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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"The Judge's House": An Example of Gothic Technique

 Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Bram Stoker, the author of the novel Dracula and the short story “Dracula‘s Guest,” also wrote many horrific short stories other than “Dracula‘s Guest,” one of which is “The Judge’s House,” which, having fallen into the public domain, may be read, free, on several websites.

“The Judge’s House” is the subject of this post. However, before turning our attention to it, a few words concerning its author and the story in general seem to be in order.

Stoker, who was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1847, died in London, England, in 1912. Between these fateful years, he wrote not only Dracula, which secured his literary fame, but also ten other novels and numerous short stories, yet, except for Dracula (and more as a character than as a work of fiction), he is largely unknown and underappreciated.

According to Michael Kelahan’s “Introduction” to Dracula’s Guest & Other Tales of Horror (New York, NY: Fall River Press, 2010), Stoker graduated “with honors in mathematics” from Trinity College, at which enrolled “at age seventeen.” (The protagonist of “The Judge’s House” is a mathematics student, too, possibly at Cambridge University.) A ghost story, “The Judge’s House” is (like H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room,”) a study in Gothic technique, the use of setting to create suspense, and the application of a particular narrative formula--that of the horror tale--to a work of fiction. It is these points--technique, suspense, and formula--that I propose to discuss as I summarize Stoker’s haunting tale.

To differentiate my comments from my summary of Stoker’s story, I will include them in red font.

The story begins with protagonist Malcolm Malcolmson’s intentional isolation of himself from both his friends and “friends’ friends,” the better to devote himself to his preparation for an upcoming mathematics examination. To this end, he travels for three days, to Benchurch, where he rents an out-of-the-way, uninhabited Jacobean residence that appears “more a fortified house than an ordinary dwelling.” The house has stood idle for “a term of years,” with the result that it has acquired an unpleasant reputation, or “absurd prejudice.”

A ploy of the horror writer is to refer to an unsettling or unsavory reputation regarding a supposed place of evil, as Stoker does here. The servants in H. G. Wells’ short story “The Red Room” likewise declare that the castle that the protagonist visits is said to be haunted, and they give credence to the rumors, believing them to be true. In the movie based upon Stephen King’s short story, “1408,” the hotel’s manager also warns the protagonist (numerous times) that the room in which he wants to spend the night is haunted. In all three cases, the cautions fall upon deaf ears, as is, again, the traditional response (or non-response) of the main character to such warnings. Of course, such statements are a means of foreshadowing: through them, the author has all but promised the reader that something terrible will happen soon.

Asking the advice of the inn’s landlady, Mrs. Witham, as to what “stores and provisions” he is apt to need uring his proposed three-months’ stay, he horrifies her by announcing his intention of staying in “the Judge’s house,” which, she assures him, was home to a “judge who was held in great terror on account of his harsh sentences” and confesses that she would not stay in the house for even “one hour,” even for “all the money in Drinkwater’s Bank.”

Many tales of haunted houses associate the domicile with past evil or with a previous owner, such as the judge, who committed despicable acts or atrocities. The suggestion of such associations is that the past evil or previous owner is somehow the cause of the present evil.

The servants in Wells’ story also tell their guest that there is no way that they would stay in the haunted room and plead with him not to do so, either, just as Mrs. Witham suggests to Malcolm that renting the judge’s house is ill-advised. Such counsel is another of the haunted house conventions, and it is as operative in contemporary tales as it was in Gothic literature.

The student tells her that, although her concern touches him, she need not worry about him, because he will have no time to worry about “mysterious ‘somethings,’ and his work is of too exact and prosaic a kind to allow his having any corner in his mind for mysteries of any kind.”

Typically, the protagonist is a hardheaded realist and thoroughgoing skeptic. Often, he or she is a scientist. A mathematician is an appropriate alternative, and, we should remember, Stoker himself was a student of mathematics during his college days.

Malcolm takes up residence in the house’s enormous dining room, where Mrs. Witham, a charwoman named Mrs. Dempster, and “several men and boys” set him up with furniture and provisions, Mrs. Witham suggesting that he put a screen around his “bed at night,” to ward off chilly draughts of air, although she herself would be too afraid of the “things” that might “put their heads round the sides, or over the top” to spy upon her as she slept. Her talk so disturbs her that she flees the house, much to Mrs. Dempster’s disdain. Unlike the inn’s landlady, the charwoman is, she says, unafraid of “all the bogies in the kingdom.”

Mrs. Witham is characterized as a superstitious person, prone to fear even imaginary “bogies,” as her opposite, or foil, the skeptical Mrs. Dempster refers to things that go bump in the night. Her foolish fears suggest that, perhaps, Malcolm is right to be skeptical about the reputation of the judge’s house. Perhaps we should be skeptical as well.

Mrs. Dempster’s own bravery derives, she suggests, from her knowledge that apparent “bogies” are really nothing more than natural phenomena that are misunderstood or unidentified:


“I’ll tell you what it is, sir,” she said; “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things--except bogies! Rats and mice, and beetles; and creaky doors, and loose slates, and broken panes, and stiff drawer handles, that stay out when you pull them and then fall down in the middle of the night.”
Mrs. Dempster is much of the same mind concerning “bogies” as Malcolm, and, as a recipient of charity who is forbidden, upon the pain of the loss of her benefits, from sleeping anywhere other than the home that has been provided for her, free of charge, she has good reason to refuse to stay the night at the judge’s house. However, her situation may seem a bit too convenient to readers. Although true, her reason for not spending the night in the isolated house prevents her from witnessing or, worse, experiencing any of the phenomena that allegedly occur on the premises at night. She can, in short, afford her skepticism, for it costs her nothing and need not be put to the test.

Moreover, her doubt adds another element to Stoker’s story that is typical of its genre, which is that incidents that are alleged to be supernatural must be explainable, in principle, at least, by reference to natural causes so that it is possible to read the same story from two perspectives--the natural and the supernatural--at the same time.

After the charwoman cleans the house and lays Malcolm’s meal, she returns home, leaving the student to his studies. He prepares for the examination until eleven o’clock at night, when he pauses to stoke the fire and make some tea. As he enjoys the beverage, he hears “for the first time what a noise the rats” are “making.” He supposes that the rats have been quiet until now because they’d been intimidated by his presence and the fire, but have since grown accustomed to both and are “now disporting themselves as” is “their wont.” Sure enough, as he finds later, in examining the room more closely, there are rats in the walls: “Here and there as he went round he saw some crack or hole blocked for a moment by the face of a rat with bright eyes glittering in the light” of his lamp. What impresses him most, however, is the “great alarm bell on the roof,” which Mrs. Witham had mentioned to him previously, in passing: it is suspended “in a corner of the room on the right-hand side of the fireplace.”

The presence of rats, especially following Mrs. Dempster’s earlier declaration that “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things--except bogies”--“rats and mice” included, provides a natural explanation for seemingly otherworldly incidents as an alternative to a belief in the supernatural.

Returning to his studies, Malcolm forgets the rats, the alarm bell rope, and everything else, until, hours later, he is disturbed by the sudden cessation of the noise of the rats in the walls. He is even more disturbed to see “on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace. . . an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him.” When he pretends to throw something at the rodent, it amazes him by refusing to budge and, instead, displays “its great white teeth angrily. . . its cruel eyes” shining “in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.” Unfortunately, when Malcolm rushes at the animal with a poker, “to kill it,” the rat retreats “up the rope of the alarm bell,” escaping, and setting off a “noisy scampering of the rats in the wainscot.”

Were the rat of a normal size, it wouldn’t be nearly as intimidating as the “enormous one,” and Stoker’s anthropomorphic description of the rodent’s gaze as implying that the animal feels various emotions--all negative, of course--prepares readers for the narrator’s suggestion, later on, that the huge rat may, in fact, be associated with--or may even be--the judge himself.

Malcolm goes to sleep just before dawn and is dead to the world until Mrs. Dempster’s preparation of his breakfast awakens him. He goes for a walk, to study his books in a pleasant wood, stopping by the inn to say hello to Mrs. Witham on his way back to the judge’s house. When he tells her of the enormous rat, she refers to it as the devil, which Malcolm finds so amusing that he laughs, causing the elderly woman herself to chuckle as well.

Mrs. Witham’s half-serious, half-joking identification of the huge rat with the devil suggests another possible true identity for the rodent, besides that of the late judge, even though both Malcolm and she laugh at the absurdity of her suggestion. Readers may chuckle, too, or even roll their eyes; still, through Mrs. Witham’s statement, Stoker has suggested the possibility of a much greater source of evil, Satan himself, thereby elevating the suspense of the tale with but a few exchanges of dialogue between the main character and one of his new acquaintances, the inn’s landlady.

That evening, the rats’ commotion and noise is greater than it had been the previous evening. As on the previous night, the rats later become suddenly silent and Malcolm is disturbed to see the “enormous rat” staring at him again, “with baleful eyes,” from the “old high-backed carved oak chair beside the fireplace.” This time, the student throws a textbook at the rodent, but it doesn’t flee until he runs at it with the poker, at which point it scampers, again, “up the rope of the alarm bell,” its escape seeming to occasion “the renewal of the noise made by the general rat community.”

In most horror stories, the bizarre events of the action take place at night or, at least, in the dark, and Stoker’s haunted house story is no exception. Again, the reference to the rats allows a natural explanation for seemingly supernatural events. Notice, too, Stoker’s repetitions of similar events during successive days and nights. Most horror stories, past and present, offer some variation or other upon this strategy, repeating, with minor variations, one or more uncanny or fantastic incidents, or a series of such incidents, to heighten suspense while, at the same time, creating verisimilitude (or seeking to do so) by rendering the extraordinary ordinary--or at least familiar--through the recurrence of these incidents.

Thinking that he will trap the rat, Malcolm arranges his equipment so that it will disclose the spot through which the rodent disappears and then returns, again, to his studies:

Accordingly he lit another lamp and placed it so that it would shine well into the right-hand corner of the wall by the fireplace. Then he got all the books he had with him, and placed them handy to throw at the vermin. Finally he lifted the rope of the alarm bell and placed the end of it on the table, fixing the extreme end under the lamp. As he handled it he could not help noticing how pliable it was, especially for so strong a rope, and one not in use. “You could hang a man with it,” he thought to himself. When his preparations were made he looked around and said complacently:

“There now, my friend, I think we shall learn something of you this time!”
As I point out in other of my posts, the turning point of many horror stories occurs as the protagonist learns the origin or the nature of the threat that he faces. Through Malcolm’s talking to himself, Stoker suggests the nature of the turning point in this story and suggests, also, that it will hinge upon discovery or revelation.

When the sound of the rats again abruptly ends, Malcolm looks up to see the huge rat again, throws several books at it, and finally drives it off. The rodent retreats, Malcolm sees, through a hole in one of the paintings on the wall. Examining which books he threw at the rat to identify which tome caused it to withdraw, he sees that it was none of his mathematical treatises, but a holy book:

He picked up the books one by one, commenting on them as he lifted them. “Conic Sections he does not mind, nor Cycloidal Oscillations, nor the Principia, nor Quaternions, nor Thermodynamics. Now for the book that fetched him!” Malcolmson took it up and looked at it. As he did he started, and a sudden pallor overspread his face. He looked around uneasily and shivered slightly, as he murmured to himself:

“The Bible my mother gave me! What an odd coincidence.”
Indirectly, by pointing out through his narrator, that it is the Bible, and not human beings’ own rational faculties, as symbolized by the mathematics textbooks in the protagonists’ position, that drives the gigantic rat from the room, Stoker indirectly endorses the mystic’s point of view over that of the common-sense realist. Mathematics had not the power to banish the apparently supernatural villain, but the Bible, which contains a decidedly supernatural and, from a naturalistic standpoint, fantastic, worldview, exorcises the demon, so to speak. Although there is a bit of humor in Stoker’s description of the books, there may also be a suggestion that his readers would do well not to dismiss the otherworldly worldviews of religious and metaphysical or mystical sources of wisdom.  (At the same time, maintaining the tension between possible natural and supernatural explanations for the extraordinary incidents that take place--or appear to take place--in the story, the protagonist suggests that the Bible's frightening away the rat might be merely "an odd coincidence.")

After sleeping, Malcolm returns to his studies, paying Mrs. Witham another visit in the afternoon, where he finds her in the company of a gentleman identified to him as Dr. Thornhill, who admits to having come in answer to Mrs. Witham’s request that he see and advise the student. Malcolm is to avoid late nights and limit his tea intake. The physician also tells his patient that the rope up which the enormous rat runs is actually “the very rope which the hangman used for all of the victims of the Judge’s judicial rancor!” After Malcolm leaves, the doctor informs Mrs. Witham that he had deliberately planted the image of the hangman’s rope in his patient’s mind so that, should Malcolm suffer “some strange fright or hallucination,” he will use the rope to sound the alarm so that he may be assisted. He predicts that the student will sound the alarm this very night.

The reference to the hangman brings another element of eeriness to the book, and the doctor’s advice that Malcolm limit the amount of tea that he consumes provides another possible natural explanation for the protagonist’s apparently extraordinary experiences at the judge’s house: too much caffeine.

Back at the Judge’s house, Malcolm returns to his studies, and all is well until a storm begins to rage, causing the rope attached to the roof alarm to rise and fall and reminding the student of Dr. Thornhill’s declaration that the rope was the one that “the hangman used for victims of the Judge’s judicial rancor.”

Reminders to characters are, of course, reminders to readers as well, and such reminders maintain, if and when they do not also actually heighten, suspense by bringing to readers’ conscious awareness threads of the narrative that have been woven into the story in previous scenes. Again, the judge is characterized as irrational and as motivated not by a belief in justice but by “rancor.”

As Malcolm considers who might have been hanged on the judge’s orders, the enormous rat again descends the rope, “glaring at him steadily.” It swiftly retreats, stirring the other rats in hiding to commotion, and Malcolm is reminded that he has “not investigated the lair of the rat or looked at the pictures, as he had intended.” He lights a lamp and conducts his investigation. What he sees first startles, then frightens, him:

At the first glance [at the painting with the hole in it through which the large rat had vanished] he started back so suddenly that he almost dropped the lamp, and a deadly pallor overspread his face. His knees shook, and heavy drops of sweat came on his forehead, and he trembled like an aspen.
The reappearances of the larger-than-life rat are coupled with advancements of the story’s plot, serving as reminders to Malcolm to undertake actions that he has previously decided, but has since forgotten, to take. Earlier, the rat’s appearance reminded him to seek its avenue of escape; now, its appearance reminds him to “investigate the lair of the rat.” By coupling the rat’s multiple appearances with the protagonist’s forgotten intentions, Stoker prevents the rodent’s reappearances from becoming tedious to the reader, seeming, as they do, to serve a purpose; indeed, one begins, perhaps, to wonder whether the rat’s arrivals and departures are entirely coincidental or may be directed by unseen powers, even, perhaps, the ghost of the judge in whose house Malcolm has taken up temporary residence.

Gathering his nerve, he inspects the picture again, and sees that the painting is a portrait of the hanging judge, whose “face was strong and merciless, evil, crafty, and vindictive, with a sensual mouth, a hooked nose of ruddy colour, and shaped like the beak of a bird of prey. The rest of the face was a cadaverous colour,” and “the eyes were of peculiar brilliance and with a terribly malignant expression.” The eyes disturb Malcolm, for, in them, he sees “the very counterpart to the eyes of the great rat.” Malcolm returns his attention to the painting:

The Judge was seated in a great high-backed carved oak chair, on the right-hand side of a great stone fireplace where, in the corner, rope hung down from the ceiling, its end lying coiled on the floor.
If the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, those of the rat, as a creature that lacks a soul, must seem terrible indeed, and alien. Again, the rat is linked to the judge, for in the stare of the rat Malcolm imagines the gaze of the judge.

Understanding that the picture represents “the scene of the room” as it presently stands, Malcolm is “awestruck,” and, feeling as if someone is “behind him,” looks “over the corner of the fireplace” and sees the enormous rat “in the Judge’s arm-chair, with the rope hanging behind,” staring at the student “with the Judge’s baleful eyes, now intensified and with a fiendish glare.”

He drops the lamp, which seems to awaken him, as it were, from his trancelike state, and, as he attends to the lamp, he calms himself. After a drink of brandy, he is able to return to his studies. Another sudden silence makes him aware of the sound of “the creaking of the rope,” and he witnesses the huge rat gnawing through the rope, which, as it falls to the floor, severed, makes Malcolm aware that his ability to summon “the outer world to his assistance” has now been “cut off.”

Up to this point, Malcolm has, by choice, isolated himself from others; now, his isolation is forced, his free will in the matter giving way to determinism and the fear that such loss of control (or apparent control) often entails. Moreover, Malcolm is unable to summon assistance (and readers an be quite sure that, sooner, rather than later, the protagonist is going to require it).

Angry, Malcolm throws a book at the rat, but the rodent drops to the floor and flees. The student decides to hunt for the animal and, removing the shade from his lamp, illuminates a greater extent of the room, including its “upper part.” The light reveals a sight that terrifies the student:

In the centre of the picture was a great irregular patch of brown canvas, as fresh as when it was stretched on the frame. The background was as before, with chair and chimney-corner and rope, but the figure of the Judge had disappeared.

At this point, unless Malcolm is hallucinating, any purely natural explanation for the incidents that he has witnessed firsthand and at length is impossible. Therefore, readers must assume, the story must be regarded as supernatural, for this incident is truly marvelous. Indeed, it may turn upon so supernatural a phenomenon as metempsychosis, a sort of reincarnation, wherein a human soul is reincarnated in the form of another living organism (as in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Metzengerstein,” for example).

Liberated, as it were, from the painting, the judge now occupies the room’s “great high-backed carved oak chair” and wears his judicial robes and “a black cap,” which he dons at the stroke of midnight. Rising from his chair, the judge retrieves the severed rope, fashioning one of its ends into a noose. Cutting off Malcolm’s path to the door and his escape through it, the judge attempts to toss the noose over the student’s head, but Malcolm manages, many times, to avoid it.

As the judge relentlessly pursues him, rats swarm the portion of the rope that yet hangs from the ceiling, their numbers and weight causing the roof alarm to sound. However, the “sound was but a tiny one.” Nevertheless, it enrages the judge, and he seizes Malcolm, who is now paralyzed with dread; secures the noose about the student’s neck; lifts him onto the great “oak chair”; ties the free end of the severed rope to the portion that yet hangs from the ceiling; and then pulls away the chair upon which he had stood Malcolm.

Marvel follows upon marvel now, as the judge, absent from his portrait, appears, apparently as a ghost, in the selfsame chair that Malcolm has beheld since moving into the dining room of the judge‘s house. With each new wonder, it becomes easier and easier to accept the premise that this tale involves the supernatural, after all, the protagonists’ and Mrs. Dempster’s skepticism notwithstanding--and just in time for the ending of the tale!

Previously, the story has intimated that the rope might be that of a hangman, and readers have heard, several times, characterizations of the judge as evil and cruel. Now, these hints and foreshadowing of the true nature of the rope and of the judge come together as the judge’s ghost becomes the protagonist’s executioner.

The action of the rats on the rope sets the “:alarm bell” pealing, summoning a “crowd,” led by Dr. Thornhill. They break through the door and find, “at the end of the rope of the great alarm bell. . . the body of the student,” hanging, “and on the face of the Judge in the picture. . . a malignant smile.”

The reader is left in the dark, so to speak, as to what the “crowd” will make of the sight they witness, although it is likely that, among them, will be both believers in the supernatural and skeptics concerning its existence so that the cause of the student’s hanging, whether as the result of his suicide caused, perhaps, by an overactive imagination fueled by the isolated and macabre surroundings in which he was living, or his murder by a malicious ghost, will remain forever a mystery. In either case, the incident is likely to add to the house’s unsavory reputation, or “absurd prejudice.” This ending preserves the tension between natural and supernatural explanations, although, for the reader, natural explanations seem impossible, considering the incidents that he or she has, as it were, witnessed firsthand.

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