“Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is a ghost story by the English medievalist and author M. R. James, included in his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) but probably written in 1903. Named after the 1793 poem by Robert Burns, the story is told by an unidentified third-person narrator.
Parkins, the protagonist and a sceptical Cambridge professor, is on holiday in the town of Burnstow, a fictional version of Felixstowe, Suffolk, on the southeast coast of England, staying at the Globe Inn. While investigating a Templar ruin for a colleague, he finds a whistle with two Latin inscriptions. On one side it says “Quis est iste, qui venit?“. On the other side it says “FLA FUR BIS FLE” in the form of a cross.
The first inscription is taken from the Biblical Book of Isaiah, 63:1, which Parkins translates as “Who is it that comes”. Visually rearranged as “Fur flabis flebis” the second inscription can be translated as “thief, you will blow, you will weep”.[a]It has also been suggested that the inscription can be rearranged as Furbis flabis flebis, which translates as “You will blow, you will weep, you will go mad”. Unaware, Parkins blows the whistle. Back at his room the following night, he dreams of a man fleeing towards him in a state of extreme fear and exhaustion before collapsing immediately in front of him. In the distance, the pursuer appears, moving in a strange fashion and with incredible speed. The next day Parkins encounters a boy who was terrified by a white figure that had appeared at the window of Parkins’ hotel room. Upon returning to his room, Parkins notices that the room’s second, unused bed is in disorder. Later, while alone in his hotel room, he sees something rise from the adjacent empty bed. The figure, seemingly made up of the bedclothes, attacks Parkins, who is saved by one of the inn’s other guests, Colonel Wilson. The following day Wilson takes the whistle and throws it into the sea.
The BBC has filmed the story twice as Whistle and I’ll Come to You, the first in 1968, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern. This version is highly regarded among television ghost story adaptations, and has been described by Mark Duguid of the British Film Institute as “A masterpiece of economical horror that remains every bit as chilling as the day it was first broadcast.” The 2010 adaptation starring John Hurt and Sophie Thompson was not as true to the original, dispensing among other things with the whistle, but The Guardian‘s TV critic Sam Wollaston described it as “still utterly terrifying”.