Tag Archives: Hallowe’en

Whistle And I’ll Come To You

I thought Hallowe’en had come early last week, due to the ghastly media coverage of the mysterious disappearance of Renee Zellweger. The net and press were plastered with images and commentary. The words were downright vulgar and toxic, with one article featuring a microscopic facial autopsy of the plastic surgery supposedly undertaken. It seemed almost barbaric the way people critiqued this individual’s action. It led me to think that perhaps this Hallowe’en there is a new type of mask, that of celebrity.

It used to be the case that theatre held the mirror up to society, to highlight its hypocrisies, double standards and faults. Now it is apparent that the very representative of celebrity, the star him/herself is the mirror to society’s horrors. Essentially the contemporary world, with its fixation on the body and how we look, is the Dr. Frankenstein creating the fame monster. We are, it seems, one step away from the beauty enhancement explored in the dark comedy film, Death Becomes Her, although if Lucifer offered me the elixir of life in guise of Isabella Rossellini, I’d take it.

Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. JamesSo this Hallowe’en, there is no need to wear a zombie/demon/mask of horror, because the so-called ‘natural’ ones that people are choosing to don all year around – paying a surgeon to craft their ideal self – now, that is the real stuff of terror. However, being a traditionalist, on 31st October my choice to scare the bejeepers out of me will undoubtedly be to pick up a book, particularly the short story Whistle and I’ll Come to You by the master frightener, M. R. James.

He was a prolific academic who redefined the ghost story for the 20th Century by scrapping many of the formal gothic cliché’s of his literary predecessors and setting his tales in more realistic contemporary locations. ‘Whistle’ is set in Barnstow, a seaside town on the east coast of England. Published in 1904, this tale focuses on an introverted academic on a golfing holiday, who explores a Knights Templar cemetery on the East Anglian coast. He happens upon an object, a whistle with a mysterious engraving etched on it, Quis est iste qui venit (who is this, who is coming?). Blowing the whistle brings a windstorm and an unwelcome guest.

James is an enigmatic master of the supernatural story. He stated his ambition,

If any of [my stories] succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.

There is a fantastic black and white adaptation by Jonathan Miller.  Michael Horden plays the character with grimaces and mutterings. The whole ‘less is more’ approach to the drama creates a chill that strikes up the spinal cord.

James’ writing provides scares that do not just shock, but leave the reader with an aftertaste. Failing that, if his tales do not satisfy your horror fix, another suggestion would be to pick up a tabloid rag, like The National Enquirer and take a peep at the Celebrity Monsters gracing those pages. Fame, oh I would not wish it on my worst enemy!

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A Hallowe’en Tale: The Signalman by Charles Dickens

Vintage spooks from chilling tales, brought to you this All Hallows’ Eve by John Maguire

Halloa! Below there,

So begins Charles Dickens’ short tale of the supernatural, The Signalman.

A ghost story of quality should be simple and use language to create atmosphere, tension and generally – to coin a cliché – raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck. Dickens delivers with a chilling compact example of a classic ghost story; a shocking account of one man’s haunting amidst rails and tram noises.

The tale first appeared in the Christmas edition of the magazine All Year Round, in 1866. It is believed that the master wordsmith used personal experience from his direct involvement in the Staplehurst Rail Crash of 1865. After surviving the tragedy, he nursed other victims, some of whom passed away whilst he was with them. Dickens suffered what would now be known as post-traumatic stress syndrome, losing his voice for two weeks.

staplehurst

From that day onwards he sought other means of transport when travelling. In a letter to an old school friend Thomas Mitton, he conveyed his feelings.

I am a little shaken, not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, But by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and the dead which was most horrible.

The celebrated author even risked his life after the derailment to clamber back into the carriage to retrieve his working manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. Some say he never got over this tragedy and five years after the crash, he died on the anniversary of the day it had occurred, 9th June 1870.

The location of a railway line for a ghost story is quite unsettling. Places that are usually bustling and busy when completely still and empty can convey an unnameable terror; think of an open plan office after hours, a desolate 24 hour supermarket with its lonely aisles, or a completely empty swimming pool. Dickens cleverly taps into the public collected subconscious, the unnerving attitude to the transitional times of industrialisation. (Rail travel was relatively new in Victorian England). He also very cleverly preys on one of humankind’s universal traits, that of curiosity.

the signal man

The story unfolds through the eyes of the narrator and the Signalman is never given a name, which creates a cold distance from the onset. He had fixed eyes and a saturnine face. The reader shares with the narrator’s bewilderment at the strange behaviour of the signalman.

The monstrous thought came into my mind….that this was a spirit not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.

The troubled signalman keeps staring at a bell that only he can hear ring, this everyday object is used as a menacing instrument to scare.

There is a celebrated TV adaptation of the piece by Andrew Davies, first broadcast in 1976. This seminal work stands alongside the 1968 adaptation of M.R James’ Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad, both outstanding examples of the less is more school of horror. (The latter was re-made in 2010 with distinguished actor John Hurt playing the protagonist).

Charles Dickens and M.R James recognise that ghost stories work at their best when the reader is taken on a journey, questions and has to fill in the blanks with their imagination. It is not necessarily what is said, but what is not, the unknown that gives that all important shiver factor. You know a story has worked when you quicken the speed when passing an open door to a darkened room in your familiar home, you awake and rapidly seek the light switch and when bedroom objects take on a monstrous guise, a simple coat and hat stand can appear as a hooded shadowy figure.

So this Hallowe’en, read by candlelight either alone or out loud to friends and family, a simple ghost story. This will indeed, I promise be more of a fearful experience than sitting down to watch SAW 14 or another similar gore fest.

Good night and sleep tight!

the signal man 2

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