The story concerns a Boy Scout named Stanley Judkins, a rude and badly behaved boy with no respect for authority. While on a camping trip, Stanley Judkins and the other Scouts are told not to enter a certain field. An old shepherd tells Stanley that the field is called Wailing Well and that it is haunted by four ghosts. Stanley does not believe the old man and makes up his mind to fetch some water from the well in the field.
"Wailing Well" has been adapted for film and television.
The story begins by introducing two boys, Arthur Wilcox and Stanley Judkins. They are both the same age, they are both students at Eton College and they are both members of the school's Boy Scout Troop. They also look very similar, to the point that some teachers have difficulty telling them apart. Their personalities, however, are very different. Arthur Wilcox is an excellent student and an excellent Scout who is popular with both students and teachers. Stanley Judkins is a poor student and a poor athlete. He is rude and disrespectful and an irritant to teachers. He is an extremely poor Scout. He earns no badges and disrupts competitions in which other Scouts try to earn badges. He puts fireworks in another boy's cooking pot during the cookery competition. His attempts to get out of the life-saving competition put at risk the lives of other boys who would have drowned if Arthur Wilcox had not been there. In spite of the trouble he causes, Stanley Judkins is given one last chance to stay in the Eton Boy Scouts Troop.
During the summer vacation, the Eton Boy Scout Troop goes on a camping trip. Stanley Judkins is with his friends Wilfred Pipsqueak and Algernon de Montmorency. Stanley notices a clump of trees in the distance and wants to know the name of the place where they are located. The area is unnamed on Wilfred's map but a red circle drawn around it indicates that the Scouts are not allowed to go there. The three boys see an old shepherd passing by and ask him the name of the place. He tells them that the field is called Wailing Well. As its name suggests, there is a well there, although nobody has drawn any water from it for many years. No sheep graze in the field, no crops are grown there, even though the land is good, and nobody with any sense ever goes there. Looking through a telescope, Wilfred can see some tracks in the field. The shepherd says that the tracks are left by four ghosts, three men and a woman. Apart from the fact that they were "bad 'uns", the shepherd does not know who the people were when they were alive and does not know why they haunt the field. Stanley asks if anyone has ever seen the four ghosts. The shepherd replies that he and his dog saw them and that his dog was almost scared senseless when he did. Wilfred asks why the well is called Wailing Well. The shepherd says that the boy would not have to ask if he was there at dusk on a winter's evening. Stanley does not believe a word that the old man says. He determines to go to Wailing Well to fetch water the first chance he gets.
In the evening, the Scouts are asked if they all have red circles drawn on their maps. They are reminded that they are forbidden from entering the area inside the red circle.
The following morning, Arthur Wilcox tells Mr. Hope Jones the Scout Master that Stanley Judkins is missing. Wilfred Pipsqueak says that he thinks Stanley has gone to Wailing Well, which he has to explain is inside the restricted area, and has taken a rope and a can to fetch water. Mr. Hope Jones, Arthur Wilcox, Wilfred Pipsqueak and Algernon de Montmorency go off to look for him. They stop on a hill which overlooks the Wailing Well field. They see Stanley and the ghost of one of the women, crawling on all fours, approaching him. Mr. Hope-Jones runs down to try to rescue the boy. Arthur Wilcox is sent off to get help.
Wilfred and Algernon see the other three ghosts emerge. The ghosts approach Stanley and try to stop Mr. Hope Jones from reaching him. Stanley, however, does not see the ghosts. Wilfred and Algernon try to warn their friend. Algernon shouts and Wilfred blows a whistle. Stanley then sees the ghosts. He tries to fight back but they overpower him. Stanley is hanged from a tree with his own rope.
The following day, Mr. Hope Jones tries to destroy all of the trees in the clump. He finds, however, that it is impossible to cut them down or burn them.
The Wailing Well field is now said to be haunted by the ghosts of three women, a man and a boy.
An abridged version of "Wailing Well" is read by Robert Powell in the third episode of the BBC TV mini-series Classic Ghost Stories, The episode was first shown on British television on December 28, 1986.
The story was adapted as a short British horror movie, called The Wailing Well, that was released in 2010. The film was directed by David Lilley and Stephen Gray. It stars Tom Murton as Stanley Judkins, Ed Limb as Arthur Wilcox, Josh Carless as Wilfred and Steven Dolton as Mr. Hope Jones. In the movie, there are only two ghosts, a man and a woman. It is explained that they were schoolteachers who murdered children whom they considered to be bad. They threw their victims' bodies into the Wailing Well. When they were caught red-handed, the man was hanged from a tree and the woman took her own life before falling into Wailing Well.
- In the five-part BBC TV mini-series Classic Ghost Stories, first shown on British television in December 1986, actor Robert Powell reads a different short story by M.R. James in each episode. The other stories read in the series are "The Mezzotint", "The Ash-tree", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "The Rose Garden".
- Text of M.R. James' "Wailing Well" on Faded Page.com. The site is hosted in Canada where the story is in the public domain. It is still under copyright in the United States.
- Video of the 2010 short film The Wailing Well on the Internet Movie Database.