Monday, May 24, 2010


An undoubted master of the weird tale, Montague Rhodes James (1862 - 1936) produced some of the finest macabre fiction of the early 20th century. Stories like Casting the Runes (later filmed as the magnificent Night of the Demon by Jacques Tournier in 1957), O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (the Jonathan Miller helmed version of which filmed for the BBC in 1968 has the most frightening ghost never seen on television) or Canon Alberic's Scrapbook, are masterclasses in mood and atmosphere, existing in that shadowy region where the known meets the unknown and the natural and supernatural rub shoulders.

In addition, though, M.R James had a wickedly funny sense of humour which he sometimes used to great effect, particular in the 1927 short story Wailing Well. The story of two schoolboys – Arthur Wilcox and Stanley Judkins – Wailing Well tells a portion of their respective careers, one which ends in ‘giddy eminence’ and another which ends in pure terror.

Arthur Wilcox, who provides the initial lead in to the story, is a high achiever, an athlete, scholar and boy scout of exemplary pedigree and bearing who’s only failing is that he pushes himself too hard, leading to something of a minor breakdown which takes him out of the story. Stanley Judkins, on the other hand, is his polar opposite in everything but physical appearance, slovenly, ink-stained and generally rebellious.

When a boy scout outing leads the school’s troop close to the infamous wailing well ‘in the beautiful district of W (or X) in the county of D (or Y)’ Stanley becomes determined to investigate this strange place despite being told that it is an evil place haunted by murderous spirits, three women and a man:

"I've seen 'em, young gentleman!" said the shepherd, "seen 'em from near by on that bit of down: and my old dog, if he could speak, he'd tell you he've seen 'em, same time. About four o'clock of the day it was, much such a day as this. I see 'em, each one of 'em, come peerin' out of the bushes and stand up, and work their way slow by them tracks towards the trees in the middle where the well is."

"And what were they like? Do tell us!" said Algernon and Wilfred eagerly.

"Rags and bones, young gentlemen: all four of 'em: flutterin' rags and whity bones. It seemed to me as if I could hear 'em clackin' as they got along. Very slow they went, and lookin' from side to side."

"What were their faces like? Could you see?"

"They hadn't much to call faces," said the shepherd, "but I could seem to see as they had teeth."

And it is here that the story takes a shift from light-hearted school tale (very much in an Anthony Buckeridge style) into something much more sinister, for when Judkins approaches the wailing well, something terrible is waiting for him.

At this moment Algernon, who had been staring with all his might, broke into a scream.

"What's that on the track? On all fours — O, it's the woman. O, don't let me look at her! Don't let it happen!" And he rolled over, clutching at the grass and trying to bury his head in it.

With inevitable and nicely restrained horror, M.R James paints a picture of a supernatural murder made all the more horrible for the light touch with which he has previously used.

“a cry was heard more piercing and dreadful than any that the boys on the hill could raise. It was too late. The crouched figure behind Stanley sprang at him and caught him about the waist. The dreadful one that was standing waving her arms waved them again, but in exultation. The one that was lurking among the trees shuffled forward, and she too stretched out her arms as if to clutch at something coming her way; and the other, farthest off, quickened her pace and came on, nodding gleefully. The boys took it all in in an instant of terrible silence, and hardly could they breathe as they watched the horrid struggle between the man and his victim. Stanley struck with his can, the only weapon he had. The rim of a broken black hat fell off the creature's head and showed a white skull with stains that might be wisps of hair. By this time one of the women had reached the pair, and was pulling at the rope that was coiled about Stanley's neck. Between them they overpowered him in a moment: the awful screaming ceased, and then the three passed within the circle of the clump of firs.”

All too often, the great ghost and horror stories of the Victorian and Edwardian era seem a little quaint to us now, but Wailing Well has lost none of its power, either to raise a wry smile or a spine tingling moment. Best read late at night while the wind howls outside your window (or better yet in broad daylight when you can be assured that the dark things can come nowhere near you) it is a minor but nonetheless brilliant work from a master of the genre.

I have heard that the present population of the Wailing Well field consists of three women, a man, and a boy.

No comments:

Post a Comment