Tag Archives: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”

5 May

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.

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