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.
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.