Wednesday, October 17, 2012

And a-heaving and a-heaving with what? - two M. R. James stories

Today’s ghost stories are both by M. R. James, “’Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” (1904) and “Rats” (1929) (the latter is likely not public domain in the United States, so do not click if you fear the copyright haunts).

“’Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” begins as a comedy in voice, tone, and subject (a Professor of Ontography goes on a golf holiday).  A character on the first page gets a line but no description otherwise “since he merely appears in this prologue.”  His golfing partner has a bad day and “assumed a colouring so lurid that even Parkins jibbed at the thought of walking home with him from the links.”  Ah, here is my favorite joke:

“But it's your drive” (or whatever it might have been: the golfing reader will have to imagine appropriate digressions at the proper intervals).

More writers should have the confidence to adopt this device.  Why should they do all the heavy lifting?

No, I am wrong, that is only my favorite joke-as-such, but the great conceptual joke of the story is that the ghost of the story turns out to be – I suppose sensitive readers should not read further – in fact, they should disconnect from the internet – you know, just go ahead and turn off your computer for a few hours – the ghost turns out to be evil ambulatory bedclothes (italics mine):

Parkins, who very much dislikes being questioned about it, did once describe something of it in my hearing, and I gathered that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen.  What expression he read upon it he could not or would not tell, but that the fear of it went nigh to maddening him is certain.

Italics his.  In other words, the supernatural creature is wearing a sheet as his ghost costume.  Is the form already decadent by 1904, succumbing to the rarefied pleasures of meta-fiction and parody?  From me, this is not a complaint.

The first sentence of “Rats” features the link to “Oh Whistle”:

'And if you was to walk through the bedrooms now, you'd see the ragged, mouldy bedclothes a-heaving and a-heaving like seas.  And a-heaving and a-heaving with what?' he says.  ‘Why, with the rats under 'em.'

This marvelous and insane bit of dialogue supplies the title and inspires the narrator to tell an entirely different story that, he specifies, has no rats in it at all, but does involve heaving bedclothes.  Neither the rats nor the coot who delights in them are ever explained or even mentioned again.

Instead, there is an old inn and a locked room and a lodger too curious for his own good.  “Rats” is short and punchy, so there is hardly room for the ghost, but when it appears it is efficient enough.  James’s descriptions of its movement are especially nice.  The matter of factness of the innkeeper at the end of the story is amusing: he leaves the ghost alone, it leaves him alone.  A sensible man.

I have come up with a new way to categorize ghost stories.  There are the characters who deny the ghost, who resist it, and those who accept its rules or existence.  Gaskell’s nurse is not even superstitious: she simply observes the spirits, learns their rules, and does her duty.  The nitwit in “Rats” and the skeptic in “Oh Whistle” nearly gets themselves killed because they do not believe their own senses.


  1. A gamble, I happened to read just last night "Oh Whistle" and also noted that wonderful line leaving it up to golf fans to fill in the necessary details - one of the niftiest things I've ever found in a short story (if I were a fiction writer and had to write about golf, I wouldn't have had the patience either).

    I like your new means of categorizing ghost stories. It puts The Ghost and Mrs. Muir starkly at the far right end of the spectrum.

  2. 'the ghost turns out to be evil ambulatory bedclothes
    ... a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen.'

    Does this reflect a change in language, perhaps? I think in James's day many people would have associated a 'face of crumpled linen' with a mummy or a corpse in a shroud.

    Jonathan Miller did a T.V. adaptation of "Oh Whistle" which interpreted the ghost as a symbol of repressed homosexuality or masturbation or both.

  3. Oh sure, long close ups of the Professor blowing the whistle. I understand the challenge - the story has to be about something, right?

    Although I am pretty sure "Professor of Ontography" is a more significant clue.

    You are right that the linen ghost may suggest a shroud. In the story, the ghost is not himself made of a sheet but merely wears it. The 'orror is whatever is under the sheet. Same with "Rats," actually. It's moving, it's moving!

    I guess I have not seen The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Good cast!

  4. I was going to say an irreverent thing about golf being enough of symbol but... oh never mind.

    Another thing I liked about this story was the sort of mix-and-match academics in it. He's a Professor of Ontography (which I suppose gives him a certain interdisciplinarity), but then goes off amateur sleuthing among the ruins at the behest of an archeologist - and rather clumsily too. The other James story I read, "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," also features an academic with a side interest, in cathedrals this time, and who also wanders off with a precious relic, one with onotological (even ontologigraphical?) qualities as well as an accompanying curse. To reduce looting, they should teach M. R. James in archeology courses.

  5. Yes, that was amusing, that the Professor was such a bad - totally irresponsible - archaeologist. How curious that you immediately encountered the identical device. James seems maybe just a little bit narrow.