Introduction to M. R. James's "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"
By Brit Mandelo
29 October 2012
With Halloween coming up in two days, we in the fiction department decided to use this week's reprint to offer a classic scary story: M. R. James's "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." Originally published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), the first of James's short story collections, this piece is perhaps his most famous—at least it's the one that most folks seem to associate with his name.
As for M. R. James more generally, beginning with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, he is said to have redefined the scope and focus of the ghost story by including then-contemporary settings and abandoning many gothic tropes. Somewhat obviously from the titles of his books, he's also credited with the development of the "antiquarian ghost story." His day-job as a medieval scholar and his own research interests certainly played a part in the development of his style—his stories tended to feature scholars as protagonists and ghosts connected to relics of antiquary or similarly ancient, eldritch objects. Audiences have enjoyed this style for over a century, now, so he must have been doing something right. (For more on James, there's a fairly in-depth entry on Wikipedia. The curious may went to read up on his theories of what made a good ghost story.)
"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" isn't just his most-known work, it's also an excellent example of the Jamesian ghost story, and it made quite an impression on me on first reading. But, I'm hardly the only one. In the introduction to her collection of Kyle Murchison Booth stories, The Bone Key, Sarah Monette notes that M. R. James provided much of the inspiration for the story cycle's style. I suspect that for fans of the Booth stories who haven't yet encountered James, this will be a pleasant experience—as well as for any readers who like atmospheric, carefully constructed scary stories.
So, happy Halloween, and we hope you enjoy this spooky offering.