Another in our series of posts about the ghost stories of MR James. You can find this story here.
“Oh Whistle” has the reputation of being one of MR James’ most chilling and effective stories. It’s also – not coincidentally – one of his funniest. He’d already mastered the techniques of hiding secrets in a half-sentence, and covering his tracks and clues with a layer or two of ornamental description. Now he applied that fully to the social life of the English don – as full of ritual and unburied grudge as any of the dark histories he’d conjured.
The results are a restrained delight. The finickity Professor Parsons is a familiar Jamesian hero, a caricature almost in his prissy suspicion of ghosts and his complete lack of self-awareness. His early antagonist, Rogers, only seems to share this lack: really he’s just manipulative and thick-skinned and his first appearance in the story is mostly to draw our sympathy to Parsons by being still more annoying than he. The Colonel, meanwhile, Parsons’ foe-turned-saviour, is initially painted in very broad strokes indeed, and the golfing scenes between the two (with the narrator as golf-hating third party) are some of James’ most amusing.
Together Rogers and the Colonel are a set of trials for Parsons even before his helpful excavations create still more problems. There have been flashes of humour in all the stories we’ve seen, but the interactions in “Oh Whistle” are played more than ever for laughs. Why in this story, though? James admits his reasons and his misdirection quite openly when, at the end of “Oh Whistle”, he lets his characters speculate that the linen-ghost could have done no real harm, and that its only power (though quite a power!) was to frighten its victims to death.*
The reader of a ghost story has one great advantage over its protagonist: she comes to the tale expecting to be frightened, which makes fright a great deal harder to achieve. Part of what might induce fear in the reader is the horrible consequences of disturbing a fiend or ghost, and the sense of trap-like inevitability with which those consequences play out. But if, as in “Oh Whistle”, the consequences are mortal fright, it sets the story writer a significant challenge. The reader comes warned and ready for fear, but somehow the writer must make him feel some of what the protagonist feels – sheer uncomfortable terror, rather than horror at an expected outcome. Terror so great, in fact, that it might actually kill – a state of mind hard to imagine when you’re curled up in front of a pre-Christmas fire reading stories.
One route would be to up the stakes on the fear – to stress it, place it in cosmic proportions, amplify it by sheer force of language. But James prefers to go down the road of contrast, making the background as cosy and entertaining as possible so that its disruption disturbs reader as well as character. So this I think is the reason “Oh Whistle” is funny – this particular style of humour gives the tale a clubbable feel, and the ghostly elements seem more than usually intrusive (just as they feel to the uncomprehending Parsons).
The story is driven by other such contrasts – the compulsive orderliness of Parsons and the messiness of his hauntings; the regularity of inn and links and the wildness of the East Anglian landscape beyond them. James’ descriptions of this bleak, ancient coastline are particularly fine: anyone familiar with it will recognise how its flatness tricks your perceptions of distance, an effect that makes Parsons’ first encounter with the supernatural still creepier. But the key to “Oh Whistle”’s success is the way James paces his wit just right. He lets it work on you to the point that he can scare you with what is, after all, his most caricature ghost of all: an animated sheet!
*Are they right? This is a bit of an open question: Parson’s dream-sequence, where the raised spirit sniffs then pounces Nazgul-style on his terrified victim, at least hints at a more grisly outcome.
The next story up for consideration is The Treasure of Abbot Thomas