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In my experience, writing short stories is a lot harder than you might imagine. I’m sure some people can knock out a cracking tale out in a few minutes… but I’ve never been one of those people. Instead, I’ve spent several years trying to master the technique of creating the perfect short story, and I’m still miles off nailing it yet.

That’s probably why I’m always in awe of authors who pull it off. They manage to get so much into so few words; and I’m not just talking about plot. There’s also characterisation, a building sense of atmosphere, place, time; just to mention a few.

The best short ghost story?

MR James’ O Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad is a good example of a near-perfect short story. I read it again recently, and took the time to study the little nuances that make it such a belter of a tale.

If you’ve not read it yet, please note – spoilers ahead!

What makes it so great?

If, like me, you’re trying to hone your short-story writing skills, this story by MR James is a good place to start, even if you’re not a fan of ghost stories. Here are a few things I took from it, while reading it again.

-        Early seeding.

The author is a master at seeding in little hints, early on in the story. For example, we’re told in the first couple of pages that there’s a spare bed in Professor Parkins’ room in the hotel – a key element of the story.

Also, shortly after Parkins discovers the whistle, he imagines what it would be like to have a monstrous figure following him along the quiet, isolated beach. Again – it’s a forewarning of the horrors to come. These little details serve to whet the appetite, and build a sense of anticipation.

-        The ‘convincing’ narrative.

It’s important that we believe in the protagonist’s experience; otherwise, it could be too easily written off as his imagination, or a particularly bad dream.

Right from the start, Parkins is established as a trustworthy narrator of events. He’s educated, practical, and enjoys his secular pleasures; such as playing Bridge with the Colonel. He’s perfectly happy to go marching off on his own to a distant archaeological site, and to start digging around. As a consequence, when he has his hideous experience, we believe him completely, which makes the events far more horrific.

-        The experiences can be ‘written off’… until they can’t.

I think MR James is really masterful at this (something that Stephen King surely must have been inspired by?). In this story, it’s the rumpled spare bed. The maid points it out to Parkins, who is baffled at first, because the bed hasn’t been slept in. However, he dismisses it, claiming it must have been disturbed when he unpacked his case on it the previous day.

Later in the story, a boy claims to have seen a horrible white figure at Parkins’ window. Again, Parkins dismisses it, suggesting it was just the maid. The fact that Parkins rationalises these experiences is vital. His final experience with the spectre cannot be ‘rationalised away’ – which means it surely must have happened.

-        The element of mystery.

Mystery in any short story is nothing new. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue is the perfect example; it’s a deeply unpleasant tale, but is essentially a mystery story, hence many regard it as the first ‘detective’ story ever published.

There are plenty of mysterious goings-on in O Whistle as well. The strange lettering on the whistle – what does it mean? The weird wind that picks up immediately after Parkins blows on the whistle – what’s just happened? And his vision of someone being chased along a beach – what does it signify? These are, of course, key elements that keep us reading.

-        A deeply unnatural image.

For me, the perfect moment in this story is when he realises the spare bed beside him isn’t empty. It’s something we can all relate to – that growing horror when you realise that you’re not as alone as you thought you were.

However, the truly unnatural aspect of the story is the spectre’s face – or rather, what they’re using as a face. The use of a ‘malevolent sheet’ as an entity is doubly nasty, in that it’s supernatural, but also an object we usually hold close to ourselves, when we’re at our most vulnerable – lying asleep in bed!

Creating short stories – an ongoing mission

I’m quite determined to master short stories (says she, after many years of trying). Of course, the best place to start is with the authors who have already proved their skills in the genre – and MR James was an undisputed expert when it comes to crafting a compelling yarn. I’d recommend checking his short story collection out, if you haven’t already.