Spooktober, Day 3: “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” by M R James

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Ever since I was little, I’ve suffered from night terrors.

I have no idea why, but now and then I’ll wake up screaming in the middle of the night, filled with fear that sends me sprinting for the light switch to banish the unseen monster that I could have sworn I saw just a moment ago. For the most part, it’s an embarrassing foible that I have to explain to anyone else sleeping in the same room, just in case. I’ve noticed that the problem has been ameliorated now I’ve placed my teddy bear on guard duty over my bed, to keep a vigilant eye out for the nightmares.

It’s easy to scoff at the things that go bump in the night in the middle of the day, but it’s much harder to shake when your brain is half asleep. And that’s why “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M R James hits so close to home

The ghost stories of M R James follow a pretty standard pattern: a curious scholar pokes their nose where they don’t belong, and has an uncomfortably close encounter with some gribbly and unexplained horror. There’s physicality to his stories, a sense that the supernatural has a real presence, and all you have to do is reach out a little too far to wake it up…

“Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” aside from having one of the most awkward titles imaginable, is a good example of James’ style. It tells the story of Parkins, a sceptical academic who visits the seaside and stumbles across a whistle covered in Latin inscriptions (always a good sign) and then dreams of a sinister presence following him. At the story’s climax, Parkins turns to see that his bedding has turned against him, animated by a malevolent force that all his scholarly reason cannot explain.

My experience with night terrors gives me some insight into Parkins’ situation. I can understand the conflict going on in Parkins’ mind, between his rational desire to explain away the visitation and the evidence of his eyes because I’ve felt the same way. I’ve felt the immense feeling of dread that wakes me up in the middle of the night and sends me darting to the door. And while still caught in the grip of REM sleep it’s easy for a half-dozing brain to pick out patterns in the darkness, shapes and faces. I’ve seen the faces of ghosts in shirts hanging from the cupboard, in the way a red electric light shimmers on the wall. The sleeping brain plays tricks on you, looks for patterns around you as it searches for threats around it.

Sleep well…

Read “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” by M R James here. You can watch the 2010 BBC adaptation starring the late John Hurt here.

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Read “The Black Oracle” now at Inside the Bell Jar

(Trigger warning for discussion of depression)

The second issue of Inside the Bell Jar has been released, and it features my flash-fiction piece, “The Black Oracle“!

I honestly never thought I’d do much with this piece. I wrote it into my journal after a particularly difficult day, mostly for my own benefit to work through how I was feeling. I didn’t think much of it until Vic shared the call for submissions on the subject of mental health.

In the story I tried to personify that voice in my head that tells me I’m going to fail, that always seems to know the future. Depression is an ugly thing, but part of the reason that it works is due to how it presents itself as fair and reasonable, like it’s got out best interests at heart. I suppose the lesson to take to heart is to remind myself that the Black Oracle is not my friend, and it’s certainly not as infallible as it thinks it is.

I honestly couldn’t more thrilled to be featured in the new issue. It’s still a little strange seeing my own work on a website that I didn’t copy-paste myself, complete with a bio and a headshot! And I really love the photo they chose to go with it: lonely and oppressive, yet ambiguous enough to be the Oracle itself.

Anyway, if you liked the story (or appreciated it, at any rate), please feel free to leave a comment and share it around. And please check out the other stuff that Inside the Bell Jar is putting out: they’re doing good work.

Fight or Flight

Yesterday I nearly broke.

The body can only hold so much fear before it snaps. I found myself wishing that yes, finally, I was having a full-on panic attack, that I would finally run screaming out of the room, or break down crying, or throw up, so that at least I would have an excuse to go home. I held on, as I always do—though whether through professionalism or masochism, I couldn’t say. I kept on breathing. Kept walking. Didn’t let them see me bleed.

In a way, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve gone this long, since a perverse part of me thinks that enduring pain makes me morally superior to those who dish it out.

When I got home I could barely stand. Barely think. That’s the scariest thing of all: the way I can feel parts of my brain—my greatest asset, the thing I’ve spent my entire life developing– shutting down, all non-essential functions closed to power the survival instinct. Memory, creativity, empathy, motivation: all cut off by the root need to run of fight.

Today I woke with a headache from nowhere: usually I might get a few a year, but these days it’s always there, like someone wrapped my brain in barbed wire. My energy had not returned. I made myself run—I hadn’t gone for a run for three weeks due to a pain in my ankle, but I had no choice: I could no longer stand the feel of cold adrenaline coagulating in my veins, and I had to burn it away. My cardio was shot to hell, and I only completed half my usual route, but I felt better. My ankle is still screaming it’s protest, but there it is: hurting my body because my mind has to heal.

I’m scared to go to sleep. Not because I’m afraid I won’t, but because tomorrow I have to do it all over again.