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December 2005
 
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My Bones and My Flute, by Edgar Mittelholzer (1955)

GHOST stories in the M. R. James tradition rarely work at novel length, and at any length they seem to find dark, cold scenes most congenial. Here's an exception: a Jamesian novel that plays out in daylight at a jungle station in British Guiana, during a hot summer.

The narrator, a would-be Bohemian, accompanies the Nevinson family (father, mother, and adolescent daughter) on their trip upriver to the camp. Mr. Nevinson has come into possession of a manuscript left by an occult-dabbling Dutchman who died in the jungle almost two hundred years ago. Anyone who touches the manuscript falls under a curse and begins hearing music of a flute where no flute can be found. It gets nearer each time, until the victim feels compelled to follow the music.

Narrator Milton is the only person Nevinson knows who might possibly believe so wild a tale. Credence grows, however, as each of the main characters handles the manuscript and falls under the spell. The only way to free themselves is to find and bury the Dutchman's bones and flute—but the search seems hopeless, even before sinister entities begin to manifest themselves in their dreams:

"And then just suddenly that bony hand clutched my arm and something whispered in my ear. It said 'No farther today.' And then I woke up."
The flawed characters are prone to petty disputes, and all the more believable for that, and for the fact that some of them have read Poe and other fantasists and try to base strategies on lessons learned thus. Mittelholzer (1909-1965), like his characters, was a British Guianese of mixed race; his successful literary career soured, and, like his ghostly Dutchman, he died a suicide.

—Dennis Lien

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