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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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7 Best Horror Stories by W. W. Jacobs (Not Including "The Monkey's Paw")

There is perhaps no more cursed writer of horror in the English canon than the elegant Edwardian, W. W. Jacobs. World renowned for one tale, “The Monkey’s Paw,” he is often classed alongside the three S’s (Stoker, Shelley, and Stevenson) as an unquestionable dean of the classic British supernatural tale. But little or nothing else about his fiction is commonly read or talked about. “Jerry Bundler” receives some attention, and a bit is given to “The Toll House” and “The Well,” but this is really being generous: in all honesty, one of Britain’s great horror story writers is known for one story and one alone. Oh, but there are so many more! Jacobs was a brilliant writer who used terror liberally, horror conservatively, and framed his spook tales in a stunning, existential nexus. More akin to the cynical, heavily philosophical ghost writings of Henry James and Oliver Onions than the monstrous thrills of Lovecraft or Hodgson, Jacobs’ stories were elegant, emotional, and disturbing. He was a great employer of murder, and over half of the tales included in OTP’s Best Horror and Ghost Stories anthology (one of only two anthologies of Jacobs’ horror tales in the world) are about killers who are forced to reap what they sow. These episodes are drizzled in Poe-esque psychology but without any of the propriety and high-mindedness: Jacobs’ characters are almost solely middle or lower-middle class, and their blue-collared anxieties, ambitions, and resentment stoke the emotional furnaces that propel his writings.


“Captain Rogers” is essentially a pastiche of ‘Treasure Island,’ and it involves a reformed pirate who is blackmailed into slavery by an old shipmate who tarries at his seaside tavern with a mind to leech off of the man he knows to be Cap’n Rogers and his beautiful step-daughter (on whom he has his own designs). The trouble is severe for Rogers: he truly has repented and made a good life of his remaining days, and he loves his compassionate step-daughter deeply, so to prevent losing his new-found life, he kowtows to the brute’s increasingly sadistic demands. In ‘Treasure Island,’ Billy Bones succumbs to the anxiety and terror that Black Dog and Blind Pew heap on him. But this Black Dog is mistaken: his captive is no Billy Bones – he is Captain Rogers. Moral lesson: it is never wise to back a pirate into a corner, or to be alone with him at night after he has drugged the household.


This is a truly bizarre tale, and something of a puzzle. I haven’t entirely figured it out myself, but it has some genuinely haunting moments. A man recalls his days as a young sailor, and the superstitions that terrorized his mates. One night he comes on deck to find the crotchety helmsman a little stiff and glazed. A dead man is steering the ship, he soon realizes, and the company eagerly dump the widely-disliked man’s corpse into the sea. Not long afterwards they encounter a strange man whom they rescue from the ocean. He speaks no language known to them, and although he has a different body, many of the men are convinced they see the helmsman in his bearing. The story is somewhat inconclusive, although it leaves you with a lingering unease and a pleasant confusion.


A classic ghost story, but one of the (Henry) Jamesian ilk, being very comparable to “Turn of the Screw” and “The Real Right Thing.” Three sisters live in a house until one of them dies, charging the other two that she will come for them when it is their turn. The family fortune is now in the hands of the weaker of the two living sisters, while the more cunning designs a plan to expedite her inheritance. Masquarading as their dearly departed, she creeps into her sister’s room at night – jaw wrapped in a kerchief, muffled in a shroud – and the terror bursts her victim’s heart. Although predictable, the conclusion is genuinely unsettling, and the conclusion is very philosophical – a tale of greed, vice, guilt, and moral seclusion. Few writers – Edith Wharton and Willa Cather being two rare exceptions – knew their way around a literary ghost story better than Henry James and his very capable protégée W. W. Jacobs.


This is a truly strange story, one that pulsates with doom and anxiety, and it is something of a horror story intertwined into a Sherlock Holmes mystery (the similarities to “The Speckled Band” are many). A greedy pawnbroker accepts a cursed diamond from a frantic sailor. The gem has cost the lives of many men after it was stolen from “the brown man” – a lascar who has a claim to it. Paranoid and desperate, the sailor gives the diamond to the broker who becomes obsessed with it, even after the sailor is found dead. When the brown man visits him, he offers the broker a chance to relinquish the stone and save his life, but refuses. Before he leaves, the lascar warns him of his servant – a minion who can deliver brutal death. The conclusion is genuinely surprising and requires a bit of attention before its meaning can be divined. A tense story of avarice, paranoia, and the psychology of greed versus the psychology of survival.


Perhaps Jacobs’ second most famous story, this dark Christmas tale opens on a tavern where the men are huddled childishly around the fire, swapping ghost stories that genuinely terrify them. The chief ghost of the hour is that of Jerry Bundler, a highwayman who hanged himself in the upstairs bedroom in the previous century. His story is truly eerie (and incidentally has a strong resemblance to J. S. Le Fanu’s spectre at “Aungier Street”), and the middle-aged men begin bartering for bedfellows, being too frightened to pass the night alone. One man is unconvinced, however, and retires to bed, while one of his friends bets that he can get a good scare out of him. Donning a costume and some greasepaint, he sets out to achieve his bet, but the night seems cursed, and the conclusion is unforgettably tragic. Once a popular Christmas play, this story is among Jacobs’ best, and it successfully leaves its reader (or viewer) with a sinking cynicism of humanity and a jittery fear of fear. Pairs BEAUTIFULLY with H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room.”


Perhaps the best haunted house story of the Edwardian era, “The Toll-House” is a short masterpiece about a band of friends who take a bet to spend the night in “the toll-house” – so-named because it is said to take a toll of one life whenever it is inhabited. The deaths have been written off as accidents, suicides, and coincidences by most of the companions, but the villagers are insistent that they rethink their plan. Already smacking strongly of “Jerry Bundler,” this tale deals equally with the boyishness of grown men, the hubris of adulthood, and the tragedy of reckless jests. When the friends sit down to smoke in the old place, they begin to drift off one by one. This is good and fine until one of them attempts to wake the others. Surely it is a prank; but then he passes a flame across one of his lads’ thumbs with no reaction, and real terror commences. Another one of Jacobs’s great comic-tragedies.


Jamesian in the extreme, “The Well” is a terribly grisly account of an eye for an eye. The murder it follows happens off screen, so that the final climax is that more haunting. A man is blackmailed by an old chum (apparently he lost his virginity and doesn’t want his fiancée to know), and the desperate fellow’s reaction is to slay his friend and stuff the corpse in an old, disused well (this is never made explicit, but Jacobs beautifully paints with insinuations, emotions, and anxieties to make the truth of the matter very clear). His fiancée lingers around this atmospheric well one day, despite his apparent discomfort. As they discuss the future, she sits on its edge and accidentally (or fatefully) loses a bracelet in its black, sucking mouth. Terrified that she will hire a worker to recover it, her fiancé and a servant go there at night, and he is lowered down into the darkness and mud. Never explicitly proven to be a ghost story, this is one of the most powerful uses of authorial restraint existent in English horror fiction: it abounds with coincidences that are too many to shrug off yet too believable to remove all doubt. A masterpiece in Edwardian horror, it unquestionably influenced M. R. James, who adopted plot elements from it to write “A School Story,” “Martin’s Close,” “A Warning to the Curious,” “The Stalls of Barchester,” “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” and – of course – “Wailing Well.”

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