I really fell in love with the ghost stories of M. R. James while lurking in a sentry box, dressed as a Victorian serial killer (they wore top hats apparently), ready to jump out on unsuspecting tourists with an exclamation of “tickets please!”
Let me explain.
I worked weekends at The London Dungeon to help pay my way through college in the early 90s. To pass the time during each shift i sometimes listened to audiobooks, sneakily hiding my headphones beneath my costume. These were the days of books-on-tape, or cassettes (which, to explain to younger readers, were like mp3 files stretched across two reels of dental tape and listened to via an iPod device the size of a house brick). One of the audiobooks was a collection of M. R. James tales read by Michael Hordern. I had read a couple of James’ classics and knew i was in for a flesh-creeping time – and then i heard “The Ash Tree”. By the gods my heart nearly stopped in my chest at that one and for once it was me who got a fright when the tourists came asking for directions.
I then discovered the telly adaptations of some of James’ tales, presented by the BBC each Christmas. The tradition continued into the new millenium with a series of Christopher Lee-narrated adaptations, which i enjoyed during Christmas hols in the wilds of Ireland. And of course just last month, Mark Gatiss made his directorial debut with his fun, Hammer-esque M. R. James adaptation “The Tractate Middoth”.
But the one that got to me the most was “Whistle…” And to my delight, Father Christmas (or perhaps his pal Krampus) left a copy of the BFI’s double bill dvd “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” under the tree for me this year. The disc includes both the 1968 and 2010 versions, plus extras featuring contemporary master of the macabre, Ramsey Campbell. I’ve seen both versions before of course – and both are beloved to me in different ways. I think one exploits shaky denial in the face of fear and the other channels total, harrowing despair. If you haven’t seen them, do seek them out. But (ahem) a warning to the curious… both are utterly disturbing in the true spirit of James’ original short story “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad” (also included in audio form as a nice bonus on the dvd – now all i need is a draughty sentry box. The garden shed will have to do).
Here’s to the traditional festive ghost story – long may they continue to scratch at our windowpanes, rattle our doors.
And tangle with our bedsheets.