LIKE many people, “My Bones and My Flute” was the first work I read by the celebrated Guyanese writer, Edgar Mittelholzer.
Mittelholzer’s legacy as a Guyanese writer is unmatched, particularly with regard to his development from a young man growing up in Berbice in the early 1900s into one of the first professional writers of Caribbean descent, who was able to establish himself as a successful writer in Europe due to his talent, his determination, and the urgency with which he created his oeuvre of celebrated literary works, including over 20 novels. He had his first book published by Hogarth Press, founded by Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, wrote several seminal works and then, tragically, in 1965, he committed suicide.
Mittelholzer’s life, goals, and talents live on in his written work. Along with Sir Wilson Harris, Martin Carter, and A.J. Seymour, he is undoubtedly one of the most respected and most-read Guyanese novelists. Even today, reference to him is often made by the younger and upcoming batch of academics and readers who engage with “A Swarthy Boy,” “Corentyne Thunder,” “Shadows Move Among Them,” “Children of Kaywana,” or one of Mittelholzer’s other works and often need to recommend or highlight this author who was born over 100 years ago. There exists, also, in the fact that he lived and wrote so many years ago, the idea, the truth, that he literally created the Guyanese novel, an act so alien to modern comprehension that it only serves to cement his place in a time away from the modern, so far removed from the 21st Century that it is impossible for any of us to really know or study Mittelholzer in the way that we might know and study Carter or Harris, or Agard, Nichols, Melville, Dabydeen and Carew. This unknowability is unfortunate and yet, ultimately, in the long run, it is a part of what leads more people to Mittelholzer’s works, as his literature is one of the only authentic ways in which any reader can really get to know this particular writer.
Most people often gravitate to “My Bones and My Flute” because the concept of the text has always been thrilling. The novel is a ghost story, and although Guyana has a wealth of supernatural tales and folklore, not enough literary work has been done in bringing forth these aspects of our culture into the mainstream. “My Bones and My Flute” might be one rare exception to this norm. Mittelholzer’s tale is of a young man named Milton who goes into the interior of the Guyanese jungle, along with an upper-class couple, Mr. and Mrs. Nevinson, and their daughter, Jessie, in search of answers regarding an old and mysterious document that causes anyone who touches it to hear otherworldly and ominous sounds of a flute. As the characters settle on a cottage overlooking a river in the sweltering forest, the stakes escalate and the music begins to lure Mr. Nevinson away from the safety of the house as Mrs. Nevinson is plagued by nightmares where she is called into the forest, and Jessie becomes a vessel for horrific possession. Milton, confronted by the terror of the forest, the attacks on the Nevinsons, and the ghost of a colonial, plantation owner, among other sinister supernatural happenings, must figure out a way to save them all before it is too late.
The novel is eerie and there are moments of true horror and tension. For example, there is a scene in the text where one of the characters sees the ghost. From Milton’s perspective, we get a description of the character’s face and odd behaviour as they stare at the entity that cannot be described by Milton because we get the novel from Milton’s perspective and he -himself, at this point, is unable to see the ghost that this other character sees.
However, the scene is extremely terrifying and is one which underscores Mittlelholzer’s ability to inculcate true horror in his writing. Moments of levity also appear amid the terror, so that the novel borders on entering territory that might be regarded as almost-absurdist, which, in its own way only serves to heighten, rather than detract from, the tension within the text. The banter between Jessie and Milton, and the quips from Mrs. Nevinson, in particular, while highlighting Mittelholzer’s keen ear for voice and dialogue, also add to the sense of comedy at the centre of the horror within “My Bones and My Flute.”
One thing that I found interesting in the story was how Mittelholzer presents the supernatural. Despite being set in the Guyanese interior, the novel’s antagonist, in essence, seems to be a creature of horror that is reminiscent of something by Lovecraft or Poe, rather than something more rooted in the folklore of Guyana. I am analysing Mittelholzer’s choices from a modern perspective, where the pyramid of Guyanese horror ascends by each entity’s relation to folklore from the villages. For example, any Guyanese will tell you that a kanaima is more terrifying than a mere ghost, and an ‘ole higue’ is more horrific than a vampire. Perhaps Mittelholzer’s spectres, though rooted in Guyanese history, is indicative of what he read and was inspired by, or what the people of his time fed their fears on and what was in vogue in the literature of his day, or perhaps I am misguided and Mittelholzer’s ghosts might actually have much more in common with the Guyanese jumbie or Dutchman spirits than I can establish right now. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that this novel can aid in an exploration of the concept of Guyanese horror, should anyone choose to research this area someday.
Apart from being a good horror novel, “My Bones and My Flute” also offers Guyanese the chance to look back at a particular time in Guyanese history. The novel was published in 1955 and in the text, there are some gems to be found regarding the time in which the novel was published and the time in which it was set, in comparison to modern Guyana. For example, there is a reference to a specific song that the protagonist listens to, which a modern reader can now simply find online with a few clicks, and there is the fact that Ovaltine before bedtime seems to have been a Guyanese tradition for a very, very long time, and there is also how Mittelholzer’s beautiful descriptions of the mood in the interior remains as accurate and beguiling as it is today in real life, or even in the way language has changed over the years and certain words that were used for common items decades ago are no longer in use now. In writing “My Bones and My Flute,” Mittelholzer not only created a compelling ghost story, but he also created a narrative that helped to preserve a time in Guyana that is long gone and difficult to reclaim, and that is a part of the author’s legacy that is also worth noting.