Monday, October 23, 2006

"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"

On Saturday, I re-read what is possibly the greatest ghost story written by a man whom many consider to be the greatest writer of ghost stories: Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad by M.R. James (1862-1936). My attraction to it may, in part, lie in the fact that it provides one of those rare cases where my interest in classics and horror fiction intersect. The protagonist, a stereotypically skeptical academic, accidentally summons the malevolent spirit that plagues him, because he forgets the pejorative sense of the Latin demonstrative iste. That the story also manages to balance some very creepy and surreal scenes with sly humor (such as the irony of the title, which comes from a Robert Burns poem) also makes it particularly distinctive.

As S.T. Joshi points out in his introductions to the new Penguin editions of James’ stories, James’ Victorian predecessors, like Gaskell, Dickens, and Doyle (although his “Lot No. 249” may have had an influence on “Oh, Whistle”), mostly held to more traditional, passive conceptions of ghosts. James, however, made his spirits much more malevolent, sometimes even, in the case of “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book”, bestial and, in so doing, more effective. However, I would point out that some of J.S. LeFanu’s ghosts, like the judge in “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street”, are also quite aggressively evil. It should be noted that James actually edited a collection of LeFanu’s stories.

Though rather tame by contemporary standards of horror, James’ influence extends to the present day, and stories influenced by his work can easily be found in All Hallows: The Journal of the Ghost Story Society. In fact, while re-reading “Oh, Whistle”, I became aware of its likely influence on another one of the all-time great ghost stories—F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth”.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Thomas Lovell Beddoes


Old Adam, the carrion crow,
The old crow of Cairo;
He sat in the shower, and let it flow
Under his tail and over his crest;
And through every feather
Leaked the wet weather;
And the bough swung under his nest;
For his beak it was heavy with marrow.
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It’s only two devils, that blow
Through a murderer’s bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts’ moonshine.

Ho! Eve, my grey carrion wife,
When we have supped on kings’ marrow,
Where shall we drink and make merry our life?
Our nest it is queen Cleopatra’s skull,
’Tis cloven and cracked,
And battered and hacked,
But with tears of blue eyes it is full:
Let us drink then, my raven of Cairo.
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It’s only two devils, that blow
Through a murderer’s bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts’ moonshine.

Work and school have been placing increasing demands on my time, and the other day, I realized that I’m running the risk of completely neglecting one of my favorite times of the year. Luckily, Richard Geyer’s newly re-launched, Thomas Lovell Beddoes site, The Phantom Wooer, reminded me that Halloween is just around the corner.

Though Beddoes (1803-1849), referred to as “the most morbid poet in the English language,” wrote during the late Romantic period, the bulk of his output consists of poetic, Elizabethan/Jacobean style dramas in the manner of Webster and Tourneur. Consistent with such a style, these plays are sprinkled with many brilliant lyrics, such as the macabre poem above, which appears in Beddoes’ masterpiece, Death’s Jest Book (available at Geyer’s site). Though his lyrics are often anthologized apart from their respective plays, Ezra Pound (who refers to Beddoes as “prince of morticians” in Canto XXX) rightly warns in his essay, Beddoes and Chronology, that they are even more impressive when seen in context, and though it’s harder to anthologize, much of Beddoes best writing appears in his dramatic blank verse.

Though Beddoes is still a rather obscure poet, there is a society dedicated to him, which publishes an annual scholarly journal and is overseen by the poet’s distant relative John Lovell Beddoes.