and her three rescued pooches sit at her feet whilst she researches and writes, and occasionally they even inspire the creative process. Caroline published several articles in Dubai, where she lived for six years, about the plight of abandoned pets in the UAE. She is currently working on a screenplay with her husband and the plot exemplifies her love of the macabre.