Second to “The Monkey’s Paw” and the similarly-themed “Jerry Bundler,” “The Toll-House” is Jacobs’ most anthologized horror story, and with good reason. Few haunted house stories have ever been rendered with better attention to mood, suspense, irony, and fear. Algernon Blackwood’s “The Empty House” is perhaps among the best (before the resurgence and Golden Age of the sub-genre with Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King), and – as it was written the previous year – may have had a substantial influence on Jacobs’ tale of ghost hunters becoming increasingly anxious during a wake at a spook house.
The supreme early master of the haunted house story, however, the American cynic Ambrose Bierce, had the clearest impact on this plot with his many ambiguous and unsettling tales of watchers-by-the-dead (including the truly chilling “A Fruitless Assignment,” “A Vine on a House,” “The Spook House,” “The Other Lodgers,” and the psychologically convoluting “A Watcher by the Dead,” “The Suitable Surroundings,” “Beyond the Wall,” “The Night-Doings at ‘Deadman’s’”). As in many of his horror stories, Jacobs’ employs a high degree of ambiguity, cloaking his tale in suggestive uncertainty, and stoking a high degree of dramatic tension like a boiler whose pressure surges exponentially before releasing itself in a scream. “The Toll-House” is unquestionably one of the best haunted house stories in British literature, and one of the ablest written tales in Jacobs’ canon.
Three young friends -- the sardonic Meagle, nervous Barnes, and easygoing White and Lester -- are reading tea leaves at the White Feather Inn. Having stopped for supper on the tenth day of their hiking holiday, they are now fortifying themselves for the dare they are about to undertake: spending the night in The Toll-House -- a local haunted house with an evil reputation. Although group are made up of cocksure skeptics, they barely suppress their anxiety about staying up in a house which is said to take a "toll" of one life whenever it is inhabited. Over their cups they relive the most famous victims: the latest, a tramp, had been paid half a crown to spend the night there, only to be found hanging from a rope on the balustrade in the morning. The Inn's manager remembers that the man's death was blamed on mental illness, but -- having known him for years -- denies that anything was wrong with his friend's mind. As the young men prepare to venture out, the manager mutters that he wouldn't spend the night there for 100 pounds.
They head out, cheering one another with taunting banter, but the mood is notably dampened as the road leads through a black wood with the moon muffled dimly in clouds. They arrive at the storied spot -- an abandoned lodge -- "hidden by overgrown shrubs" with its drive "choked with rank growths." The manager had directed them to a window in the back where they could gain entry, but Meagle demands that they enter through the front door, and sarcastically alerts the "ghostly servants" by slamming the rusty knocker. Joking that the spirits are rude for keeping them waiting, and knocks again, but is startled to find that the door has now opened.
They enter and fumble for their candles to dispel the dark and damp. Somehow the door has closed, although no one remembers closing it. Meagle holds his light aloft and explores the staircase, climbing to the top, and walking along the balustrade. One section has been broken away and he wryly notes that this must be where the tramp hanged himself -- peering into the blackness below. They find a small, square room and lay down for their vigil, lighting pipes and passing around a flask of whiskey. White bemoans the lack of water for his whiskey, and Meagle jokingly tugs on the kitchen bell-pull to order some. They hear the bell ringing downstairs and chastise Meagle for his brazenness.
Barnes admits to being frightened, but the rest tease him and cheerfully smoke in the darkness. Meagle tries to joke, but is himself startled when the candle falls over and is extinguished. White claims to have heard a laugh somewhere in the room. Barnes becomes insistent that they return, but finally calms down and tries to speak to White.
He is surprised to get no answer, and finds that even shaking him produces no result. He and Lester shake and shout at him, but he seems to be "sleeping like the dead." Suddenly Lester becomes frantic at the thought that it might not be a nap, and Meagle agrees that "there's something wrong about that sleep." Lester fears that if "he goes to sleep like that, why shouldn't--" but something in the darkness cuts him off.
Meagle tries to rouse White, but suddenly realizes that Lester, too, is unresponsive to his comments. Shifting his attention, he tells Barnes that they should abandon their friends before they, too, "fall asleep," which Barnes refuses to do. This notwithstanding, Barnes is driven nearly mad with terror when Meagle slumps to the floor. Something heavy seems to be creaking up the staircase, and he frantically dares the ghosts to show themselves, before racing out into the darkness, laughing defiantly as he charges his unseen assailants.
Meanwhile, Meagle perks up (revealing that it has been a ruse) and whispers that their prank may have worked too well. White and Lester remain silent. Now the contagion of fear has passed into Meagle's imagination and he angrily demands that his friends cease their game and join him to save Barnes from insanity. No response. "'All right,' he said in a trembling voice, 'you won't frighten me.'"
But his words continue to summon no response from the two bodies. He leaves the room and waits for laughter, but nothing. Angrily, he grabs White's finger and holds it to his candle... Nothing. In the hallway he hears footsteps running. Panicked, he goes over to the balustrade, peers into the darkness, and calls for Barnes. Nothing. The footsteps lead him into the moldy kitchen where he sees a door closing. Hoping that it is Barnes, he follows them
Now he is beginning to see the figure as it moves in the darkness. It climbs up the stairs and turns the corner. Meagle follows it down the corridor where it stops at the end of the hall -- silhouetted against a window. Having cornered it, Meagle is suddenly filled with the darkest of doubts. It turns and walks stealthily towards him. "Barnes," he sputters, "for God's sake, is it you?" The shadowy stranger bolts towards him in a run. Stifling a sob, Meagle bolts for his life, careening down the hall, charging towards the stairs, and leaping for safety as "he seemed to slip off the earth into space..."
In the morning Lester awakens to sunlight pouring through the windows while White nurses a burnt finger. There is no sign of Meagle or Barnes. They head to the corridor where they find Barnes sleeping at one end, unaware of how he got there. The three friends shudder to think what would have happened if Barnes had slept-walked off the edge of the fatal balustrade -- but it doesn't require much imagination: Lester, pointing to the floor below screams, and the others rush to his side where they peer down at Meagle's corpse.
“It would all happen so natural, you might think it a coincidence if so disposed.” So says the world-weary Sergeant-Major Morris before passing the monkey’s paw to the ill-fated White family. The warning is one which concisely explains the deep tension which haunts so many of Jacobs’ tales (“The Brown Man’s Servant,” “Jerry Bundler,” “The Well,” “Three Sisters,” “His Brother’s Keeper,” and “The Monkey’s Paw” to name some of the most notable). The eponymous toll-house is renowned for taking lives, and by the end of the story, this is precisely what occurs. The fatal event could certainly have been a combination of coincidence, self-fulfilling prophecy, psychological confusion, and ill-advised hazing, but just enough doubt has been cast to shade the death in supernatural suspicion.
The question is not necessarily whether there was a ghost in the house – we are fully confident that there was nothing preternatural in the friends’ feigned slumber – but whether the house eats men’s lives through the events that it orchestrates with atmosphere, fear, and fate. Jacobs was a literary naturalist, like Jack London, Stephen Crane, and Joseph Conrad, and like all of those relatively pessimistic men, his fiction explores the philosophy of determinism, a worldview that favors the gravity of predestination over the agency of free will. Jacobs’ naturalism thunders in this tale, which suggests that no group of men could spend the night in the toll-house without being forced by fate to surrender one of their number to death. Nothing could be done to avoid the inevitable tragedy. No human choice, decision, or resolve could be taken to prevent destiny.
And Jacobs’ stories have another shade of intrigue to them when we consider whether the victims of his stories are given over to their fate after having made an unpardonable choice (sleeping in the infamous toll-house, wishing on a cursed talisman, refusing to return a stolen diamond when given a chance, killing a man and hiding the body, etc.), or whether they were predestined to both make the choice and suffer the consequences. Would Meagle have survived the night if he had decided not to try to pursue Barnes? If he had decided not to prank Barnes? If he decided not to stay the night in the toll-house? Or was his fate determined, unavoidable, and inevitable?