MR James, whistles and magic

After finishing the disappointing E.F. Benson collection Night Terrors last year, I went back to M.R. James, the master of the Victorian ghost story. Even reading at the rate of one story an evening, I finished COLLECTED GHOST STORIES a while back, but didn’t find space to blog about it until today.

James is much better than Benson and consistently entertaining. Several of his stories are frightening, but even the ones that aren’t still work as intrusion fantasies. Even when he doesn’t explain exactly how or why the magic works, the stories hold up, just as his obscure antiquarian references to various architectural details don’t throw me off. So I wanted to take a detailed look at one of his least explained hauntings, Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad.

Parkins, a professor taking a golfing holiday in a small village, agrees to check out a nearby ruined preceptory (a small building used by Knights Templar or the like) for an antiquarian friend of his. Groping in the rubble, he discovers a small hollow in the wall and draws out a tube he later recognizes as a whistle. There’s an inscription on it, “Who is this who is coming?” and after cleaning it off, Parkins blows it. He then gets visions and dreams of someone running along the nearby shore, pursued by Something … And it seems someone has been playing around, making noises in his room and messing up the other bed.

Parkins doesn’t believe in ghosts so he doesn’t freak out as a sensible person might. He continues on with daily life including bridge games, golf, dinner with his fellow guests … but James manages to keep the story interesting even in the middle of all the mundane detail.

Finally, one night, Parkins discovers something risking from the bed, using the bedclothes for its body (he later refers to a face of crumpled linen, but refuses to describe its expression). Fortunately one of his friends rushes in, which drives off the spirit. Said friend then throws the whistle into the ocean the following day and the haunting is over.

What I found interesting rereading the story is how little we learn about what’s really going on. We don’t know what the whistle was for, what the spirit was, why it pursued him (possibly just a standard reason like taking something from the ruin, of course) and what exactly it was. We don’t even know what the killer sheets would have done; Parkins’ friend guesses it’s only power was frightening its victims into doing something foolish or driving them mad. Yet despite that, the story works.

But then, most of M.R. James stories work. If you like ghost stories or creepy fantasies I recommend him.

#SFWApro. Image by James McBryde, all rights remain with current holder.

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