Although “The Monkey’s Paw” is without a doubt Jacobs’ most popular tale the following story is my absolute favorite of his. It also had a profound impression on a young academic who had just recently begun writing his own horror stories. His name was Montague Rhodes James, and we’ll talk more about him in the conclusion. “The Well” is a tremendously dark story – both thematically and artistically. So much shadow covers it. Suggestion reigns in its chilling text, and terror is afforded the throne rather than the much easier and more tempting Prince Horror. Like so many of Jacobs’ stories, it features a murder, and the plight of that murderer as he tries to hide his crime. But fate conspires against him – or is it Something else? Desolate and haunting, this is a champion among ghost stories, teeming as it does with all the horror of “Thurnley Abbey,” the dread of “The Beckoning Fair One,” the gloom of “Schalken the Painter,” and the grisly, suggestive prose of “A Warning to the Curious,” or “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad.” Truly, very few ghost stories exhibit as much control, implication, and trust as does the following. It is haunting, chilling, and difficult to forget.
The story is tremendously dark and cynical – typical of Jacobs’ gloomy supernatural universe. Two friends, Jem Benson and his friend Carr, are playing pool in his billiard room and discussing life, love, and finances. Carr has been tremendously irresponsible with his money and is in dire straits, but seems confident that it will all work out. Benson is curious as to why Carr seems so sure of himself and Carr reveals that he expects Benson to pay off his debtors to the tune of 1,500 in sterling. Aware of Benson’s recent engagement to the lovely Olive, Carr is casually prepared to send her a pack of explicit letters written to a former lover unless Benson settles his debts. For a moment we step out of the action, and when we return, Benson is alone in the room and Carr is gone, never to return.
Weeks later Benson is on a walk with Olive in a nearby park. Olive finds herself drawn to a shadowy well in an overgrown area, but Benson shows an aversion to it; he thinks the well is unhealthy, that the ground is damp, and that the moist air rising from its mouth is miasmic. But Olive finds it romantic and insists on sitting on its edge. Clearly uncomfortable, Benson joins her, and they cuddle there in the moonlight. Suddenly Olive jumps up and stares down the well. Benson demands to know what scared her, she shrugs it off but claims to have heard someone behind her say “Jem, help me out!” They settle back down on the well’s edge, but Olive cries out again, further terrifying Benson – this time her antique bracelet has fallen into the well. Jem begs her to give it up for lost, but Olive insists that it be recovered. Benson is deeply uncomfortable with her request, but begrudgingly agrees.
Later that night Benson returns with two servants, a rope, and a light. The servants lower Benson into its depths and promise to pull him out immediately if he signals them. The men wait for a few minutes without a problem, before the rope suddenly tears from their hands with a furious jerk. Regaining their hold, the servants pull as fast as they can, noting that the weight on Benson’s end seems to have doubled. And then it happens: He had one foot against the well, and was pulling manfully; the burden was nearing the top. “A long pull and a strong pull, and the face of a dead man with mud in the eyes and nostrils came peering over the edge. Behind it was the ghastly face of his master; but this he saw too late, for with a great cry he let go his hold of the rope and stepped back. The suddenness overthrew his assistant, and the rope tore through his hands. There was a frightful splash.” The servants rush to the edge to save their master but see and hear nothing but the void…
M. R. James was tremendously influenced by “The Well,” incorporating its brilliant eeriness in a variety of stories. “A School Story” told of two skeletons found in a well, one much younger than the other, and yet being clutched by the older – the implied murder victim. “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” follows a treasure hunter down a well where he shifts a block of masonry only to be embraced by a slimy, oozing entity. “Martin’s Close” relates the story of a drowned woman, whose drenched corpse waddles after its killer, driving him nearly mad with terror. “Wailing Well,” of course, is headlined by a well haunted by tottering, man-eating wraiths. Some critics have compared his masterpiece “A Warning to the Curious” and its tense scene of the treasure seeker burrowing through a cavity in the earth – all the time feeling as though a skeletal being were clinging to his back – with the Freudian shaft of “The Well.” The story’s influence on other writers’ is equally impressive, but for James it was a haunting, inescapable image, and without doubt: it is one of Jacobs’ absolute best horror tales, rivalling all others save “The Monkey’s Paw,” and standing out in the genre for its mastery of mood, dread, terror, and atmosphere.
Tightly written, it shows just enough without ever showing too much (the murder, the body disposal, or the encounter with the corpse for instance). Aside from being a typical tale of a guilty conscience driven to exposure through fate, it is a fascinating psychological piece rife with Freudian and Jungian imagery that beckons us to peer into the black, noisome shafts of our own unconscious – polluted by sins, crime, hatred, fears, rage, and sadism that – but by no means too close. Afraid of being exposed as having engaged in some tasteless affairs (in an age when this was a sign of degeneration rather than a badge of distinction), Benson (almost definitely named after one or more members of the ghost-story-writing family – A. C., R. H., or the inestimable E. F. Benson) travels deeper into the bleak spaces of his character until he is ultimately dragged down into an airless and lightless world of black oblivion.