Well, October sure crept up on us quickly! Though, I have been moving and dealing with all the excitement of a new home, so I guess I’m not surprised that time is moving ferociously ahead. Nevertheless, October is the month of horror, so we should really carry on with analyzing the spooky side of literature.
Today, I am going to provide a short summary and brief analysis of the short story “The Judge’s House” by Bram Stoker. It’s quite spooky, so, as always, if you haven’t read it yet, please do yourself a favor and check it out on your own before you read my overview!
The story is presumably set at the turn of the century and is about a math student named Malcolm Malcolmson, who is seeking a quiet place to work on his studies. Luckily, after searching for a time, he discovers a long-abandoned home of a judge in the town of Benchurch and takes up residence for a time.
The house is a strange one:
“It was an old rambling, heavy-built house of the Jacobean style, with heavy gables and windows, unusually small, and set higher than was customary in such houses, and was surrounded with a high brick wall massively built. Indeed, on examination, it looked more like a fortified house than an ordinary dwelling. But all these things pleased Malcolmson” (Stoker).
However, the student is young and skeptical, so pays no mind to the superstitious warnings; and yet slowly, over the course of the days that he has stayed in the haunted abode, he realizes that the house is infested with rats, which both unsettles and alarms him, as they make quite a racket while he attempts to work on his mathematical quandaries.
“Tonight the rats disturbed him more than they had done on the previous night. How they scampered up and down and under and over! How they squeaked, and scratched, and gnawed! How they, getting bolder by degrees, came to the mouths of their holes and to the chinks and cracks and crannies in the wainscoting till their eyes shone like tiny lamps as the firelight rose and fell” (Stoker).
Furthermore, he is warned by various characters that the Judge’s house is a haunted one, as the judge was a twisted man who sent many criminals to death by hanging with complete impunity. One day, after traveling to the local inn “The Good Traveler,” Malcolmson meets with local doctor and scholar Dr. Thornhill who tells him about the Judge’s evil deeds. So twisted was this judge, Malcolmson is told, that he had the rope used to hang many of the criminals hung from the warning bell in his home before his death.
Malcolmson investigates the rope at the Judge’s house and takes a “deadly interest in it” as he speculates as to “who these victims were, and the grim wish of the Judge to have such a ghastly relic ever under his eyes” (Stoker). It is at this point that a particularly antagonistic rat that had been assailing the young student over the course of a few days emerges once again to antagonize him some more.
And, yet, before the student can make a confident (killing) blow on the creature, he is confronted by none other than the judge himself—or at least the ghost of the judge—who harries him with a noose made from the alarm bell rope.
Stoker writes, “He saw the Judge approach—still keeping between him and the door—and raise the noose and throw it towards him as if to entangle him. With a great effort he made a quick movement to one side, and saw the rope fall beside him, and heard it strike the oaken floor. Again the Judge raised the noose and tried to ensnare him, ever keeping his baleful eyes fixed on him, and each time by a mighty effort the student just managed to evade it.”
Unfortunately, the student succumbs to his own skepticism and reticence to believe in the supernatural and is found the next morning hanged from the rafters.
“There at the end of the rope of the great alarm bell hung the body of the student, and on the face of the Judge in the picture was a malignant smile” (Stoker).
Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House” is a quintessential ghost story that benefits from Stoker’s own imagination and talent for description. The story reads like a folkloric argument between personal belief and skepticism. I think the reader finds—just as they would in Dracula or the short story “Dracula’s Guest”–that Stoker places a great weight on belief and on the concreteness of oral storytelling, whether it is pure invention or not.
Stoker was born in 1847 and died in 1912—when Gothic horror and weird fiction were very popular. He was also a mathematics major at Trinity College, which gives us some understanding as to the pursuits of Malcolm Malcolmson; but it also gives us a glimpse into the mind of a man who very clearly has an understanding of the strength of mathematics and its rational appeals. However, much like author Washington Irving, Stoker also clearly has a passion for folklore and storytelling, which creates the neat dichotomy between the student and the town in “The Judge’s House.” The story itself is one of skepticism and a fixation on the duality of the world, one of science and rationale, and one of mystery and magic.
Malcolmson wants a place to study regardless of the evil things lurking in the shadows, whether they be rats or spirits, while the town of Benchurch has relied on their beliefs and traditions and want none of it. The landlady of the inn tells the student, “It is too bad of me, sir, and you—and a young gentlemen, too—if you will pardon me saying it, going to live there all alone. If you were my boy—and you’ll excuse me for saying it—you wouldn’t sleep there a night, not if I had to go there myself and pull the big alarm bell that’s on the roof!” (Stoker). And here she is the stand-in for the entire community. They knew something was wrong with the house, and they warn him to stay away; but, of course, the student’s rationale mind only wants a place to study.
No doubt, at least according to Stoker, if Malcolmson had listened to the warnings to the superstitious folk then he would still be alive, because rationalism, it seems, doesn’t account for everything–even past misdeeds.
Stoker, Bram. “The Judge’s House.” Many Books, 10 Oct. 2022, https://library.um.edu.mo/ebooks/b2828544x.pdf.