M. R. James' Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad: A Summary and Literary Analysis
NOTE: The following article is largely excerpted (other than the summary) from our most recent collection: A Warning to the Curious, Count Magnus, and Other Horrors: The Best Ghost Stories and Weird Fiction of M. R. James, Annotated and Illustrated.
None of M. R. James’ ghost stories have rivalled the resilient power or popularity of “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” It is almost always the first-ranked tale in polls of his readership (voted number one twice by the Jamesian publication “Ghosts and Scholars”), has by far the widest name recognition, and is generally considered his magnum opus. In some senses this is curious. The title alone – taken from the eponymous Robert Burns poem about trysting lovers – is lyrical but clunky and long, leading to its abbreviation in the famous 1969 film, “Whistle and I’ll Come to You.” The explication of what has actually happened in its surreal finale is vague and notoriously difficult to describe. The terror lacks nearly all of James’ hallmark physical horror (there are no slimy, tentacled guardians, murderous spiders, or dry-scalped, cobweb-eyed parsons). The ending finds the protagonist safe if a little shaken, but never in physical jeopardy – a universal trait of many of his widely-enjoyed, but decidedly middle-rank stories (“The Mezzotint,” “The Haunted Doll’s House,” “The Rose Garden”). In spite of all these detractions, it has captivated the imagination of generations of readers, leading to its supremacy in the canon.
So we must ask ourselves, why, exactly, does a story with so few macabre touches, such vague explanations, and so little danger stand at the top, unrivaled? The answer is probably found somewhere in each of those very critiques: it is precisely because of its vagueness, lack of shape, and surreal, dream-based quality that it draws its readers in. Anyone can hope to fend of killer spiders with a sharp, heavy spade or to avoid libraries frequented by black-clad parsons with hideous dandruff, but what do you do about a thing that you can’t remotely begin to understand – a thing that you haven’t even clearly seen – that inhabits the most private recesses of your mind? The spectre of “Oh Whistle” is nothing less than the loss of reason and the shadow of insanity. This is why the protagonist, Parkins, is such a perfect candidate for “a good shake up.”
It is to the credit of director Jonathan Miller and actor Michael Hordern that they made some changes to James’ original Professor Parkins which led to his becoming an even more prime target for the linen-clad phantom in the 1968 adaptation. While James’ Parkins is a young, priggish man who takes his professional authority too seriously and is evidently terrified of losing his dignity or being out of his element, Hordern’s Parkins is a middle-aged, arrogant eccentric delighted with his own cleverness, in love with his own brilliance, and certain of everything that he believes. James’ Parkins is already on unsteady ground – insecure, easily distressed, and flustered, and his encounter provides the shove over the edge that his self-serious personality needs – but Hordern’s Parkin’s lives in a world of unshakable smugness, self-certainty, and egotism. The 1968 film finds its punch in punishing its protagonist’s unbearable hubris, while James’ original story finds it in the sympathy we develop with its vulnerable and alienated main character (…along with a liberal dose of punished hubris thing).
The Hordern film was the primary conduit (along with Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1970’s Christmas adaptations) by which many of James’ current fans were first introduced to his corpus, and its stark, psychologically-compelling direction and the gorgeously-filmed, baleful setting make it a masterpiece in its own right. The original story, however, has left very few of those who first encountered it as a film disappointed. Although Parkins is much less socially detestable (and decidedly less on the Asperger’s spectrum), the dramatic tension of longing to see him receive his comeuppance is replaced by the dramatic tension of sensing the walls close in around him: his vulnerability becomes increasingly palpable, and although he is still an insufferable prig (the sort of dreary wet blanket who always interjects his mates’ conversations with a tedious “aaactuallyyyy…” and loves to lecture strangers about political correctness or correct their grammar), we dread his imminent encounter and worry for his safety.
While the tale may lack the visceral horror of some of his more gruesome stories, it is certainly no less unnerving, and it grounds its power in terror rather than horror – in psychological suspense and implications rather than physical monstrosities and revelations. It is a study in existential psychology, and perhaps a parable in intellectual hubris and the desperate loneliness of the individual human soul – whether or not we wish to admit it. This may at first seem off-base for Parkins, as his great desire appears to be nothing less than loneliness: he travels alone, rooms alone, and explores alone. He turns down offers for companionship, spurns the one friend he makes in Burnstow, and sleeps – almost defiantly – by himself in a twin room. But the overarching moral of the story harkens back to James’ digestion of Nietzsche’s maxim to beware gazing too long into the abyss (for “the abyss gazes back into you”), and carries the philosophical warning that being in company is generally better, for even when we are alone with ourselves we are still in company of a certain kind, and the unexplored self is the most dangerous self to have as a roommate…
We are introduced to the protagonist, Professor Parkins, while he is dining with his colleagues at the fictitious St. James’ College, just before the looming end of the Fall Term. Parkins is “young, neat, and precise of speech,” and is a Professor of Ontography: the somewhat satirical study of reality and the state of being. He is questioned on his holiday plans and owns that he is headed to Burnstow (based on Felixstowe) on the wind-lashed Suffolk coast, and largely plans to improve his golf game. He mentions that he was given a larger room than necessary – it has two beds – and one of his colleagues, Rogers, cheekily offers to accompany him and occupy the bed “to keep the ghosts off.”
Parkins – a serious-minded rationalist – falls for Rogers’ trap and announces that Rogers should not joke about ghosts because – as Parkins has lectured him in the past – it is beneath the dignity of their office as respected intellectual gate-keepers. While his colleagues enjoy rising Parkins’ ire, he seems oblivious to this, and considers them rightly scolded. However, one of them – a man named Disney – does have some practical advice: the ruins of a Templar preceptory is said to be buried there, and Disney asks Parkins to investigate it for him (he is evidently a historian) to see if it is worth his time. Parkins agrees.
Shortly after, Parkins arrives at the Globe Inn, where his room – the only one with a bay window – faces the sea. He befriends another guest, the Colonel – a choleric old soldier who quickly loses patience with Parkins – and the two play a game of golf on the nearby course, which leads to the Colonel becoming sorely annoyed and Parkins taking a long walk to avoid his new friend. On the way, he trips over some stones which are, he realizes, part of the Templar ruins. The circular foundation is visible, as is an oblong base that he imagines to be an altar. Picking at the altar with his knife, he uncovers a cavity in the masonry. He puts in his hand and feels something cylindrical which he pulls out and pockets.
The weather is worsening, so he hurries back to the inn, and all the while he thoughts are strangely dark. The gloomy landscape reminds him of ghost and fantasy stories he read as a child, and he shivers at the thought of encountering an otherworldly being there. Meanwhile, he notices someone following him: a figure which appears to be running yet does not seem to ever gain any ground. He feels increasingly uncomfortable himself, and breaks into a run (ostensibly to get there in time for dinner).
After supper, he examines his find: a four-inch long metal whistle, which – once he has cleaned it – appears to be embossed with two Latin mottos: one which asks “Who is this who is coming?” and an apparent acrostic which may be interpreted to read “O Thief, You Will Blow It; O Thief, You Will Weep.” Ignoring the sinister markings, he gives it a long blow, and is astonished by its strange, low sound (“it had a quality of infinite distance”). All at once, the wind rushes in from the sea, buffeting his windows, which he struggles to secure “as if he were pushing back a sturdy burglar.”
Parkins goes to bed, but struggles to sleep: every time he closes his eyes, his mind involuntary plays him snippets of an ongoing vision of a man running on a beach. The man is not identified, but the beach is the one he had been on that evening. The figure is clearly terrified, and finds himself leaping desperately over groynes (long, slat fences used to prevent beach erosion) and looking back anxiously at the horizon. At one point, as Parkins watches in dismay, the man collapses, and suddenly his pursuer can be seen coming down the shore: it is an amorphous figure composed of fluttering white rags who is groping and weaving and bobbing along the shore, feeling its way towards its quarry. It seems to catch on to him – throwing its arms in the air and racing towards the groyne where the man is hiding – and Parkins cannot force himself to keep his eyes shut, thus ending the vision before a confrontation can occur. He turns on a light (apparently frightening some rats: he hears something scuttle away from the side of his bed) and reads until morning.
In the morning, Parkins is embarrassed when the maids ask him which bed he wants prepared for himself since it appears that both had been slept in. He protests that he only slept in one bed, but does admit that the bedding on its twin does look tossed and crumpled, as if someone spent a miserable night in it. Meanwhile, Parkins begins lecturing the Colonel after – when discussing the previous night’s windstorm – he references the superstition of whistling for the wind. In the midst of his rationalistic sermon, Parkins points out the he himself had whistled last night (somewhat sinking his whole argument), and tells the Colonel about his Templar artifact. The Colonel is alarmed to hear about this and warns Parkins to be careful about snagging with the supernatural.
As they return to the Inn from the golf course, they encounter a terrified boy running from that direction. They calm him down and he explains that he was playing in front of the inn and saw something in one of the windows that horrified him: something was waving around in the room with the bay window, and while he can’t describe it well, he ensures them that “it weren’t a right thing.” Parkins, of course, quickly gains his room – with the window in question – and finds that the second bed is, once again, a tangle of sheets. The Colonel is disturbed by this confluence of events, and examines the Templar whistle. He advises Parkins to pitch the whistle into the sea but admits that the professor will probably do nothing. All the same, he offers his help if needed in the future.
That night Parkins rigs a screen up over the window to keep the bright moonlight out, but he is suddenly woken up by the sound of it collapsing. Bolting up, he looks across the room and notices – to his horror – someone sitting up in the opposite bed. Parkins jumps out of bed in an attempt to grab his walking stick to defend himself from the presumed burglar but is nauseated when he sees the creature – swathed in bedding – slither out of the bed and begin groping around the room. He realizes that the Thing is blind, but must compensate with its hearing, and tries to stay still, and watches it stoop over his bed and expectantly feel for him.
However, when part of the creature’s drapery brushes his face, he cannot repress a groan of disgust, and in a moment, it lunges towards him, pushing him back out through the window, all the while shoving its face into his. Parkins is terrified to see “what manner of thing” it is: “Parkins, who very much dislikes being questioned about it, did once describe something of it in my hearing, and I gathered that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumbled linen.”
At that moment, the Colonel bursts through the door – alerted by Parkins’ screams – and has just enough time to see the being before it crumples to the floor in a pile of bedclothes. The next day, Parkins sends a message to Rogers, who comes immediately and joins the two men for a council of war to decide their next steps. They have the bedsheets burned and the Colonel pitches the whistle into the North Sea. This is apparently enough to end the haunting, but Parkins is still a haunted man: he is forevermore traumatized by the experience, and cannot stand the sight of such things as white ecclesiastical robe hanging on a door or a lone scarecrow in a field.