M R James, grand master of the ghost story genre, wrote around two dozen short tales. However, of them all, perhaps none are more famous, anthologized or distinctive than “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. This story, first published in the collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was apparently written in 1903; at any rate, it was read at one of the celebrated informal meetings of the ‘Chitchat club’ at King’s College, Cambridge in that year. The odd title derives from the first line of an untitled song (1793) by Robert Burns and the story contains perhaps the most distinctive ‘ghost’ in James’ entire corpus, which may have been derived from a nightmare. In the late and apparently autobiographical tale A Vignette, James writes of a creature he has seen in a dream:
“It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.”
This iconic image has, ever since the publication of Whistle, accounted for the archetypal ‘ghost’ that springs to mind whenever the word is mentioned – a human form draped entirely in white linen. Interestingly, a similar entity is featured in James’ other tale The Uncommon Prayer-Book, which speaks of a role of white flannel that “had a kind of a face in the upper end of it”. The recurrence of such a uniquely envisaged spectre in James’ stories naturally leads one to wonder whether it was inspired by a real incident that occurred in the great man’s life.
In Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (click to read!) a man digs up a bronze whistle in a possible Templar preceptory near Burnstow, a fictionalised version of the town of Felixstowe in Suffolk. The whistle has two phrases inscribed on it in Latin: FUR | FLABIS | FLEBIS (“Thief, you will blow [it], you will weep”) and QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT (an adaptation of Isaiah 63:I – “Who is this that cometh from Edom?”). The blowing of the whistle in ignorance of these dire Latin warnings has unexpected (and rather unpleasant) consequences. Despite the story’s being set (in keeping with much of James’ short fiction) in East Anglia, in recent years the theory has been put forward that it was in fact based on James’ familiarity with the Hereford region. Although James was the son of a clergyman, brought up in the parish of Livermere in Suffolk, who came to spend much of the rest of his life in Cambridge, there is ample evidence of a connection between James and Herefordshire. He once mentioned that the fictional cathedral in his short story The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral was partly based on the real one in Hereford. Herefordshire was also the imagined setting for one of his later tales, A View from a Hill. As far as Whistle is concerned, the inspiration for the story may well have come from a particular part of Hereforshire, Garway, a place with all sorts of mysterious and sinister connotations.
There has always been a certain amount of speculation about James’ sexuality – he may have been asexual or a non-active homosexual. At any rate there is no evidence that he ever had a sexual relationship with anyone of either gender. He never married but he did have a close (though presumed platonic) female friend called Gwendolyn McBryde, who was the widow of his good friend James McBryde, a talented artist who illustrated some of James’ early stories. Gwen was pregnant when McBryde died, very young, and gave birth to a daughter. Mother and daughter moved to Herefordshire, where they were visited by James on a fairly regular basis. As a result of these visits, James came to find the Herefordshire countryside much to his taste (he was very fond of old churches, of which the area had no shortage). After James’ death, Gwen published a collection of his letters, in one of which he recalls a particular visit to Garway in 1917. Intriguingly, James appears to have had what he describes as “a peculiar experience” at Garway, the nature of which is left tantalizingly unclear. Either something faintly curious happened there, which James’ serpentine imagination inflated into something disturbing, or something seriously disturbing happened which James deliberately downplayed. Unfortunately, the truth will probably now never be known.
Even leaving aside James’ strange experience there, the mysteries of Garway are many. There was a Templar preceptory there at one point and there remains a dovecote on Garway Hill which has 666 chambers (no one knows why, although there has to be a reason). There is also a church in Garway which is full of its own enigmas (James himself once warned of the danger of causing offence at Garway, although to whom is another intriguing mystery). Some of the area’s many Jamesian and Templar-related secrets are explored in fiction in Phil Rickman’s The Fabric of Sin. As for Whistle, it has been adapted and broadcast at Christmas by the BBC not once but twice. The most recent version, pointlessly re-named Whistle and I’ll Come to You and updated to a modern setting, in 2010 is risible. The classic 1968 version is far superior in every way. Atmospheric, well-acted and, above all, terrifying – it remains every bit as unnerving when watched today as it was when it was first broadcast. Definitely not one to watch on your own!