For M. R. James, who began his career as a writer of ghost stories by reading them to his friends at Christmas parties, his last great ghost story was written, fittingly, to be publicly read in front of a specific audience. It is a campfire legend, composed for a troop of Eton Boy Scouts who were camped on the rolling downs near Worbarrow Bay in Dorset, and was read to them on the evening of July 27th, 1927. In a letter he described the pitch which he was offered: "Tomorrow it is proposed that the Lower Master takes me by car to Worbarrow Bay in Dorset where the Scouts are in camp - it is further proposed that by the camp fire I should read them a story of a terrible nature, which I have made - contrary to my expectation." As reported in his obituary, the tale was a terrific success: “several boys had a somewhat disturbed night, as the scene of the story was quite close to Camp.”
It shares a great deal with another story written for boys: “A School Story,” intended to be read to the lads of the King’s College choir, which also involves a group of pre-teen students who witness the assault of an acquaintance by a skeletal predator, and also involves a dimly-suggested backstory which has been the result of much speculation and curiosity. However, there is a significant shift in the victim’s station (one that, perhaps, reflects the difference in James’ age between the two stories): in the earlier one, he was a charismatic Latin master, whose abduction is partially witnessed by his students, while sixteen years later he wrote the victim as a petulant boy whose beastly nature is far from that of the hapless saplings in “Lost Hearts,” “The Mezzotint,” or “Haunted Dolls’ House,” and has far more in common with the worldly Saul in “The Residence of Whitminster.”
At any rate, the story begins – as “A School Story” does – in a fairly dry, nostalgic manner, reveling in inside jokes and niche references which may have tickled the Scouts at Warborrow Bay, but may disarm the modern reader who wants to get to the ghouls and skip over the storied career of its protagonist, Stanley Judkins. However, it is the hinge between the two halves of this story – beginning with the satirical description of the rivalry between the boorish vulgarian, Judkins, and the impossibly perfect Arthur Wilcox – that makes this James’ last true masterpiece. He seamlessly rolls from a somewhat tedious – if lightly comical – description of Scouting at Eton before we find ourselves in a very, very different story: one of James’ most shivery, with one of his most effective and controlled climaxes.
It is short, un-philosophical, and fantastically satisfying, with an almost obsessive attention to controlling the plot and discarding any unnecessary details. In short, the perfect campfire story. James clearly designed it with great relish, knowing that it would both scintillate and haunt the squirming Scouts – who knew all too well where Wailing Well lurks – just beyond the downs where they were sleeping that night, obscured in tall grass, gathered in gloom, and close enough that its ghastly denizens wouldn’t have far to walk to gain the camp.
Not unlike the Book of Isaiah – one of James’ favorite texts to quote from – this story is divided into two approximate halves, marked by a clear tonal shift at the hinge-point. However, while Isaiah begins with evil and wrath before dramatically shifting towards forgiveness and reconciliation, “Wailing Well” starts off as a humorous satire of archetypal boys – the brown-nosed goody-two-shoes and the defiant, petulant rogue – but suddenly becomes an entirely different, wildly darker story near the mid-point. So, let us begin…
The story revolves around two boy scouts: one whom we mostly only hear about (the impossibly heroic Arthur Wilcox) and one whom we are unfortunate enough to meet (the indulgently villainous Stanley Judkins). Both belong to the Eton College scout troop, they are the same age, and even look similar, but their personalities couldn’t be more different. Wilcox is beloved by the teachers, respected by the scout masters, doted on with dozens of merit badges, and adored by the younger students who view him as a role model.
Judkins, however, is a trouble-maker who is abusive to the younger students, despised by his scout masters, and unrepentantly rude to his teachers and superiors (including M. R. James himself -- then the provost of Eton -- who threatens to box his ears after the boy hits him with a cricket ball and demands it back without an apology). Judkins is a terrible scout, earning no badges, nearly drowning a slew of younger scouts when he slacks on the life-guard exercises (Wilcox swoops in and saves them all), and terrorizes little old ladies who dread his offer to escort them across busy streets.
By this point in the story, however, an odd thing has happened: we find ourselves rooting for Judkins – cavalier and independent-minded, while Wilcox seems unbearably perfect – a tedious exemplar who seems no fun at all – and while this is the notoriously tedious part of the tale, we are probably surprised by how much we identify with and laugh at the adventures of the colorfully vulgar Judkins. There is something of the Tom Sawyer or the Huck Finn about him: his creative laziness, disregard for authority, and unwavering commitment to self-interest and his own amusements...
After this preface, the story shifts to the recent past when the Eton Scout Troop traveled to the sunny downs of Southern England (James disguises the location, but we know it to be Dorset) where the scouts have pitched a camp in sight of the English Channel with maps to mark where they are allowed to hike and where they are not. Judkins has been given one last chance to prove himself, but as we follow him to this campsite, the tone begins to shift – almost as if from a noisy Saturday morning cartoon to a starkly atmospheric wide-screen film with minimal dialogue and plenty of long shots. James writes, somewhat forebodingly: “It was a lovely morning, and Stanley Judkins and one or two of his friends -- for he still had friends -- lay basking on the top of the down. Stanley was lying on his stomach with his chin propped on his hands, staring into the distance.”
The lackies in question are named Wilfred and Algernon. They chum around while Judkins glowers with boredom. He catches sight of a dark clump of trees in an overgrown field and decides that it must be explored. He demands to know the name, and Wilfred retorts that it is unnamed on the map, and that it is circled in red: a no-go zone. A shepherd comes by and greets the out-of-towners kindly, but Judkins has bigger fish to fry. He asks what the field with the copse at its center is called, and the old man explains that it is called “Wailing Well” – after a well that sits in the cool shade of the trees – and that it is an unlucky place that should be avoided. The field is barren – only growing tall yellow grass, and no one has drawn water from the well in the woods for years. Sheep refuse to graze there and dogs hate it.
Looking through a spyglass, Wilfred spots a series of trampled tracks in the grass which seems to contradict this, but the shepherd explains that the trails have been made by the residents of Wailing Well: four ghosts who lurk in the cover of the trees. There are, he explains, three women and one man among them, but he knows no more about who they were or why they are there: “it was afore my time they come by their end. And why they goes there still is more than the children of men can tell: except I've heard they was all bad 'uns when they was alive.”
Judkins – resident “bad ‘un” of the group – loudly defies this report: "Why, you don't mean they're deaders? What rot! You must be a lot of fools to believe that. Who's ever seen them, I'd like to know?"
The shepherd is quick to confess that he has seen them. It was also a summer day, also at the peak of the day – about four in the afternoon – when he and his dog caught a glimpse of them: “I see 'em, each one of 'em, come peerin' out of the bushes and stand up, and work their way slow by them tracks towards the trees in the middle where the well is."
Algernon and Wilfred are hooked, and demand to know what they looked like.
"Rags and bones, young gentlemen: all four of 'em: flutterin' rags and whity bones. It seemed to me as if I could hear 'em clackin' as they got along. Very slow they went, and lookin' from side to side." "What were their faces like? Could you see?" "They hadn't much to call faces," said the shepherd, "but I could seem to see as they had teeth."
This does it for the lackies, but Judkins is more annoyed than ever and swears to sneak into Wailing Well at the very first chance he gets.
That night the scout masters remind them to avoid any place circled in red (it may be, perhaps, that the shepherd has voiced his concerns to them), but in the morning, Wilcox approaches the scout master, Mr. Hope-Jones, to report that Judkins is AWOL. Wilfred immediately deduces – from a missing rope and bucket – that Judkins has left to draw a bucket of water from the haunted well out of spite.
Wilcox, Hope-Jones, and the lackies journey to the down where Wailing Well is located. James describes the scene: “It was a wonderful day of shimmering heat. The sea looked like a floor of metal. There was no breath of wind.” The party stand at the top of the down looking upon the grassy field and at first see nothing, but then Wilcox spies him wading through the grass with a pail in hand. Suddenly, Algernon collapses in terror, covering his eyes, for he has seen something crouched in the weeds: “On all fours – O, it’s the woman. O, don’t let me look at her! Don’t let it happen!”
Hope-Jones acts quickly, admonishing Algernon and ordering Wilcox to run back for help, then he runs forward to investigate.
“He looked at the field, and there he saw a terrible figure – something in ragged black – with whitish patches breaking out of it: the head, perched on a long thin neck, half hidden by a shapeless sort of blackened sun-bonnet. The creature was waving thin arms in the direction of the rescuer who was approaching, as if to ward him off: and between the two figures the air seemed to shake and shimmer as he had never seen it: and as he looked, he began himself to feel something of a waviness and confusion in his brain.”
Hope-Jones is overwhelmed by whatever influence the figure has had on him. Meanwhile, Judkins creeps forward in a strangely anxious, careful fashion – not like a brave braggard, but like a burglar who expects to be ambushed and is walking very carefully. While Algernon remains on the ground, Wilfred watches:
“With a sudden and dreadful sinking at the heart, he caught sight of someone among the trees, waiting: and again of someone -- another of the hideous black figures -- working slowly along the track from another side of the held, looking from side to side, as the shepherd had described it. Worst of all, he saw a fourth -- unmistakably a man this time -- rising out of the bushes a few yards behind the wretched Stanley, and painfully, as it seemed, crawling into the track. On all sides the miserable victim was cut off.”
Algernon recovers and the two of them scream and blow a whistle to warn their brazen leader, but it is too late: “The crouched figure behind Stanley sprang at him and caught him about the waist. The dreadful one that was standing waving her arms waved them again, but in exultation. The one that was lurking among the trees shuffled forward, and she too stretched out her arms as if to clutch at something coming her way; and the other, farthest off, quickened her pace and came on, nodding gleefully. “
Judkins is terrified and fights back with his can, breaking the brim off of the man’s felt hat (showing “a white skull with stains that might have been wisps of hair”), but they wrap the rope around his neck and pull him, a prisoner, into the clump of trees.
Hope-Jones – still apparently dazed when he tries to look at Wailing Well – surges forward, rubbing his eyes. The shepherd runs up the hill and the boys cling to him, shouting “they’ve got him! In the trees!” over and over, and the old man bemoans the fact that Judkins still went in there in spite of all his earnest warnings: “Poor young thing! Poor young thing!”
And indeed, it is too late: just as the whole scout troop crests the hill with Wilcox at their head, Hope-Jones trudges grimly out of the woods with Judkins’ corpse draped over his head. He had cut it down from a tree where the boy was found hanging by his own rope, and – James adds – “there was not a drop of blood in the body.”
The next day, in a rage, Hope-Jones “sallies forth” with an axe, determined to cut down and burn the whole copse, but he returns shaken, with a broken axe and a bad cut on his leg, stunned to report that he was unable to create a single spark of fire or leave a single mark on any of the trees with the axe.
Wilfred and Algernon are traumatized and quit scouting. Wilcox, James prophesies, has a brilliant career ahead of him. As for Judkins, he informs us: “I have heard that the present population of the Wailing Well field consists of three women, a man, and a boy…”
“Wailing Well”’s literary merits lay mainly in aesthetics: as James admits in his closing sentence, its moral is obvious, and it doesn’t – so far as I can tell – have any radically deep themes, subtexts, or symbolism. Simply put, it is a beautiful story, and a perfect example of the genre of campfire legend, complete with a vague but disturbing backstory and memorable visceral details. James’ prose – at least from the moment that we find Judkins scowling darkly at Wailing Well amidst the shimmering heat, with the sea looking like a floor of metal – is par excellence. Tight and evocative, he wastes no words, and infuses the final four pages with heaps of atmosphere. Perhaps keeping his audience in mind, he unloads some of his most poetic and evocative lines: who cannot shiver at the mention of the flutterin’ rags and whity bones, the stains that might be wisps of hair, and – of course – the best line of the story: “they hadn't much to call faces … but I could seem to see as they had teeth.”
James is often criticized for either telling too much (“An Evening’s Entertainment”), and being too indulgent, or not enough (“Two Doctors”), and being too coy. Here, in “Wailing Well,” he knows exactly what details to show to pique curiosity, and what details to withhold to tantalize the imagination. Perhaps the most obvious mystery of this story – and one in which James appears to take giddy delight – is the backstory of the ghosts of “Wailing Well”: “three women and a man.” The shepherd is unfortunately either under-informed, or intentionally tight-lipped to help flesh out their origins, although he is able to suggest that “they was all bad ‘uns when they was alive.” Although I truly do believe that James had a background in mind when he created the ghoulish quartet and their insane, animalistic ritual of prowling through the fields at midday in search of victims, I think the basic information of the genders and number are entirely sufficient to give us the glimpse into what he is suggesting.
Three – a number associated with the Trinity – can often be used to either suggest holiness or perversion. In particular, a man with three women has a naturally depraved suggestion: one and man and a woman are likely to be lovers (perhaps scandalous, depending on the details, but still pretty missionary-style in terms of convention), and suggest something more romantic than repelling, and one man and two women – certainly more eyebrow raising – may represent a tragic love triangle, and elicit more pathos than revulsion. Three women and a man, however, is just enough to imply a sort of degeneracy without becoming a harem.
Of course, they could be a father and his daughters or a brother and his sisters, but few readers have ever assumed anything less than a kind of menage a trois existing between the four figures: their identification, fundamentally, by their gender instantly causes us to imagine an equally fundamental relationship between them. The most obvious literary hyperlink here comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula: the domineering Count served by his three carnivorous brides. This may be part of the reason (along with the chilling detail of Judkins’ bloodless corpse) that this story is frequently catalogued as a vampire story. Although James never goes into further detail of who these figures were, what they did to become undead, what their motives are for prowling Wailing Well’s environs, and what they get out of killing Judkins, it is clear – as the shepherd suggests – that they were unquestionably corrupt during life, and that their afterlife must somehow reflect or illustrate the way that they lived.
Several modern attempts have been made to speculate on what this may have been, including a short film that changes the foursome to a couple who ran an school and murdered naughty children by disposing of them into the well, and a writing contest from “Ghosts and Scholars,” which the winner of which depicted them as three sisters who each lusted after the same rogue, and used black magic to win his affections, before it takes a turn after “The Monkey’s Paw,” and they get more than they asked for.
Overall, the story remains extraordinarily simple and powerful, and its strength, perhaps, lies in James masterful plotting: how he gradually transitions what begins as a schoolboy comedy – a cheeky blend of P. G. Wodehouse and Tom Sawyer – gradually becomes darker, easing from insider satire to the black humor of the drowning underclassmen, before we sense a sudden drop in temperature (beautifully and ironically contrasted with a sweltering summer afternoon) as we find Judkins glowering at the dank copse that draws him to his death like an insidious decoy luring the prey to the predators. By the end of the story, we have no memory of the tedious, semi-comic beginning, and our only thought – a thought which James planted at the ending as a sadistic nightcap for his campers’ imaginations – is the delicious line: “I have heard that the present population of the Wailing Well field consists of three women, a man, and a boy.”
You can read the original story (at pg. 30, along with my textual footnotes and those to two other puzzling M. R. James stories) in the PDF linked to below!