Ghosts and M. R. James

8 10 2010

[written by writer, T. A. Moore]

 

The man in question

 

The thing about ghosts is that they are scary. 

Obviously, you say. They are ghosts. 

Ghosts, however, are scarier than any monster in the traditional folklore rulebook. This might be a bit of a bold claim but I stand by it, because there is no recourse with a ghost. Terrifying as the idea of vampires and werewolves are, there are remedies: a stake to the heart, a silver bullet, a big serving of garlic bread before bed.What options do you have with a ghost, something that might have no form but be just an accusing whisper in the dark? 

Nothing, is the answer, and that is what M. R. James understood. The most terrifying element of any ghost story was the helplessness of the POV character in the face of an unexplainable intrusion into his mundane reality. 

I was 14 when I read M. R. James for the first time. It scared the blue bejeezus out of me and I spent a week scared to close the curtains. I was scared to leave them open too, mind you, but I didn’t like the idea of something skittering around out there that I couldn’t see. Before writing this article I hunted out one of the copies I’ve not pressed onto friends and reread a few of my favourites. 

Luckily I can get by on very little sleep. 

M. R. James’ speciality was the inexplicable. His ghosts were intrinsically alien, horrible shadows driven by lost memories and the echo of spite. What they want is not just beyond the haunted’s ability to provide, but beyond their ability to comprehend. Some, like the horror in Mezzotint might have an understandable reason for rising from the grave but why do they linger? Why does some poor, unassuming scholar see them creeping, thin-legged and repellent as an insect, across an etching years after their revenge was accomplished? 

The canon of M. R. James work is too extensive to review in detail here. So I will instead talk about the one that lingers, inexplicable as James’ ghosts, in my brain. It is possibly the most horrifying story I have ever read. The one that wakes me in the night with a shiver and the details of which I recall even though years passed between my first reading and the second. 

Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad is a story that imbues the flap of a clothes line with terror. James once said that a story must “…put the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'” He, at least for this reader, succeeded in this story. The protagonist is a mild-mannered, inoffensive academic guilty of nothing more than curiosity. Yet the idle blast on an old bronze whistle brought an insensate, unappeasable *thing* into his life. 

It is a thing of sheets and folds and linen that gropes blindly after the man who unwittingly summoned it. There is no sense of purpose in the thing, no reason for its dogged pursuit, and when it is tackled by a convenient army man it crumbles away into nothing. And somehow that moment is more horrible than anything else in the story. The idea of this shell of cloth that was full of….what? What had filled that horrible shape that near drove an innocent man to madness from simply beholding its ‘hideously crumpled face’? His own breath, stolen from the whistle, some revenant or old god called up to reclaim the whistle it had once owned? What had the whistle’s original purpose been? 

There’s no answer. In M. R. James’ world a monster can build itself from the sheets on your bed and stalk you for no reason that a sane, living mind can comprehend. 

That is why ghosts are terrifying.
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One response

23 10 2010
nkkingston

The BBC adaptation of ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ is one of the creepiest films I’ve ever seen. Though know precisely how to use ambient noise. The rustle of a sheet moving on its own far outranks even the creepiest scoring.

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