This Hallowe’en, there is no need to wear a zombie, demon or mask of horror, because the so-called ‘natural’ ones that people are choosing to don all year around – paying a surgeon to craft their ideal self – now, those are the real stuff of terror. However, being a traditionalist, on 31 October my choice to scare the bejeepers out of me will undoubtedly be to pick up a book, particularly one containing the short story: Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad by the master frightener, M. R. James.
He was a prolific academic who redefined the ghost story for the 20th Century by scrapping many of the formal Gothic clichés of his literary predecessors and setting his tales in more realistic contemporary locations. ‘Whistle’ is set in Barnstow, a seaside town on the east coast of England. Published in 1904, this tale focuses on an introverted academic on a golfing holiday, who explores a Knights Templar cemetery on the East Anglian coast. He happens upon an object, a whistle with a mysterious engraving etched on it, Quis est iste qui venit (who is this, who is coming?) Blowing the whistle brings a windstorm and an unwelcome guest.
James is an enigmatic master of the supernatural story. He stated his ambition:
If any of [my stories] succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.
There is a fantastic black and white adaptation of the tale by Jonathan Miller, Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Michael Horden plays the character with grimaces and mutterings. The ‘less is more’ approach to the drama creates a chill that strikes up the spinal cord.
James’ writing provides scares that do not just shock, but leave the reader with an aftertaste. Failing that, if his tales do not satisfy your horror fix, another suggestion would be to pick up a tabloid rag, like the National Enquirer and take a peep at the Celebrity Monsters gracing those pages.
Fame! Oh, I would not wish it on my worst enemy…