This week’s piece of weird fiction is an interesting haunted house story from an author best know for “The Monkey’s Paw”.
Review: “The Toll-House”, W. W. Jacobs, 1907.
This story moves quickly and a lot of it is dialogue.
Four men, seemingly young men walking about England – they have enough money to stay in inns on the way – decide they want to go to a real haunted house. They hear about one from the proprietor of the inn they are staying in. He tells them about a house where a head was seen hanging out the window in moonlight. A tramp went into the house a while back and was found dead the next morning, “hanging from the balusters”.
Taking a few candles from the inn owner, the four go to the house that night.
There is a rather cliched the closed door to the house suddenly opening and then closing by itself.
They start by exploring the place by candlelight including taking a look at the broken balusters where the tramp was found dead.
Meagle (and we don’t know anything about these characters except their names) jocularly rings the servant’s bell for water.
Barnes wants the joking stopped. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he says his nerves are on edge. He also thinks he hears a door opening in the floor below them and somebody on the steps.
The four sit down to play cards and smoke. One of the candles slips off a doorknob where it was stuck with some melted wax.
As another candle is lit, White thinks he hears a laugh.
Barnes suggests they all leave. Meagle tells him he can go if he wants – and, when he walks down the stairs, why doesn’t he ask the “tramp to take your hand for you”.
Barnes gets up in a huff, goes to the door and just listens for a while.
Meagle dares him to go down the hall and come back.
Barnes declines and goes back to playing cards. He says his nerves tell him something is outside. His rational mind says there isn’t.
White suddenly falls asleep during cards. They try to wake him up, unsuccessfully, and just prop him against a wall. Lester becomes concerned about how hard White is to wake up.
Meagle suggests he and Lester take White some place. Meagle turns toward a sound he hears out that door and looks back to see Lester now asleep on the floor. He can’t be woken up either.
Meagle tells Barnes they need to leave now. Barnes says they can’t leave White and Lester in the house. Meagle says, if Barnes falls asleep, he will leave.
They again try to wake the sleepers, and they begin to hear noises in the hall outside. Shutting the door to the hall and looking into the room again, Barnes sees Meagle asleep.
Barnes, hearing footsteps in the hall, leaves the room to look.
Meagle moves. “Good Lord, Lester, we’ve driven him mad. . . . We must go after him.”
But what seems to be a joke isn’t going as planned. Lester and White don’t wake up.
And Meagle is nervous. The stillness of the house is “horrible to him”. He doesn’t even hear people breathing. He tries to wake up White by holding a candle flame under his finger. White sleeps on.
Meagle goes after Barnes in the dark – through a kitchen, up the stairs. He sees a figure in front of a window. He calls out to Barnes and gets nothing for an answer.
Then Meagle begins to hear steps coming after him, up and down passages like they are looking for him.
He runs down the stairs and “suddenly he seemed to slip off the earth into space”.
The story abruptly changes.
It’s the next morning. Lester wakes up and gets off the floor. White wonders why his finger hurts. Barnes wakes up at the other end of the room. He doesn’t even remember coming to this place or falling asleep.
Lester points out it’s not a bad place to sleep. “Another yard and where would you have been?” He indicates the gap in the balusters.
And then he looks over the stairs “and all three stood staring at the dead man below”.
And that’s the story, economical, even minimalist
You could see the story as having nothing supernatural in it. Just three tired guys who fall asleep in a haunted house and the fourth who takes a fatal turn off the stair.
That’s not really a convincing interpretation. Lester and White seem in an unnatural state. And it’s not clear whether it’s Barnes that Meagle saw. That figure he saw was, after all, in the portion of the house where others have seen a head outside the window.
And, of course, there’s the uncanny coincidence of Meagle dying where the tramp did.
Having a haunting induce people into an unnatural sleep is an interesting idea. After all, isn’t the usual idea behind a ghost haunting a place is that the ghost be noticed and not put its audience to sleep?
And, of course, as the innkeeper implies, the toll-house requires a death when people enter it. The price gets paid here.