M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

Any classic ghost story anthology worth the tree-pulping will have something by M. R. James. Usually it’s “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” or “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” It’s almost never “Wailing Well.” “Wailing Well” is not one of M. R. James’s all-time best stories. Nevertheless, it has its good points.

The Premise

A troop of Boy Scouts are camping in the countryside. Their scout leaders warn them not to enter the area marked off on their map by a red line. This works as well as you would expect.

Where to Find It

“Wailing Well,” written in 1927, wasn’t included in James’s four original collections but is available in the Penguin Classics volume The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Stories. There’s also an etext of this story at Gaslight so you might as well go read it before continuing.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

“Wailing Well” doesn’t begin like a horror story and continues looking unlike a horror story for what feels like a long time (though actually only a few paragraphs). It looks like a mildly amusing school story about an Eton schoolboy who gets up to such hijinks as hitting provosts on the ankle with cricket balls. (Well, I did say mildly.) The background here is that some Eton colleagues had taken a troop of Boy Scouts out camping. The plan was that James, who by this point was well known for enjoyably scaring the hell out of anyone within earshot, would drive out and read them a ghost story, complete with appearances by their actual scout leaders. (Including one Mr. Hope Jones who, we’re told by Rosemary Pardoe’s story notes at the Ghosts and Scholars website, was “Known at Eton as ‘Hojo.’”) So given this story’s first audience it makes sense that James started with the kind of material younger readers liked, or were thought to like at the time. (Not to mention an uplifting moral: do what your teachers say, or the ghosts will get you!) But “Wailing Well” is already taking a turn for the funny peculiar, in an account of lifesaving competitions in which Scouts are thrown into a lake to be rescued:

As it was, the Lower Master found it necessary to take a firm line and say that the competition must be discontinued. It was in vain that Mr. Beasley Robinson represented to him that in five competitions only four lower boys had actually succumbed.

A joke, of course. One this story’s original audience probably found hilarious… but also one that pushes the tone in a weird and uncomfortable direction.

The setup complete, “Wailing Well” moves to a Boy Scout camp “in the beautiful district of W (or X) in the county of D (or Y).” The scouts’ curiosity is piqued by an untended well in the middle of a nearby field, right in the middle of the red circle on their map where the scouts were warned not to trespass. (“It’s very good of the people to let us camp here at all, and the least we can do is to oblige them,” says a scout leader, who seems not at all curious as to why.) Luckily a yokel is stationed nearby to deliver menacing exposition, just like on Scooby-Doo. And we remember we’re reading M. R. James, because the “three women and a man” who haunt the well carry a bit of real menace:

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

Y’know, I’d love to hear how the discussion went when the Eton staff asked the locals to let Boy Scouts camp in their field.

“The wee lads mean to camp by the well? Yon accursed well? Nay, Robert Poste’s child! Tis better they should camp at th’ mouth ae Hell!”

“Nonsense, Adam. I’ve drawn a red line around the well on their map, and the scoutmasters will tell the children not to cross it. You see, these ghost problems can be handled quite simply if everyone behaves sensibly.”

Right.

It is at this point that “Wailing Well” becomes an honest-to-god M. R. James story.

The climax of “Wailing Well” takes place in midafternoon. We watch from the point of view of a scout standing some distance away on a bluff overlooking the well. A stereotypical ghost story is dark and claustrophobic and ends with a very close encounter, and James made damn good use of this kind of thing. One hallmark of James’s stories (not used in “Wailing Well”) is his attention to touch: a James hero might reach beneath his pillow to find a mouth, or absently lay his hand upon something rising up beside his chair. But, as James must have realized, the old gothic toolkit isn’t necessary. Sometimes inexplicable things happen in broad daylight, and you see the monster coming from a hundred yards away, and it’s worse.

And James has some pretty good monsters going, here. As usual. M. R. James’s ghosts aren’t your usual ghosts. Sometimes you don’t even know whether they’re really “ghosts” as such at all, or something else. What they are is specific. James doesn’t deal in off-the-shelf poltergeists or generic white mists. He gives his entities details–not too many details; he leaves room for the imagination. But enough that our imaginations have something to work with, to imagine distinctive and singular horrors with, as James puts it in “The Rose Garden,” “an accuracy which makes the thought intolerable.”

Even James’s most conventional entities have something to personalize them. The monsters in “Wailing Well” appear to be some kind of undead. Undead are all over the damn place these days, but they’re nothing like James’s undead, who move in weird jerky slow-then-quick spurts, and are introduced with that very specific “three women and a man” line implying a novel’s worth of backstory we’ll never learn. “Wailing Well” was reprinted recently in a big book of vampire stories. This doesn’t do “Wailing Well” any favors. It prompts readers to think James’s monsters can be filed neatly and safely away in a particular mental drawer. “Wailing Well” isn’t about vampires at all: it’s about three women and a man. Made of teeth.

Some horror writers are kind to their heroes. Others seem to love it when a story ends in death and madness. With James you never know. I haven’t checked, but I think the division between “Inevitable doom!” and “Boy, am I ever going to have a weird story to tell!” is about fifty-fifty. Given James’s audience for “Wailing Well,” it’s surprising that this is one of the downbeat ones:

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

The interesting thing, and the reason I decided to write about “Wailing Well” in the first place, is how smoothly James manages the descent into horror. To my mind, taking what looks like one kind of story and gradually turning it into another story entirely is one of the most impressive tricks a writer can pull off. Of course, it’s easy to shock: anybody can take a comedy, then have someone burst in the door and gun everybody down. This is the tactic of an immature author more interested in seeming daring and radical than actually writing well, and if you ever come across it you’re fully justified in disgustedly hurling the book against the wall. Doing a “Wailing Well” kind of story… er, well, is more complicated. It’s not enough to reveal that this isn’t the story we thought it was–the author has to convince us that it was really that other story all along. Otherwise all you have is a crappy Twilight Zone gimmick!

“Wailing Well” works because James is doing the literary equivalent of unifying a painting by mixing colors, putting a little bit of the red from over here in the blue over there so nothing clashes. He ends the comedy section with some gallows humor. The next section is a setup much-used in the kind of children’s fiction about precocious nuisances who solve mysteries, the hick who exposits sinisterly about the local legends the kids will be delving into… only this time the legends are a little too grim. The climax begins with academic dithering and what looks like just another youthful prank. Our first real-time glimpse of the monsters comes through the dialogue of the observers up on the hill:

“Nothing to be seen of him yet,” said Mr. Hope Jones, “but we must stop here a bit. You’re done up – not to speak of me. Keep a sharp look-out,” he went on after a moment, “I thought I saw the bushes stir.”

“Yes,” said Wilcox, “so did I. Look … no, that can’t be him. It’s somebody though, putting their head up, isn’t it?”

“I thought it was, but I’m not sure.”

Silence for a moment. Then:

“That’s him, sure enough,” said Wilcox, “getting over the hedge on the far side. Don’t you see? With a shiny thing. That’s the can you said he had.”

“Yes, it’s him, and he’s making straight for the trees,” said Wilfred.

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.

These characters have only just realized for themselves what kind of story they’re in, and the audience has to make that transition with them before James switches to describing things in a third-person limited point of view. Everything in “Wailing Well” is designed to smooth the transition from comedy to tragedy, to draw the audience into a ghost story before they’ve fully grasped what they’re hearing.

Speaking of the audience: did I mention that the landscape of “Wailing Well” was based on the actual place where the audience had camped?

Legend has it some of them genuinely didn’t sleep well that night.