One of the perks of teaching is all the time we get off. For my money, it’s not the long summer break that is the best—usually because I spend my summers working—but Christmas Break, which stretches on for two stately weeks. It’s the ideal amount of time to decompress after the long Fall semester.
Next to that, however, is Spring Break, which at my little school lasts for a gloriously overstuffed eleven days, if you include the weekends (it’s seven workdays in total). I still contend that Easter should get its full due and, a la a Southern European and/or Latin American country, get a full two weeks.
Nevertheless, the time off gives me a bit more time to relax and reflect (although I’ve been promised quite a few chores from my parents, who I am visiting for a bit)—and to read. When it comes to books, I have the same issue as I do at buffets: my eyes are bigger than my stomach (or, in this case, my capacity to read everything). I always bring too many books with me on any trip, and am lucky to crack even one of them. I also overindulge in written junk food, like reading various articles and blog posts online.
Further, my parents’ house, like my own, is full of books. So I often find myself thumbing through their collection while neglecting my own Babel-esque stack of half-read tomes.
Such has been the case this Spring Break. My own stack of reading sits forlornly to my right, probably feeling (if books can feel) a tad unnecessary. Instead, I’ve been reading through a short story collection, 11 Great Horror Stories, edited by Betty M. Owen. It’s a collection my mother picked up from a Scholastic book sale when she was still in school (this particular printing, the fourth, was published in March 1970, though the original copyright date is 1969), and it’s held up remarkably well for a paperback.
The collection itself is not all that horrific. Several of the stories are only tangentially related, at best, to the horror genre; some of them, like Poe’s “The Oblong Box,” are more properly mysteries. The collection does open with H.P. Lovecraft’s magisterial “The Dunwich Horror,” which is a must-read, although I skipped over it on this reading because it’s nearly sixty-five pages long.
For a detailed synopsis of all eleven stories, GoodReads.com reviewer Williwaw has written an excellent and useful summary of the collection, without giving away any of the fun and macabre twists.
“The Judge’s House” tells the story of a young mathematics student, Malcolm Malcolmson, who is intent on utter isolation (an appropriate tale for The Age of The Virus) in order to study, distraction-free, for a pending examination. He finds the nearest town whose name he does not recognize, boards a train, and then roams about town looking for the perfect place to begin his secluded studies.
Naturally, he stumbles upon the titular house. The house, having sat long unoccupied, has accumulated a sense of dread and terror among the people of Benchurch. The somewhat hysterical but doting local innkeeper warns Malcolmson against letting the house, but the real estate agent for the house is so ecstatic to have a renter, he offers very favorable terms. Malcolmson hires a local widow living on public charity to clean up and prepare his meals, and the whole town arrives—partially out of morbid fascination, partially out of small-town hospitality—to move the young mathematician into his dreadful new home (the innkeeper even brings him a fresh bed!).
The house, of course, is that of an old judge, but not just any judge: although he’s been deceased for nearly 100 years, his reputation for cruel, draconian sentences still strikes terror in the hearts of the townsfolk. After this death, reports of strange goings-on in the house, as well as the judge’s formidable, malicious reputation, scare folks away from the place—which, naturally, suits it perfectly for Malcolmson’s desired isolation.
All is well for the young scholar as he sets about his arduous studies, which involve laboring long into the night with hot tea and obscure mathematical treatises. At first, the scurrying in the wainscoting of the rats of a hundred years of neglect distracts the student, but soon their scritching and scratching becomes the amenable, companionable background noise to his work (much like the persistently ticking clock in my parents’ dining room).
But then, the antagonist arrives—a huge, hideous rat, with “baleful” eyes, who stares maliciously at Malcolmson. Malcolmson chases the rat away with a fire poker on the first and second evenings, and again the second evening with a thrown Bible (the Bible, of course, terrifies the rat more than anything else).
I can’t write much more without giving the whole thing away, but I will add that, each night, the evil rat makes his escape by way of an old rope, dangling ominously from a warning bell attached to the roof of the house.
The story is a masterpiece of gradual suspense and mood. Malcolmson is a bit one-dimensional, as he is so driven by his studies, but the reader sympathizes with him, and roots for him to the end. He is so focused on his studies—so caught up in the airy world of academe—that he fails to see warning signs around him. Yet he is not so foolish as to be unlikable.
Stoker plots the story beautifully. The tension rises ever-so-gradually, with the climax coming (appropriately enough) during a vicious thunderstorm. I was up late last night reading this story (which I completed this morning), and the scenes of Malcolmson slaving over his work by the fading light of the fireplace were enhanced by my nocturnal reading. We also had a terrific thunderstorm in the wee hours this morning, so the effect was fresh when I finished the story.
You can read the whole story online, but I recommend picking up a copy in paperback (it’s been republished many times) in order to really get into the mood. I can’t imagine reading it on a brightly lit computer screen; at least, I doubt it would have the same power. There’s also an audio recording on YouTube.