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.
“Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” has unquestionably stood the test of time as one of the most beloved ghost stories in English literature. Among readers of James’ work, it has polled at number one at least three times over the last thirty years, and although it has been accused of being overhyped by some notable detractors (including the formidable Rosemary Pardoe), no one will argue with the fact that it is James’ most popular story and the one that many consider his most iconic: his chill-inducing reappropriation of a cliched children’s ghost costume – the humble bedsheet – into an indistinct, writhing nightmare has struck some imaginations more potently than his more overtly horrifying specters. The reason behind the loyalty that so many readers have afforded it may be found in its plot, with its clean simplicity, and its psychological treatment of Parkins. The haunting is enigmatic and relatable as a result, leaving us with no bulky explanation of the background of Parkins’ roommate, and allowing us to easily access the mental journey which Parkins has undergone (anyone with an imagination and a history of nightmares can easily put themselves in his position).
Much of this relatability rests on the simplicity of what James has sketched out: it is something (barring the overtly supernatural events) that anyone could have happen to them, and something which is extremely easy to imagine experiencing. While not every person has gone on a Medieval treasure hunt in a German abbey or purchased an illuminated manuscript from a nervous verger, nearly all readers can remember a troubled sleep where the sounds of their room took on a life of their own, or where intrusive thoughts seemed to overtake their imagination in spite of their best efforts – and who hasn’t woken up with a jolt in a dark room, only to briefly mistake a weird shadow for an unwelcome guest looming in the gloom? It is perhaps not surprising then, when we learn that James was inspired to write the story (as he suggests in the text, and later asserted in the introduction to his Collected Ghost Stories) by a real experience: it came from a dream that he had – of the bedclothes shaping themselves into an unwanted bedfellow – around the age of twelve. He again connects the story to an autobiographical root when prefacing Parkins’ runaway daydreams with the phrase “experto crede,” or, “trust one who knows from experience.”
Like all great literature about human hubris, the story’s principle strength lies in the cathartic pathos we feel for Parkins: he may be a pesty know-it-all and a notorious wet-blanket, but he is a harmless enough fellow whose hubris is founded more on his faith in human reason than (as in the Hordern film) in his own intellect, and when this fails him, the failure is a universal defeat of the reliability of scientific reason itself, not just that of his own ego. While one doubts that Parkins completely converted from being a mandated-reporter for the rationalist police to owning crystals, fawning over horoscopes, and discussing his mess mates’ auras, there is no question that the man who returned to the faculty lounge at the end of the holiday was a much better listener and a much slower speaker, whose brush with those inconceivable forces in “heaven and earth” has left him less convinced of his interpretations of reality and humanity’s role within it.
This, naturally, brings us to a point where we can more fully unpack the nature and artistic purpose of Parkins. We know that he is a scholar of the (at that time) fictitious discipline of ontography, which literally means “the study of being,” and which concerns the philosophy of humanity’s relationship to its surroundings. His worldview, then, is dearly linked to a belief that the senses can be trusted and that reality is both objectively measurable and containable. Of course, virtually no mainstream citizen of the world will disagree with this: in order to function in society, we must agree that “red” means “red,” that a dollar is worth a dollar, that a kilogram weighs a kilogram, that Neptune is Neptune, that calcium oxide is calcium oxide, and that a cat is a cat. To dispute these basic truths would flirt dangerously with James’ polar-opposite philosophical enemy: absolute relativism.
However, Parkins’ understanding of reality is more than just a trust in weights and measures – he implicitly believes everything that he can sense and rejects as impossible anything which he can’t. Hence the paradigm rocking nature of his haunting: he was entirely awake when he saw the pursuit of the man over the groynes, and was both fully conscious and in the presence of a witness (the Colonel, who arrived in time to see “the group,” as James put it) when he was assaulted by the linen man (whom I will refer to as the Follower). Indeed, as the 1934 illustration by Ernest Wallcousins reminds us, the crumpled Follower not only lunges at Parkins, he backs him halfway out the window in a desperate effort to press his “intensely horrible” face into Parkins’ own. This is no longer a “white glint” seen from a distance which can be explained away (surely a seabird’s wing?), or even a conscious vision hijacking his imagination: it is throttling him within inches of the tip of his nose. But even now – in a stroke of genius from James – he doesn’t have an explanation to cling to: there is no neat or tidy explanation for him to use to gain understanding of his attacker.
Unlike so many of James’ stories, where the nature and motivations of his villains are understood (if somewhat vague), the Follower is an enigma. We do have a few clues to piece together a rough sketch of what the groping spectre is up to: it appears to be a kind of guardian spirit put in place by the Templars, and the whistle seems to be either its summoning device, used by its handlers to call it forth, or an eccentric booby trap devised to trick thieves into activating it on themselves (something of a supernatural version of an exploding dye pack slipped into a robber’s bag). The Latin motto engraved into its side would seem to support this: although interpretations of the order of the words vary, the most popular one puts it as FUR FLABIS, FUR FLEBIS: “O Thief, You Will Blow It; O Thief, You Will Weep.” The Follower’s blindness and insane behavior certainly suggest that it belongs to a similar category as the demonic familiars in “Canon Alberic,” “Count Magnus,” and “Abbot Thomas” – half-mad elementals “translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human.” It doesn’t seem to be the ghost of any particular individual, and even its relationship to the Templars themselves is tenuous (we can assume that it has a connection to them due to the proximity of the find and the use of Latin, but even this is pure conjecture), so while we have some imprecise solutions to the most basic questions of the linen creature’s nature and motives, the most tantalizing details are out of reach.
There is a sharp visual parallel to this in Parkins’ first encounter with the Follower: “One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars' church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen…” This is the first of several clues that the Follower exists outside of the universe that Parkins trusts and worships. Other clues can be found in the suggestive dream on the beach: while the runner’s face is never shown to be Parkins’ this is heavily implied, yet such an episode had not occurred prior to the dream and never would occur in the story; as such it is as though this frightful confrontation took place on another, spiritual plane without Parkins’ physical presence. Not only is it supernatural, but it operates in dimensions and planes of existence that make no sense to a mind expecting even a ghost to respect the basic physics of time and space. And yet – like other pursuers in stories like “A Warning to the Curious,” “Count Magnus,” “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance,” and “Casting the Runes” – this Follower can exhibit the symptoms of a desperate chase (viz., running after his victim) without needing to literally overcome the limitations of space and time (viz., worrying about catching up).
The next concern for us, then, is what does Parkins represent to the Follower, and what does the Follower represent to Parkins? What, at the end of the story, has changed about Parkins’ worldview, and how did his previous philosophy serve to antagonize the Follower? A common and fairly obvious theory is that Parkins’ intellectual hubris manifested itself in social isolation – both as a result of active choices (rejecting Rogers’ initial offer to come with him) and as a side effect of his tedious personality (alienating his would-be friends by turning every joke or proposition into a sermonizing lecture). The most obvious example of how this attitude has endangered him is the fact that his dismissal of Rogers’ friendly gesture allowed his spare bed to remain empty, allowing it to become the incubator through which the Follower is allowed to access him.
The second most obvious example of this is the way in which he repeatedly rebuffs the Colonel’s attempts to advise and counsel him. The Colonel, of course, is Parkins’ polar opposite: bluff, sociable, and talkative to a fault, his personality fills space and exudes social warmth where Parkins’ is insular and chilly. The Colonel’s appearance at the climax is the ideal antidote to the Follower’s attack: as he himself observes, it seems that the Follower’s “one power was that of frightening,” and the Colonel’s impetuous assurance and motivational energy fills in the moral deficits of Parkins’ sneering smugness and alienating self-reliance, burning off Parkins’ hopeless spirit of utter bewilderment, an explosive catalyst which had been attracting and feeding the Follower with his escalating terror.
Parkins learns all too late that the world is broader and more mysterious than he previously believed, and comes to depend on the Colonel (as well as Rogers, who joins their council of war and adds his expertise to their arsenal) for protection from these Outside Forces. Although the Colonel is certainly not a poster-boy of humility and open-mindedness, he does respect the powers of the universe – both the natural and supernatural forces – and he isn’t above reaching out to others for support. While the Parkins who arrived at the Globe Inn viewed the world (or “globe”) as entirely comprehensible and saw human fellowship as a mere distraction from achieving his full intellectual potential, the Parkins who returns to St. James’ has entirely restored his healthy respect of the universe’s ability to surprise and overwhelm him, and he – surely – has come to view human society as necessary investment for survival in a chaotic cosmos.
In part two of their treatment of the story, the hosts of A Podcast to the Curious – The M. R. James Podcast address this precise issue:
Mike Taylor: “There is this notion of ‘otherness’ and, you know, something being out there, beyond the human world, waiting to come in. Which of course, what Parkins does when he whistles, he invites something in, you could say. The impression I get from [the essay “If I’m Not Careful: Innocence and Not-So-Innocence in M. R. James” by John Alfred Taylor] is of human society being a kind of little bubble that we surround ourselves in; you know, we surround ourselves with light and noise and other people and we keep out the cold and the dark and the unknown that exists on the fringes [that] informs the wider universe. In a sense, when the Colonel comes in, in his kind of Blimp-ish, blustery way, he’s this kind of—”
Will Ross: “He’s warm, and he’s a human figure isn’t he?”
M.T.: “Absolutely! And Parkins is dragged back in reality… Or, one other way of looking at it is that Parkins has gone to reality: reality is this kind of capricious universe that does evil things to you, and – actually – the [unique] quality of humanity is actually fooling ourselves [into believing that] we are warm and we are safe, and its that [which] brings him back: it’s that delusion of human warmth.”
In another exchange from the same episode, Will Ross addresses the problem of Parkins’ besetting fault – the hubris that so offended the linen creature:
W.R.: “My favorite angle on the story is that Parkins has brought this on by refusing to acknowledge the presence of the supernatural. He has offended the World by trying to imply that he knows all about it and that he is the boss of it, and the World has come back to slap him in the face and say ‘you don’t know all this; you don’t really know what’s going on.’ The figure, when it gets to him, it’s got this weird description of him – its kind of like pushing him out of the window, that’s the way it’s described – but really what it’s doing is pushing his face into Parkins’ face. What he’s trying to do is force Parkins to look at him; as if the supernatural is here as if it’s saying ‘here, here I am, staring you right in the face; you can’t deny I exist; here I am.’ And as soon as Parkins is no longer able to deny that he exists, because it’s right there in his face, his job is done.”
So the Follower, to Parkins, is the ultimate illustration of a universe that defies easy explanation and fights against the mastery of the human mind. It’s chaotic motions, lack of vision, muteness, and gleeful flailings make is extremely un-human and alien – instead of using speech to reason, or sight to make a direct approach to Parkins, it gropes with its muffled hands in a disorganized and primitive search for its quarry. Its blindness alone is a time-honored literary cue to suggest a deeper level of understanding: blind men in classic literature often have sublimated their lost sight, giving them an almost paranormal ability to “see” unseen things and sense the true dimensions of the universe, fate, and reality. On the other hand, its reliance of touch makes it seem simultaneously of human intelligence (animals do not tend to use touch so much as smell to track prey), and of degraded, stunted human intelligence.
Touch is largely considered the crudest, least civilized, and least nuanced sense: smell and taste are used in experiencing fine dining, perfume, and wine tasting; hearing is used for music, drama, and oratory; and vision for the fine arts, fashion, and architecture; but touch seems to be almost entirely related to sensual exploration. Especially in a repressed, Victorian society where touch is not typically used to express affection platonically between loving friends and family members, the sense of touch could take on a tremendously carnal and disturbing association. Particularly when paired with the intimate setting of the bedroom and given Parkins’ apparent anxiousness regarding his homosocial standing with male peers (he is trying, with little success, to improve his golf game in order to keep up with his social circle), and his embarrassment at the maids’ possible impression that he has been hosting a secret bedfellow, the climax has some of the most erotic subtext of any James story. The title, too – from a poem about lovers who must secretly meet when their disapproving community is not watching – adds a uniquely saucy element to the overall story about a man summoning a secret bedfellow with a whistle.
We can choose to accept or reject a homoerotic reading of this story, depending on our preferences, but it cannot be argued that Parkins has learned something profound about himself and the company that he keeps: regardless of whether or not he is accompanied by a ghost, going forward, he now knows that the spaces (social, spiritual, intellectual, or – in the case of the bed – physical) which he allows to remain unoccupied can easily be taken over by an uninvited usurper. He realizes that the universe (and his psyche, by extension) is pregnant with these sorts of lurking Followers – unwanted invaders sent to contradict human narratives of order and control – and the best defense against them is to keep good company and open oneself up to the support and influence of friends who are willing to walk with one through life’s dark moments.