The scare tales of contemporary cinema and, presumably, contemporary fiction (I am swathed in blissful ignorance with regard to the latter) have lost much of the creeping dread that makes us remember one story and discard another. The main impetus for such erosion is the lack of credence with which these stories are imbued – that is to say, we cannot believe them for a second since that time is far longer than their authors mulled the possibility of their truth. Admittedly, many modern monsters are either fantastic or the brainchild of sciences not yet available. For this reason they possess no enchantment, no hint of black lore, no glimmer of arcane and ancient wisdom: they are only there because they are abnormal, inhuman, often bloody and revolting, and all of this makes us want to stay home and count our blessings (or, nowadays, our silverware) that we are, in fact, normal and not under the spell of some sadistic fiend. That's all well and good, if more than a bit dull. True terror lurks in nightmares, hints of old evil, and shadowy landscapes where our destinies seem to be drawn ever so faintly against the night sky. All of which perfectly apply to this masterpiece of horror.
The title of the story is a well-known poem by this Scottish bard, so it's no coincidence that the destination of our protagonist – a professor of ontography by the name of Parkins – is a fictitious seaside hamlet called Burnstow. A dull and stolid soul with no belief whatsoever in the supernatural, Parkins's aim in traveling northward is to improve his golf game; but in the curiously self-conscious prologue, Parkins is briefed by a colleague that he would do well to visit the Templars' preceptory which, with the progressing tides, "must be down quite close to the beach now." Parkins is intrigued by the opportunity of trying his hand at something new since, according to our narrator, "few people can resist the temptation to try a little amateur research in a department quite outside their own, if only for the satisfaction of showing how successful they would have been had they only taken it up seriously." Parkins then starts complaining that the only rooms untenanted at this low point of the season have two twin beds. "I don't quite fancy having an empty bed," he quips, quite unaware of the silliness of his observation, and certain facets of his mentality are elucidated through other remarks, punctuated by a comment from the author:
In repeating the above dialogue I have tried to give the impression which it made on me, that Parkins was something of an old woman – rather hen-like perhaps, in his little ways; totally destitute, alas! of the sense of humour, but at the same time dauntless and sincere in his convictions, and a man deserving of the greatest respect. Whether or not the reader has gathered so much, that was the character which Parkins had.
This small addition allows us to pity Parkins, a somewhat arrogant boor, and sympathize with what will inevitably befall him. He indeed reaches Burnstow and wanders his way to the glorious ruins of the Templars, although a Colonel, another guest at the boarding-house, warns him not to breathe in the Papist fumes too deeply. After poking about the site with unfeigned glee, he comes across an object "of man's making – a metal tube about four inches long, and evidently of some considerable age." This he takes with him as he walks back past the golf courses and jetties to his boarding house for some repose.
As he walks backs, he espies a figure, "a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress." He returns to his room and discovers that the tube he pilfered is bronze and, more surprisingly, a sort of whistle. He cleans it and finds the following inscriptions:
FLE QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT
Parkins's grade-school Latin is able to render the second inscription correctly as "Who is this who comes?" (the first, which I will leave to your imagination or dictionary, should be read as "Fur – flabis, flebis!"), and decides that the easiest way to solve this conundrum is to blow the whistle:
He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles around. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure – how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird's wing somewhere outside the dark panes.
This is just the beginning of Parkins's ghastly stay. James was not kind to those with no imagination, especially if they were resistant to considering things or phenomena that could not be accounted for by the rudiments of modern science. As such, James gives Parkins poor Latin (James was a classically trained scholar); compares him to a member of this Hebrew sect known for their unimaginative and prudish adherence to legal stipulations (which Parkins doesn't even know whether the Old Testament mentions); has the events of the story take place near the Feast day of this apostle, perhaps the first empiricist; and enjoins that, "in his unenlightened days [Parkins] had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of ... particularly of one which catches most people's fancy at some time of their childhood." Yet it is the Colonel who best summarizes Parkins's plight: "It's no use talking, I'm well aware, but I expect that with you it's a case of live and learn." At least he's got one part right.