“Jerry Bundler” is, in all likelihood, Jacobs’ second most famous spook tale other than “The Monkey’s Paw,” which – once you arrive at the ending – is an interesting fact to note. Although “The Toll-House” and “The Well” are more suitable candidates for the genre, there is something about “Jerry Bundler” which grabs the imagination and haunts. More on that later. For the time being a few words on the context within which this story is placed. For the modern audience it teems with charm and dread, but for a Late Victorian readership, the story is a giant (albeit delectable) cliché: it is set at Christmastime, the traditional English setting for ghost stories (Hallowe’en reigns supreme in America, but the English revel in Yuletide frights, hence the lyric “there’ll be scary ghost stories / and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago”), and the ghost represented is a stock figure of late Gothic and early Victorian supernatural lore: an 18th century highwayman (the most popular ghosts seem always to come from the previous century: in the 1700s most spooks were Roundheads or Jacobeans) who haunts the inn where he hanged himself with his cravat (they always do). There is a dependable cadence to it – something reliably scary, and predictably stable. But Jacobs has never been a proponent of literary stability. Take that as a word of caution.
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; like H. G. Wells' "The Red Room," it successfully leaves its reader (or viewer) with a sinking cynicism of humanity and a jittery fear of fear.
“Bundler” is one of a number of tales by its author which feature phony ghosts. Likewise, Jacobs’ literary kinsman William Hope Hodgson (whose tales were also either about the sea, the supernatural, or both) frequently visited the idea of hoaxed hauntings. In one such story Hodgson has his immortal psychic detective Carnacki (Sherlock Holmes meets Scooby Doo) investigates a haunted dagger said to rise up and slay victims by means of an invisible assailant. Clad in armor and armed with a camera, the Edwardian Freddy Jones demonstrates that the weapon is operated with a spring: a detail he discovers by examining before-and-after photos of the murderous dirk. But in “Bundler,” there is no crowning discovery – no triumph, satisfaction, or resolution. There is only horror and death and tragedy. “Jerry Bundler” is a brilliant study in fear, because with so few details (a reported white, leering face and the second-hand story of his taste for garroting), an atmosphere of undeniable terror is mounted, and – like a weather balloon elevated by sightless gas – the mood of menace is deeply felt in spite of the phantom’s failure to appear. The concept of a room filled with grown men rationally bartering for sleeping partners is in some ways comical, in others disturbing to the most ancient solace that children have to fall back on: adults are not afraid of the dark. But they are, and furthermore they may be terrified of it – frightened enough to ramp a churlish prank into irrational manslaughter. “Bundler,” unlike Carnacki, follows the complete separation of imagination from rationality, resulting in knee-jerk bids for self-preservation, widespread distrust, and panicked groupthink. In the span of some thirty minutes a group of grown men have gone from being utterly unimpressed by three surefire ghost stories to killing a man (who might as well have leapt out in a bed sheet shouting BOO!) in a mindless panic. Suddenly the universe is bereft of rational adults, and we are left with a stage (literally – Jacobs’ tale was so successful he made it a stage play) occupied by frightened children who scrunch together to ward away bogies. Who is the grown up in this tale? Who can be gone to for reassurance and security? Surely there is none.