On Saturday, I re-read what is possibly the greatest ghost story written by a man whom many consider to be the greatest writer of ghost stories: “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad” by M.R. James (1862-1936). My attraction to it may, in part, lie in the fact that it provides one of those rare cases where my interest in classics and horror fiction intersect. The protagonist, a stereotypically skeptical academic, accidentally summons the malevolent spirit that plagues him, because he forgets the pejorative sense of the Latin demonstrative iste. That the story also manages to balance some very creepy and surreal scenes with sly humor (such as the irony of the title, which comes from a Robert Burns poem) also makes it particularly distinctive.
As S.T. Joshi points out in his introductions to the new Penguin editions of James’ stories, James’ Victorian predecessors, like Gaskell, Dickens, and Doyle (although his “Lot No. 249” may have had an influence on “Oh, Whistle”), mostly held to more traditional, passive conceptions of ghosts. James, however, made his spirits much more malevolent, sometimes even, in the case of “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book”, bestial and, in so doing, more effective. However, I would point out that some of J.S. LeFanu’s ghosts, like the judge in “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street”, are also quite aggressively evil. It should be noted that James actually edited a collection of LeFanu’s stories.
Though rather tame by contemporary standards of horror, James’ influence extends to the present day, and stories influenced by his work can easily be found in All Hallows: The Journal of the Ghost Story Society. In fact, while re-reading “Oh, Whistle”, I became aware of its likely influence on another one of the all-time great ghost stories—F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth”.