October 26, 2023

#08-352: "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad"

"It leapt towards him upon the instant..." (Wikipedia)

Note: I have long considered this to be one of the scariest stories I know; it plays on the conventional idea of a ghost looking like a person under a sheet.

Get Ready: If you wanted to dress up as a ghost, how would you do it?

The "Master of Antiquarian Ghost Stories," Montague Rhodes ("M. R.") James was a medieval scholar at Cambridge College. He drew on his knowledge of medieval culture and its artifacts to create over 30 ghost stories (in addition to numerous academic works). Most of his stories involve a rather ordinary person who comes into contact with a mysterious object--and a supernatural encounter follows. This style has been called "Jamesian" after him.

The title of "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" comes from a love poem by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, but love is hardly the theme of this story!

In this 1904 story, a professor named Parkins is having dinner with his colleagues--presumably at Cambridge--the night before a school holiday begins. When he says he's going to Burnstowe (a fictional town), another professor, named Disney, asks him a favor: Would he examine the ruins of an old monastery and see if it's worth a more formal expedition?

Parkins agrees to give it a try. After a day of golfing with a new acquaintance--Colonel Wilson--he explores the beach at sundown and literally stumbles on the ruins. While digging around, he finds a small metal tube, around two inches (five centimeters) long, and takes it back to his hotel room. On his way back, now in near-darkness, he thinks he sees a figure following him down the beach, but it can't seem to catch up with him.

After dinner with the Colonel, Parkins returns to his room and turns his attention to the object he found. After he cleans it up he realizes it's a whistle, with two inscriptions. One--never translated in the story, but left as a puzzle--seems to say, "Thief, [if] you shall blow, you shall weep." The other clearly says in Latin, "Who is this who is coming?"

Despite the ominous tone of the inscriptions, he gives the whistle a blow, and it immediately evokes pictures in his mind. So he blows again. This time there are no pictures, but a furious wind blows open the window of his room, and he struggles to close it again.

Now, Parkins had complained to his colleagues the night before his trip that his room had a spare bed. (Why this should bother him is never made clear.) But after his window was blown open, he fancies he hears a rustling sound coming from that bed. When at last he falls asleep, he dreams of being chased down the beach by a figure he never sees clearly: "a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined."

In the morning, the maid tells him that the extra bed in his room appears to have been slept in. Parkins cannot account for this.

After another day's golf, Parkins and the Colonel are returning to the hotel when a crying local boy tells them he saw a mysterious figure in white waving at him from the window of the professor's room. The two men check it out, but find nothing amiss. When Parkins shows the Colonel the whistle, he says if it were his, he'd throw it into the sea.

That night, after Parkins falls asleep, he wakes to hear the rustling in the spare bed again. As he ponders what to do, something suddenly sits up in the bed! He leaps to the window to fetch a stick, but the creature places itself between him and the door. After it sniffs and feels his bed to see if he's there--it seems to be blind--he sees its face in the moonlight, "an intensely horrible face of crumpled linen"! It approaches him, and he is leaning halfway out the window--backwards--when the Colonel breaks in and the creature collapses in a pile of sheets. The next morning, the Colonel hurls the whistle into the sea, and the sheets are burned behind the hotel.

There is speculation that the creature's only power was to frighten. That is, if Parkins had fallen from the window, it would have been because he recoiled from the creature, not because it pushed him.

Anyway, the Professor now seems slightly more open to things supernatural, and is a bit jumpy around billowy white clothing, and scarecrows.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

  1. amiss
  2. antiquarian
  3. fancies
  4. hurls
  5. lad
  6. linen
  7. ominous
  8. ponders
  9. spare
  10. weep
  1. a person who studies old things
  2. out of place
  3. a fine cloth
  4. cry
  5. imagines
  6. a boy
  7. threatening
  8. extra
  9. thinks about
  10. throws hard

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for October 26, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. a; 3. e; 4. j; 5. f; 6. c; 7. g; 8. i; 9. h; 10. d