M. R. James' Creepy Campfire Classic, Wailing Well: A 5 Minute Summary and Literary Analysis
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.