Wagner pulled A Serious Call from the inaugural issue of Ghosts & Scholars, a chapbook dedicated to stories in the vein of, or essays on, M.R. James. Ghosts & Scholars ran from 1979-2001, when it ended its run at issue 33. The next year it relaunched as The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter focused more on essays than new fiction. The newsletter is still going today edited by Rosemary Pardoe! If you’re interested in back issues or subscriptions contact Rosemary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
George Hay, much like Wagner, was an editor as well as a writer. He had a substantial body of work editing fantasy and horror but really considered himself, as Wagner says, “an SF man”. I thought this was interesting because Wagner himself was largely involved with horror, I would call him “a horror man”. Despite my thoughts, in the genre community he is more widely known for his fantasy character Kane the mystic swordsman. I have a strong suspicion Wagner would scoff at my genre distinctions and simply call himself a gothic writer.
(I am going to reveal the ending of the story so if you don’t want it spoiled, read no further)
A Serious Call is short and sweet. The voice of the narrator is a bit stuffy and a bit conservative (scoffing at the Student Union) to my ear. He tells the tale of the night he decides to change his thesis. Originally it was to be on M.R. James, but after the events of that night, he quickly changed it to the sea stories of H. M. Tomlinson. The night in question he attends a lecture for the students by a visiting priest about the nature of contemporary Good and Evil. A bit comical, a bit frightening, a violent thunderstorm starts the same moment as the lecture. It becomes a theatrical event as the visiting lecturer battles the sound and fury of the elements, describing how evil has changed with the times. He finishes his lecture and immediately leaves the hall. As soon as he exits the building he’s struck down by lightning and killed. The brilliant twist in the last paragraph is the narrator describing what made him take the lecture to heart and steer away from the supernatural. The local newspaper lists the death as “an act of God”. There is a beautiful ambiguity in that for me. The priest was speaking about the devil and his hidden evils, so it makes sense that the devil would strike him down. The newspaper listing the death as an act of God creates a dissonance where in my mind that means the devil is God. It flips the world on its head and for a split second terrifies me. Whose world am I living in?