SPECTRAL SUFFOLK 2: THE MALICE OF INANIMATE THINGS
There is a moment during a recent interview with the dubstep artist Burial when he recalls the uncanny effect of hearing the ghost story “Oh whistle and I’ll come to you my lad” as a child.
My Dad when I was really little, sometimes he used to read me M R James stories. On the South Bank last year, I was walking along, and I found a book of M R James ghost stories. I bunked that day off from my day job and I got this book, and now I’m well into M R James ghost stories ... the one that fucked me up when I was little. 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You My Lad'. Something weird happens with M R James, because they’re short - and I don’t read much – and even though it’s in writing, there’ll be a moment, when the person meets the ghost, where you can’t quite believe what you’ve read, you go cold, just for those few lines when you glimpse the ghost for a second, or he describes the ghost face.
You wouldn’t associate dubstep with Victorian ghost stories, but actually the linkage somehow fits. James’s stories deal in many of the elements found in Burial’s records: repetition, obsession, solitude, the feeling of being extra-terrestrial. They also share an ambiguous kind of morality. “Sometimes maybe you see ghosts on the underground with an empty Costcutters plastic bag, nowhere to go,” says Burial. We could never sink that low, we think to ourselves – but perhaps we could.
“This is a story of solitude and terror,” begins a learned voice, by way of introduction to Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation of “Whistle and I’ll come to you”, “and it has a moral too. It hints at the dangers of intellectual pride, and shows how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand.”
M R James wrote ghost stories in the spare time afforded to him by his post as don, then provost, of Cambridge University. He had spent much of his childhood in Suffolk, and found its “bleak and solemn” coast and “dim and murmering sea” a good stage on which to set tales of the supernatural. “Oh whistle and I’ll come to you my lad” is set in Felixstowe, and a reader who is familiar with the town will immediately place it. It tells the story of the earnest, “hen-like” Professor Parkins, who spends a few days by the sea practising his golf swing and exploring the site of a preceptor of the Knights Templar. Parkins is Professor of Ontography at St James’s College. By a process of positivist logic, he rejects the ghosts which his golfing partner, a red-faced Colonel, asks him about at breakfast. After a round with the Colonel, Parkins walks across the links to the depressions and mounds which mark the site of the preceptor. He digs away a little with a pocket-knife, but it is too dark to see what’s what. The wind hampers his efforts at lighting a match to get a better view, but undeterred he continues to dig and finds a cylindrical metal object which turns out to be a whistle with the Latin inscription “QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT” – “Who is this who is coming?” – etched upon it. To answer the question, he blows sharply into the whistle – and that night receives his reply.
Miller’s adaptation takes a great liberty with James’s story – Professor Parkins is radically transformed by Michael Horden into an aching, convulsive figure and save for his Wittgensteinian refutation of supernatural life over a boiled egg, there is no dialogue to speak of. Internal chatter consumes him, and he finds it acutely difficult to communicate to others. He practices what he has to say internally, sounding out phrases to himself, wrapping his lips around words (“I think I shall go for a ..... trrrrrudge”) before launching them at his audience with a bark or a murmur. He is broadly comic – a prototype for Reggie Perrin, perhaps – until the final scene when the presence aroused by the whistle takes shape, when the uncanny peculiarity of what he has seen hits him. “Oh no ... oh no,” he repeats, his logic failing him. “Once I was so sure,” sang Japan’s David Sylvian on “Ghosts”, “now the doubt inside my mind comes and goes but leads nowhere”...
Before Freud gave his famous account of the uncanny (das unheimlich), Schelling explained it as that which ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light, and Jentsch characterised it as driven by “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.” Freud takes the account further by describing the bizarre stories of Hoffman. One story, in particular, describes a boy called Nathaniel who is warned about the evil sandman:
He’s a wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding. Then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children. They sit up there in their nest, and their beaks are hooked like owls’ beaks, and they use them to peck up naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes with.
Like Professor Parkins, Nathaniel is rational enough not to believe the tale about the sandman. And yet, reason is not enough to prevent the dread becoming fixed in his heart. Even more – Nathaniel seeks out the sandman, as though he must look death in the face, even if it kills him. Whatever Parkins sees in his hotel bedroom – and we are led to believe that this is a textbook ghoul, all rustling sheets and weird howls – has no place in his world. It is residual to his sense of order, it does not fit, and it will therefore haunt him wherever he makes his home.
It is Parkins who feels the shudder of the uncanny in “Whistle and I’ll come to you,” but it is we, the audience, who are disturbed by Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of James’s “A warning to the curious”.
The adaptation, first broadcast in 1972, is extraordinary, a subtle, starkly executed masterpiece of suspense. It tells the story of an amateur archaeologist, Mr Paxton, who visits the Suffolk coastal town of Seaburgh (based on Aldeburgh) to uncover a long-hidden secret. Legend has it that three crowns were buried in Suffolk during Saxon times, but that only one survives (one having fallen victim to the longshore drift at Dunwich centuries earlier, another having been unearthed at Rendlesham*). As long as at least one of the crowns remains buried, the coast will be safe from invasion.
But Paxton, typical of James’s protagonists, has a dream to fulfil. Like Parkins, he is a nobody. He has recently been made redundant in London, and is nagged by the feeling that he needs to prove himself, needs to be. All my life, he says to Dr Black, I’ve dreamed of doing something big. And so, despite misgivings from the locals and a trail of murdered archaeologists in the area, he is determined to find the crown. But when he finally unearths it, he is not so much enlightened as bewildered – and finally terrified. The ghost of Seaburgh’s madman, William Agar, pursues him through forests and across bare, surreal beaches, and we are left wondering whether Agar really exists, and whether his ghost ever catches Paxton.
It is a paradox that “A warning to the curious” illustrates the uncanniness of the Suffolk coast, since it is actually filmed in Norfolk. But it is the landscapes on which the film is set, and its horrible soundtrack and associated noises, which create its terror: the scuttling knife which scrapes away at the earth, the hard, wet coughs of the ghost, the peculiar and unplaceable accents of the locals. And, as James himself found, the bare, spectral trees and surreal dunes offer the perfect atmosphere on which to rehearse our spooky prehistory.
Freud has been criticised for placing the causes of the uncanny solely at the door of the castration complex, and the fear it produces. But if we take the concept of castration as a stage of human development – by which I mean the development of humans as a species – there is indeed something uncanny about facing up to a primordial deposit which our civilisation cannot accommodate. James introduces into his placid, bucolic settings something ominous - what Freud (and Lacan) might call das ding (the thing). For Paxton, the thing which will patch him up, restore his lost sense of unity, is the very thing he is forbidden from discovering: the crown. To extend the Freudian analysis further, we might say that William Agar acts as the representative of the reality principle, warning the curious Paxton that the crown's inaccessibility must be preserved, since Paxton cannot stand the extreme good it will bring. He is, in a sense, Paxton's benevolent double.
The conclusion of “A warning to the curious” is prompted by a man who looks like Dr Black – but who is not – calling out to Mr Paxton. The double and the lack it creates (“there is nothing worse,” says Burial, “than not recognising someone you know, someone close, family, seeing a look in them that just isn’t them”) is the product of our attempt to protect ourselves from forces which we do not understand. This incomprehension, which our learned friend tells us is "intellectual pride," but which Freud might put down to primary narcissism, is what returns to haunt Parkins and Paxton, the latter fatally.
*This is odd. It is true that a Saxon cemetery lay hidden beneath the earth near Rendlesham, and among the treasures unearthed by archaeologists was the famous death-mask and crown now in the British Museum. Yet, the excavation of Sutton Hoo did not take place until 14 years after “A warning to the curious” was published. How could James have known about what lay beneath the soil?