In which a vacationing college professor happens to find the wrong whistle.
By M. R. James
First published in 1904
Anthologized in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
The world that M. R. James shows us is one that’s in precarious balance, a place in which terrible psychic forces can be unleashed with ease. Reading a deceased churchman’s scrapbook, becoming a bit too curious about the room numbering scheme in a Danish hotel, or surveying an apparently-empty landscape with binoculars from the top of a hill — all of these (and more) are enough to bring you to the attention of malign incorporeal forces.
As odd as this is to say about a Cambridge don of the Edwardian era, James seems to have had an instinctual understanding of feng shui. Certainly a very similar idea seems to run throughout most of his work. In feng shui, however, spiritual imbalances usually have subtle effects; in James, they manifest themselves quickly, and with great force.
“‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad'” is without doubt James’s most famous story, and one of the most frequently-anthologized pieces of supernatural fiction in the world. It also contains all of the standard elements that James used throughout his writings:
- The main character is an academic, a scholar in one of the humanities.
(In “‘Oh, Whistle,'” Parkins is introduced as a “Professor of Ontography;” what “ontography” means is a matter of some debate, but it sounds like a branch of philosophy to me.)
- He (it is always a man) is either on holiday somewhere unfamiliar or doing research in an out-of-the-way place.
(Parkins is on a golfing trip by himself, but he’s also helping out a colleague by investigating the ruins of a Templar preceptory. Of course, you know that even dead, those Templars are up to no good.)
- The main character does something apparently innocent that unleashes some form of psychic malignity.
This last occurs when Parkins retrieves an ancient whistle from the container where it has been sealed in for centuries. The scene in which he investigates what he’s found is a classic in the genre:
“It was of bronze, he now saw, and was shaped very much after the manner of the modern dog-whistle; in fact it was – yes, certainly it was – actually no more nor less than a whistle. He put it to his lips, but it was quite full of a fine, caked-up sand or earth, which would not yield to knocking, but must be loosened with a knife. Tidy as ever in his habits. Parkins cleared out the earth on to a piece of paper, and took the latter to the window to empty it out. The night was clear and bright, as he saw when he had opened the casement, and he stopped for an instant to look at the sea and note a belated wanderer stationed on the shore in front of the inn. Then he shut the window, a little surprised at the late hours people kept at Burnstow, and took his whistle to the light again. Why, surely there were marks on it, and not merely marks, but letters! A very little rubbing rendered the deeply-cut inscription quite legible, but the Professor had to confess, after some earnest thought, that the meaning of it was as obscure to him as the writing on the wall to Belshazzar. There were legends both on the front and on the back of the whistle. The one read thus:
QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT
‘I ought to be able to make it out,’ he thought; ‘but I suppose I am a little rusty in my Latin. When I come to think of it, I don’t believe I even know the word for a whistle. The long one does seem simple enough. It ought to mean, “Who is this who is coming?” Well, the best way to find out is evidently to whistle for him.'”
“Who is this who is coming? has become one of the most famous quotes in supernatural literature, but the first of the two inscriptions hasn’t received the same amount of attention, possibly because it’s too cryptic. According to the M. R. James scholar Michael Cox, it could be parsed as “Fur, Flabis, Flebis,” meaning “O thief, you will blow [it], you will weep.” This is surely too much of a coincidence to be accidental.
In rereading “‘Oh, Whistle'” after a gap of at least twenty years, I was also stuck by its satirical tone, which I had never picked up on before. While not losing any of its ability to scare, this story manages to skewer (albeit mildly) smug positivists:
“‘Well,’ Parkins said, ‘as you have mentioned the matter, I freely own that I do not like careless talk about what you call ghosts. A man in my position,’ he went on, raising his voice a little, ‘cannot, I find, be too careful about appearing to sanction the current beliefs on such subjects. As you know, Rogers, or as you ought to know; for I think I have never concealed my views—’
‘No, you certainly have not, old man,’ put in Rogers sotto voce.
‘—I hold that any semblance, any appearance of concession to the view that such things might exist is equivalent to a renunciation of all that I hold most sacred. But I’m afraid I have not succeeded in securing your attention.'”
And religious bigots (in the form of Parkins’s golf partner, the Colonel):
“And then Parkins narrated the manner of his discovery of the whistle, upon hearing which the Colonel grunted, and opined that, in Parkins’s place, he should himself be careful about using a thing that had belonged to a set of Papists, of whom, speaking generally, it might be affirmed that you never knew what they might not have been up to.”
What’s fascinating to watch is how James manages to be breezy and ominous at the same time. There are passages in “‘Oh, Whistle'” where we seem to transition from a P. G. Wodehouse piece to something by Algernon Blackwood, all in the space of a few paragraphs. It’s a tour de force.
I’m happy to report that all of James’s fiction is online, and available from multiple sources. For completeness, perhaps the best of these is the James tribute site at thin-ghost.org.
Finally, I want to mention where James got his title from. It’s taken from a 1793 Robert Burns poem, about a couple carrying on an illicit affair. This has no direct bearing on James’s story, but the refrain of the poem is appropriately sinister:
“O Whistle, an’ I’ll come to ye, my lad,
O whistle, an’ I’ll come to ye, my lad,
Tho’ father an’ mother an’ a’ should gae mad,
O whistle, an’ I’ll come to ye, my lad. “