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It’s not often I’ve heard an audience at a fiction event let out a collective gasp of horror. It’s a thrilling sound, and last week it reinvigorated my passion for short stories as live events. The alternative London Word Festival was in full swing, and I went along to Robert Lloyd Parry’s performance of the famous M. R. James ghost story “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad.”
“Oh Whistle”, the pleasingly horrible story of a Professor of Ontography who digs up an old whistle in the ruins of a Templar church and then is foolish enough to blow it, is a classic of supernatural literature. It has often been held up as the best ghost story ever written, and with good cause. Its brilliant balance of humour, mounting tension, and chilling climax make for a story that’ll come back to you in those dark moments when you wake up convinced that there’s someone (or something) else in your room. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d recommend doing so late at night and alone… you’ll never be able to sleep comfortably again.
I’ve heard many stories read aloud, by writers and professional actors, but I’ve never seen anything that went so far beyond a straight reading off the page. What Robert Lloyd Parry achieved was a true dramatic performance, visually captivating even though he never left the high-backed armchair in which he sat. He brought out laughs and chills in the story that I’d never noticed before, a reminder of the impact of James’s original text. He performed the story from memory, no mean feat for a work that’s a good eight thousand words long. Making the audience believe he was telling a tale off the cuff paid off—it was intimate and exhilarating, and took the story back to its roots.
M. R. James’s stories were originally conceived of as tales to be told to a small audience. James himself used to read them to his friends around the fire at Christmas-time, and this event sought to emulate the experience, involving the audience in the narrator’s mixed delight and horror as events unfold.
Parry played the narrator of “Oh Whistle” very much as M. R James himself did—the same small round glasses, the crumpled suit, the air of academic eccentricity. He also dipped convincingly in and out of the story’s distinct protagonist, Professor Parkins. Parkins has been played magnificently before, notably by Michael Hordern in a 1968 BBC adaptation, but by going back to the original text, Robert Lloyd Parry reminded us what an excellent painter of characters James was.
The stage at the Jamboree bar was little more than a couple of warehouse doors and packing crates nailed together, and the set was simple—an armchair and a table with some candles. But Parry brought the story visually to life, holding the audience rapt as he sat swathed in shadow, using hands, arms and handkerchiefs to illustrate his tale, culminating in the unforgettable moment when he leapt from his chair to become the ghost itself in chilling silhouette against the candlelit set, squeezing a collective sigh of delicious horror from the audience.
What it proved to me is that short stories are often at their very best when they are read aloud. It’s something that harks back to the origins of storytelling itself: a small group gathered round in the dark hungry for something short, sweet and edge-of-the-seat, storytelling that makes us lean forward to catch the climax. We should take short fiction back to its roots and listen to more of it live and out loud.