When I discovered from Caroline that M.R. James's story "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" was the basis (or the inspiration?) for Susan Hills's The Woman in Black, I knew I had to read it. It seems the perfect story to round out my ghost story reading during RIP VII which is now quickly wrapping up. I was hoping to read four novels, but I'll only manage three (and the third is still in progress), but I have read some really good ghost stories and have been listening to the wonderful Neil Gaiman read The Graveyard Book. I'm nearing the end of it and am of course very curious to see how things turn out for the very likable young character Bod, who has been raised in a graveyard. More about that one later.
This week's story is once again collected in James's Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories (the first volume in a two volume collection). It was written in 1903 and first read at a Christmas gathering at King's College in that year. The title is from the first line of an untitled song (1793) by Robert Burns. According to the notes from the story it is one of his most distinctive 'ghost' stories, "which may have derived from a dream". I think it's my favorite so far by him. The thing with James's stories--they are much more about atmosphere than actual chills, since by contemporary standards they are very tame stories. Still, they're perfect fall, and especially October/Halloween reading. (A few possible spoilers may follow).
I wonder if all of James's stories feature professors? This one is no exception. It's certainly obvious that a scholar wrote the story since there are notes at the end to explain literary, geographical and historical references (much appreciated by me by the way). As in last week's story a narrator gives a sort of prologue or introduction before the action of the story and then will occasionally drop in a comment or two during the narrative. I'm guessing this is James himself. Professor Parkins is preparing for his holiday to Burnstow on the East Coast. It's ostensibly a golf vacation, but he also hopes to get a bit of work done. In chatting with one of his colleagues who Parkins is trying to discourage from coming along, the colleague teases him with:
"It's all right. I promise not to interrupt your work; don't you disturb yourself about that. No, I won't come if you don't want me; but I thought I should do so nicely to to keep the ghosts off."
No truer words were ever spoken considering what happens to Parkins on his holiday. The narrator sets the tone and gives the first impression of Parkins, who he calls "something of an old woman--rather henlike, perhaps, in his little ways . . ." A bachelor academic who spends his days 'improving his game' in the company of a fellow guest at the Globe Inn, he decides to check out the ruins of a church belonging to the Knights Templar. Looking for evidence of masonry he's scraping around a mound of earth and digs up a cylindrical object about four inches long, which he drops in his pocket determined to return the next day and see if he can find any other objects of archaeological interest. The light begins to fade and as he starts back for the inn he notices someone following him.
"He quickly rattled and clashed through the shingle and gained the sand, upon which, but for the groynes which had to be got over every few yards, the going was both good and quiet. One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars' church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to ba making great efforts to catch up to him, but made little, if any, progress."
Upon closer scrutiny of the little tube he decides it looks very much like a dog whistle, but this one has markings on the side which when cleaned off reveals an inscription, "who is this who is coming?". Parkins makes the mistake of blowing into it. I won't give away the ending, but will remind you of the indistinct personage who had been following him on the beach.
The story has been adapted twice to film, in 1968 and 2010, neither of which is available here in the US sadly. I'll have to keep M.R. James in mind at Christmastime for another story, since he seems a reliably good teller of entertaining tales.