Review of “Wailing Well” (1928)


M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

An aside on the Scouts’ life-saving competition at Eton:

The practice, as you know, was to throw a selected lower boy, of suitable dimensions, fully dressed, with his hands and feet tied together, into the deepest part of Cuckoo Weir, and to time the Scout whose turn it was to rescue him. [...] 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.

Pretty funny, and the only time that James actually bothers to illustrate how a villain–albeit a boy—actually behaves. The author otherwise keeps his notion of evil at such a remove that the inherent cartoonishness of it is less apparent. James’s final sentence gives it an amusing twist:

If it has a moral, that moral is, I trust, obvious: if it has none, I do not well know how to help it.

To top it off, this story is one of those where James gets into worldbuilding: It is established that the ghost/monster population of the Well keeps growing, that this is observable, that local authorities are aware of the problem, and that a motivated adult armed with axe and tinder can do no harm to the Well or its grove.

text fiction