Dec 09

HAUNTOGRAPHY: Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad

FT12 comments • 5,654 views

Another in our series of posts about the ghost stories of MR James. You can find this story here.

GatheringStorm_Seago “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


  1. 1
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Dec 2009 #

    i love love love his opening “i dremt of the futere and it was all derrida” gag: blah blah blah sed a “person not in this story to the professor of ontography

    ontology =||= hauntology [sed the same in french: hence etc zzz]
    ontography* =||= hauntography !!!

    *this does not actually exist as a discipline: it means something like the drawing of being…

  2. 2
    marna on 11 Dec 2009 #

    Yes! to both Tom and sukrat. There’s a tremendous sense of play throughout the story, in James’s gorgeously precise language, and the gently cutting characterisation, but also in the ghost itself. It’s a bundle of sheets! It’s a PLAYTIME ghost, a small child wandering around shrouded in bedlinen, groping, arms outstretched.

  3. 3
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Dec 2009 #

    other great bits: when the colonel tells the small boy that next time he sees a ghost through the hotel window he must (a) throw a stone at it, oh no wait (b) lodge a stern complaint with the senior waiter

    (obviously ontography does exist as a discipline — it is called “fiction”, the calling up by script and line of things we take as real: what i mean is that there is no academic discipline called “ontography”)

    also: DAN BROWN and his EEVIL TEMPLARS alert

  4. 4
    dibdib on 11 Dec 2009 #

    This is definitely the scariest story I think – but reading yr review has made me realise that it scared me SO MUCH that I haven’t re-read it since and can only remember … the terrible face of… CRUMPLED LINEN!! which to this DAY can still make me look suspiciously at bedsheets and jolt me awake just as I’m trying to nod off. Arghhh! Rest of the story though, mostly forgotten. Perhaps I should be brave, and read it. In the middle of the day. In bright light. In a minimalist haven where fabric is shunned as a tool of the ontographists…

  5. 5
    Unlogged Mog on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Having just read this whilst unable to sleep circa 6:45am I can confirm that things that scared the pants off me as a child still work.

    The treat thing about O Whistle is the absolute, creeping ‘oh GOD no don’t do that,’ aspect is so very strong for a not particularly sympathetic character; as Parkins’ own eyelid-film has it, you canhardly hear to avoid looking away.

  6. 6
    tom w on 13 Jan 2010 #

    Been meaning to comment for a while – love the way James has innovated the winding-sheet ghost of tradition for a start.

    Also to mention that I went to see the South Transept window of Westminster Abbey, the scheme of which James, according to biographer Pfaff, designed – it is a Victorian restoration of a medieval window, executed by Gilbert Scott (mentioned in The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral).

    Finally just wish to second the comment about ‘flatness of perspective’. The Christmas before last I left Aldburgh (where A Warning to the Curious is set, and where the James family lived for a short while) for a walk to Dunwich and back, but foolishly didn’t leave until early afternoon.

    Got to Dunwich all right, but by that stage it was getting rather dark – on the way back to Aldburgh had to past by Sizewell B, which never seemed to change in size no matter how much I was approaching. Crossing the mudflats with the various birds nesting for the evening, hooting and shrieking in the twilight, I saw a shadowy figure, just below waist height that, whenever I turned to view it fully, seemed to vanish, but when I continued my progress once more seemed to be following at a similar distance.

    Who knows what it could have been? The whole event was most disconcerting.

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    Kat but logged out innit on 7 Mar 2010 #

    This is my favourite one so far (I am slowly catching up with everyone)! I loved the scene with the small boy HOWLING for many minutes while clinging to the Prof’s leg – James doesn’t really describe Prof’s reaction to this but you already know that he is much more uncomfortable & uneasy at the presence of a small wailing limpet child (and not knowing how to get it to shut up) than what said child has seen in the window. What the kid has seen probably has a rational explanation, but dealing with children/women/social awkwardness is ALWAYS MYSTERIOUS AND TERRIFYING for the fusty academic.

  8. 8
    Joseph Dierkes on 10 Aug 2010 #

    I love this story! . . . I keep re-reading it in my copy of “Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural”.

    It is simple and straightforward, not too long, and conveys a reallt “correct” sense of a skeptical Professor on holiday.

    What I love the most is MR James’s ability to introduce the reader to a srong British accent . . . “it wived at me” . . . “the seckind one” . . . “he kep the keys” . . . “the ‘otel”, etc.

    I really would love to see this in a movie format on DVD!

    All best,

  9. 9
    Simon Marshall-Jones on 25 Dec 2010 #

    Just a small glitch in your otherwise fine deconstruction there – the professor’s name is PARKINS not PARSONS… surprised no-one else picked that up…

  10. 10

    […] the Freaky Trigger Hauntography blog pointed out, in a post dated 11thDecember 2009, there was a lot of comedy in the original […]

  11. 11
    Jezza on 27 Jan 2018 #

    Such a great story, one of my favourites.

  12. 12
    Jezza on 27 Jan 2018 #

    Wonderful tale

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