Susan Hill, in the introduction to ‘The Woman In Black’ acknowledges M.R. James’ ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ as a source for her modern ghost story. Consider the similarities and differences between these two texts.
In Susan Hill’s introduction to ‘The Woman In Black’ she mentions M.R. James’ short stories as some of the greatest ghost stories ever written. Her appreciation of James’ writing is one of the reasons for the many similarities and differences between the two texts. Hill was greatly inspired by the setting of ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ and this results in her novel being a similar reading experience to James’ story. One of the most obvious influences on Susan Hill’s novel is the similarity between the title of M.R. James’ story and one of the chapters in ‘The Woman In Black’, titled ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’.
There are also many differences in the writing style and technique between the two texts; Susan Hill uses her own techniques for the novel as well as using ideas from other writers. And although the two texts are individual in their own right, the influence of ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ by M.R. James on Susan Hill’s ‘Woman In Black’ is evident not just in the introduction to the novel, but similarities linking the two are common throughout the text.
At the beginning of both texts we meet the first similarity between the two, the setting. Both are set in unfamiliar or unknown places, which is the first step to create a small sense of mystery in the story. Moving away from the familiar adds effectiveness to the eerie storylines, the less we know about something, the more scared we can be by it. In ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ the setting of a seaside symbolises the edge of the world, where there is nowhere to run from fear. Eel Marsh House in ‘The Woman In Black’ is also very isolated, with it only being accessible at low tide. Both writers use the setting effectively to set down the mood of the story.
The main characters in the stories are also very similar, both Parkins (‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’) and Arthur (The Woman In Black) are young, curious and non-believers of anything to do with the supernatural. Parkins in particular makes his views very clear:
“My own views on such subjects are very strong. I am, in fact, a convinced disbeliever in what is called the ‘supernatural’-“
It is obvious from this that Parkins feels strongly on the matter of the supernatural, as does Arthur. The similarities do not end there; they both harbour a desire to explore and in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ it is this desire to explore which leads to the main element of the story, the unearthing of the whistle and visit of the ghost. In the novel, Arthur’s tendencies to explore lead to him discovering the graveyard and the ghost. Also both writers use events in the story to shape the personality of the characters, for example, Parkins begins ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ as a strict disbeliever of folk lore and ghosts but ends the story being forced to believe them after experiencing them himself. Also both characters are haunted by their experiences, Arthur specifically cannot escape the memories of the ghost and the death of his family.
There is however, a contrast in the reason for the main character’s visit to the setting described at the beginning of the story. Parkins is on a leisure trip, in particular to ‘improve [his] game’ (golf), whereas Arthur is working, sorting out paperwork for a deceased woman named Mrs. Drablow.
Another aspect common to both stories is country and folklore, in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ there are superstitions believed by locals but doubted by outsiders especially the main character. An example of this is when the frightened boy runs into the Colonel, and tells of something strange he had seen. Parkins “was in favour of sending the boy home” while the Colonel ‘wanted to get to the bottom of it,” showing that the locals were more inclined to believe in the supernatural than the outsider. Similar situations are present in ‘The Woman In Black’ with Arthur being the doubter of the country lore; when people in Crythin Gifford begin to believe the sightings of the woman in black are connected to the deaths of children in the area, Arthur just dismisses them as rumours and superstition,
“Come”, I said smiling, “you’re not going to start telling me strange tales of lonely houses?” He gave me straight look. “No,” he said, at last, “I am not.”
Specific descriptions of the weather are used in both stories, but the way in which it affects the stories is slightly different. In ‘The Woman In Black’ the weather is identified in the opening page and Arthur admits, “My spirits have for many years now been excessively affected by the ways of the weather.” Although it is not pathetic fallacy, it is quite similar, the mood of the main character is affected by the weather. In ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ pathetic fallacy is used, for example darkness giving a foreboding sense that something scary or terrible will happen to the main character. It is a slight contrast in the way the weather is used in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ to affect the story and describe the setting.
These two stories although very similar, are actually told from different viewpoints; ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ is told in third-person narrative, while ‘The Woman In Black’ uses first-person narrative in conjunction with a flashback technique which helps add tension to the story. The endings of the stories are also very different; ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ ends calmly, with Parkins, although more nervous and aware of peculiarity, in good health. In total contrast, ‘The Woman In Black’ ends in horrifying and gruesome circumstances, with Arthur’s wife and child being killed when the ghost of Jennet Humfrye, ‘had her revenge.’ Hill possibly chose this ending to display the power and supremacy of the ghost, with it having such a huge affect of the lives of the characters.
The way tension and suspense is built up and released in the story is very alike, both writers do this gradually, aiding in the formation of the mystery in their story. Also both stories reveal information gradually, which helps keep anticipation in the texts by avoiding making one big revelation, which would give an abrupt end and lose the trepidation in the story.
The central components in the stories, the ghosts, are very dissimilar from each other. In M.R James’ short story the ghost appears as an almost invisible, untouchable and unexplained force, only appearing when the whistle is blown. The ghost is passive, with ‘formidable quickness’ and only shows a very short period of aggression, causing no significant damage. However, the ghost in Susan Hill’s novel is altogether different, it is more human, more palpable and a lot more active.
The ghost is significantly more aggressive and holds a notably more evil, violent and revengeful nature leaving death and destruction in its wake, most notably at the end of the story when it causes, ‘dreadful confusion’ by making the horse drawing the carriage with Arthur, Stella and their baby son, rear up and run ‘crazily’ off the road, resulting ultimately of the death of not only his son but also Arthur’s wife. The regularity of the ghosts’ appearances also differs between the two stories. In ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ the ghost appears only once at the end whereas the ghost in ‘Woman In Black’ appears many times throughout the text, sometimes passively and sometimes aggressively.
M. R. James’ ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ and Susan Hill’s ‘Woman In Black’ share a lot of the same qualities, due to the large amount of influence Hill took from the James short story. The main characters have a lot in common and the setting of the two stories is very similar. Conversely, there are lot of differences between the two; M.R James chose to have a passive spectre while Susan Hill’s story contains a vengeful, dangerous ghost. On the whole, they are two very effective ghost stories that employ several writing techniques to add effectiveness to the plot.