After almost twenty years of unjustifiable procrastination, I have finally gotten around to reading “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, by the British master of the modern ghost story, Montague Rhodes (a/k/a M.R.) James. First published in 1923, it is one of his most celebrated tales and is generally regarded as a masterpiece of the genre. I have been aware of its existence for decades and even own a copy of Dover’s edition of James’ seminal collection, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary”, but I have put off reading it in favor of the more Gothic fare I love and know so well and have left my copy sit in a box in my storage facility to gather dust and mold.
Dover edition of “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary”.
Recently, however, I came across the tale in a British paperback series at work, published by Penguin, and called the “Read Red” series, which features some classic Horror and Supernatural titles in mass-market sized editions with predominantly yellow and black cover art that brings to mind the “giallo” titles of Italy. The slender volume (number 3 in the series) is called “The Haunted Doll’s House” and features a handful of James’ most famous tales including “Count Magnus”, “Casting the Runes” and “Lost Hearts” among others.
“The Haunted Doll’s House”, in which I recently found the story.
Once I made the decision to pick it up, I dove straight into the opening story, which just happened to be the one featured in this review. True to its reputation, it was subtly engrossing and disturbing, lulling one into thinking it was going to be a droll little story about a priggish young professor who has a misadventure a la Ichabod Crane, from Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but instead the story becomes quite nightmarish in its depiction of the very unique haunting visited upon him.
Without giving too much away, the story tells of an uptight young professor of ontography (a branch of anthropology) named Parkins who is a precious opinionated fellow with no sense of humor and zero tolerance for any talk of esoterica or of the supernatural. The story opens with a conversation at the “hospitable hall of St. James’s college”, where Parkins and his colleagues are seated for a feast. Here James sets up the events which will lead Parkins to his spectral visitation. At the prodding of his peers, Parkins reveals that he intends to take a working holiday on the coast at the town of Burnstow which, according to Wikipedia, is a fictionalized version of Felixstowe in Suffolk. While there, he intends to work on some of his papers and hone his golf technique. An unnamed colleague asks if he would mind checking out the site of the Templar’s preceptory (a sort of headquarters) to see if it would make a good place to have a dig in the summer. Wary at first, Parkins agrees to have a look, since he will be staying at a nearby hotel, as it was the only one that still had a room available. In fact, he claims that the room he got is “double-bedded”, since nothing else was available.
Another colleague then asks if he might share the room for a day or two out of the time Parkins is occupying it. Parkins, put on the spot, tries to weasel out of it and the fellow laughs and says “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 keep the ghosts off.” This is where it is explained in no uncertain terms that Parkins does not believe in the supernatural and has no tolerance for any talk of such things. This scene is rewritten and expanded in the TV adaptation from an episode of the show Omnibus back in 1968 (re-titled as “Whistle and I’ll Come to You”) to include a whole philosophical tirade where he comes off as very dismissive and condescending. The Parkins in the story isn’t quite as haughty (nor is he as old), but it is fascinating to watch Michael Hordern’s eccentric performance as Professor Parkins.
An older professor Parkins finds the fateful whistle in the 1968 adaptation from “Omnibus”.
Moving forward a bit, Parkins eventually gets to the site and discovers a tube of some sort, which he pockets and takes back to his room at the hotel. After cleaning it out and dusting it off he realizes that it is a whistle and that it contains two graven inscriptions written in Latin along its shaft: “FLA FUR BIS FLE” and “QUIST EST ISTE QUI VENIT”, the former translating to “Thief, you will blow, you will weep” and the latter “Who is this who comes”. Parkins, being a little rusty in his Latin, ignores the warnings and blows, which sets him on the slow yet inexorable path to his infamous confrontation with the unusual bogey of this renowned ghost story. I am being purposely vague here so as not to ruin the surprise but you may surmise from some of the illustrations what transpires in the story’s climax. If you like ghost stories you’d be hard pressed to find any author worth their salt who doesn’t concede a debt of some kind to M.R. James and you’d be as equally hard pressed to find a story as original and creepy as “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. If you are curious you can find the whole story on Wikisource: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/%27Oh,_Whistle,_and_I%27ll_Come_to_You_My_Lad%27 and if someone hasn’t taken it down by the time you read this, you may also see the entire Omnibus episode from 1968 of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You”.
British DVD of the Omnibus series episode.