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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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W. W. Jacobs' Bitter, Tragically Ironic Horror Stories

William Wymark Jacobs (1863 – 1943) is an example of a very rare literary phenomenon: he is an unquestioned master of horror fiction, and while he was a relatively active contributor to the genre, he is known almost exclusively for only one of his many skillful works. It is a checkered distinction. The name “Jacobs” is often printed in the table of contents of horror anthologies – which regularly include “The Monkey’s Paw,” “The Well,” “The Toll-House,” and “Jerry Bundler” in their collections – but has only twice been given a horror anthology of his own. The book you are holding is only the second, after Gary Hoppenstand’s 1997 collection The Monkey’s Paw and Other Tales of Mystery and the Macabre (a title which, respectfully, may be used a little too broadly).

While other Edwardian authors have become staples of horror anthologies based on the strength of a single tale – Perceval Landon’s 1908 “Thurnley Abbey,” F. G. Loring’s 1910 “The Tomb of Sarah,” and Winston Churchill’s (not the British PM) 1899 “Man Overboard!” are all excellent examples. But none of these men wrote a second tale of terror, while Jacobs wrote nearly a dozen pieces of speculative fiction, some half-a-dozen of which were truly phenomenal works, and yet he is often seen as the author of “The Monkey’s Paw” and little else. This is an unfair and unfortunate underestimation of one of the Edwardian era’s most skilled writer of horror fiction. Born to a wharf manager in Victorian London, William grew up playing on the docks, talking to sailors, and watching the ships sail in and out of the harbors, some never to return. His childhood was active and exciting, and adventurous stories teemed in his head, resulting in a knack for effective narrative powers and fluency in nautical language and imagery. Other than his horror stories – in fact, far much more – Jacobs was most well-known as a caustic humorist with a great love for seafaring tales during his heyday in the Edwardian Era.

The very best of Jacobs’ writing was, in fact, tremendously comic, and his reputation was – until the mid-Twentieth Century – almost exclusively built on his humorous stories. Armed with a gift for dialogue, and a profound taste for dramatic irony, his stories were not unlike those of P. G. Wodehouse (who admitted a debt to his comedy stories), Mark Twain, or (to a lesser extent) Ambrose Bierce. His stories were rich in maritime incidents and details, and indeed, several of the stories in this volume are of sailors and the sea. Sadly, a profoundly talented humorist has lost his well-deserved reputation. Although “The Monkey’s Paw” is a virtually flawless masterpiece, I have no doubt that Jacobs would be saddened that his best work has been neglected in recent years. If you have a taste for the comical – as do most fans of horror; we typically like a mixture of comedy and tragedy in our diets – then I would strongly encourage you to read Sailor’s Knots, Many Cargoes, Sea Urchins, and Night Watches, which are a hodge-podge of humorous, satirical, and macabre stories. If you like the works of Twain, Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, Robert Louis Stevenson, E. Nesbit, or William Hope Hodgson, these tales might tickle your fancy. Jacobs’ proficiency lies in his uncommon talent for restraint – he insinuates rather than shows, implies rather than tells.

Unlike other, more intense artists (the flamboyant H. P. Lovecraft and the trigger-happy Bram Stoker come to mind), Jacobs showed tremendous faith in his readership, executing his stories with a delicate and dreamlike touch that owes much to the nuanced, psychological supernaturalism of Americans Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. “The things happened so naturally … that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence,” reports Sergeant-Major Morris in “The Monkey’s Paw.” The same may be easily said of nearly every of Jacobs’ supernatural tales. “The Toll-House” may be an example of groupthink and understandable panic. “The Well” may be a case of poor lighting, tangled lines, and bad luck. “Three Sisters” may tell of a guilty conscience plagued by monomania and hallucinations. Even “The Monkey’s Paw,” which many assume to be a straightforward supernatural tale, may be a haphazard case of coincidental bad luck, a coincidental legal settlement, and a coincidental night traveler who gives up seeking entry at the very moment that he might have been let in.

Jacobs was obsessed with fake ghosts, subtle ghosts, possible hauntings, and nuanced hauntings. He was particularly interested in the personal and psychological impact of the supernatural, while being more or less indifferent to its mechanics or reality. Whether the spooks are genuine, false, or misinterpreted is unimportant because the results are undeniably real: the fear, the doubt, the guilt. They are quite true, and it is this attention to impact rather than appearance – to terror rather than horror – that edges Jacobs ahead of Lovecraft, Stoker, and even M. R. James in his literary skill and merit. His ghosts are not for entertaining so much as they are for introspecting, and they say far more about the mortal condition than they do about the immortal condition. “Better where you are,” the sergeant-major quips bitterly to the thoughtfully ambitious Mr White. Like the previous quote, this one speaks as much to Jacobs’ entire oeuvre as it does to the plot of “The Monkey’s Paw.”

Jacobs was a naturalist, like Stephen Crane (“The Open Boat”), Jack London (“To Build a Fire”), Thomas Hardy (Jude the Obscure), and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness). Naturalism was a literary movement that favored predestination and determinism over free-will and human agency, viewing nature as a cold, indifferent, and unimpressed force of hostility that would eagerly exterminate mankind. Naturalists saw humanity as a fragile but arrogant band of creatures who vainly struggled to alter their fates instead of making the best of a hopefully comfortable and relatively painless life by trading ambition for satisfaction and hubris for pathos. The protagonists of these stories often suffer horrible doom in the hands of nature (or the supernatural) after stepping outside of their relative security in an aspirational bid for wealth, power, or influence. Crane’s characters are drowned, shrapneled, and humiliated; London’s freeze to death, starve to death, and bleed to death; and Jacobs’ are killed impersonating ghosts, lose their families to preventable tragedy, and are arrested after shoddy attempts to conceal murder. “Better where you are…” Better not tempting fate. Better not abandoning the here-and-now, to chase desperately after the uncertain. Better flatfooted on the ground, loving those who love you while you can than chasing pie in the sky – a pie which is certain to prove poisoned, if not to unexpectedly fall and crush its lustful suitors.

Jacobs’ stories often feature Nietzschean characters who imagine themselves to be immune to law, fate, or threats, only to suffer humiliation at the hands of an “I-told-you-so” universe. Ultimately, Jacobs’ characters – who flirt recklessly with a point of no return – cross a threshold into a territory from which they can never will themselves back (murder, arrogance, cosmic hubris, and greed are the common borderlands), and which no power of their own or anyone else can save them from their now destined fate. Of course, we are also invited to wonder if the universe is not even crueler, and if their fates were entirely predetermined: was Mr White made to save the Paw from the fire? Was Herbert fated to die in an industrial accident regardless of any choice of his own? Were the Whites doomed – before their grandparents’ grandparents were even born – to lose their son? Jacobs’ is a Lovecrafian universe with no warmth, concern, or pity for human affairs.

Jacobs favored several particular plots to such a degree that they dominate his robust little canon. The first and most comically common is that of the feigned ghost. Some four or five stories of fake spooks have not been included in this collection because they are simply too humorous, although we paid homage to his skill by presenting one – “In Mid-Atlantic” – to provide a taste of his Twainian humor, and another – “The Vigil” – which, while not an outright comedy features the humiliating experience of a would-be specter. But not all of Jacobs’ feigned phantoms are a laughing matter. Three of his darkest and most anthologized tales follow the ghastly and fatal misadventures of supernatural imposters. One imagines that Jacobs must have had a childhood encounter with a friend or relative trembling beneath the cowl of a bed sheet in a dark corner of a musty cellar or dusky attic. Perhaps if a reputable biography is ever published, it might shed light on some influential experience with just such fakery, but my research – and the scant amount of biography available – have yielded nothing to settle the matter.

Another frequent subject of his is the psychological examination of the guilt-hounded murderer. This plot is actually quite common in his horror fiction, accounting for some forty percent of his speculative fiction. The following anthology contains no fewer than five stories of murder, evasion, and horror. Jacobs – like his predecessor and undeniable influence, Edgar Allan Poe – was eerily adept at mimicking the psychological peaks and troughs of a killer. In his greatest tale of the kind, “His Brother’s Keeper,” we do not even know the means or reason for the killing, all we know is that the victim made the mistake of mentioning that his visit was a fluke known only to himself, and that his death must have involved some bloodshed. The rest of the plot is focused on the killer’s guilt, anxiety, and machinations, which Jacobs demonstrates with an alacrity and skill which can only be called authoritative.

The third type of tale which he favors is that of the ambitious wisher who regrets his wishes. Obviously this is the case with his chef d’oeuvre, “The Monkey’s Paw,” but it is also apparent in his longest horror tale, a novelette called “The Brown Man’s Servant” which follows a greedy pawn broker who refuses to return a stolen pearl of incomprehensible value and must pay the toll for his avarice. The plot is again examined in the Robert Louis Stevenson pastiche (which essentially imagines a version of Treasure Island where Billy Bones is blackmailed into submission Black Dog) “Captain Rogers,” and in the tale which combines all three plots – a woman hopes to inherit wealth by murdering her sister through impersonating a ghost and comes to regret the windfall when she sees (or believes to see) a dubious specter of her own – the chilling and atmospheric “Three Sisters.”

Jacobs was responsible for just about a dozen brilliant horror stories (which is just about eleven more than Loring, Churchill, or Landon wrote), but among them are several genuine masterpieces which I would like you to be particularly aware of. “Jerry Bundler” may be his second most famous story, although it is a story of the supernatural in the same way that “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is an episode of the Twilight Zone about an alien invasion. It is about a perceived haunting and the horrible, infantilizing consequences of fear on a group of adult men. “The Toll-House” is very nearly the same in its examination of a supposed (or actual?) curse on an ostensibly haunted house, and the phantom of fear which drives one of its characters to desperate means. It is one of the finest haunted house stories ever written, standing capably alongside Algernon Blackwood’s “The Empty House,” Ambrose Bierce’s “Some Haunted Houses,” and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunters and the Haunted.”

“The Well” is a brilliant piece of atmospheric horror which may very well be supernatural, although, as Morris warns us, it flirts with the line between ghostly and coincidental. Tremendously influential on England’s premiere ghost story writer, M. R. James, “The Well” is a murder story that – like “His Brother’s Keeper” – hides us from the gore and burns in the back of our brains like the slow-smoldering wick of a bomb. Tremendously tense, eerie, and – at the chilling conclusion – icky, it would be useful to James in a number of stories (particularly “A School Story,” “Martin’s Close,” “Abbot Thomas,” “A Warning to the Curious,” and, of course, “Wailing Well). Few writers have yielded such a shivery story with such restraint and control. It is Jamesian in its very core, and fans of Monty James will easily detect the source of James’ telltale economy of horror in its stark prose. Also of particular brilliance are the masterful murder stories “His Brother’s Keeper” and “Three Sisters,” the tense and haunting “The Brown Man’s Servant,” the tender, softly emotional “Three at a Table,” and the spooky and enigmatic “Over the Side.”

Although “The Monkey’s Paw” is Jacobs’ claim to fame, each of the stories I have named are masterpieces of slow-burning, nuanced terror which culminate in some disturbing insights to human nature, morality, and free will.

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