THE DEEP ONES: "The Toll-House" by W.W. Jacobs
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"The Toll-House" by W.W. Jacobs
Discussion begins on January 23, 2019.
First published in the April 1907 issue of The Strand.
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories
The Big Book of Ghost Stories
The Monkey's Paw and Other Tales of Mystery and the Macabre
It'll be good to read deeper into Jacobs' works, it appears there's a good number of supernatural tales beyond "The Monkey's Paw" even if most of what he wrote was non-horror.
Online for me.
I found that the men falling asleep to be unexpectedly effective in ramping up the tension and even a sense of Weird. Restlessness, I expected from a group of men attempting to spend the night in a haunted house. So too, jump scares and characters misinterpreting everyday sounds of an abandoned house. But falling asleep?
And then I started to wonder how anyone was certain they were asleep. There weren't reassuring references to visible breathing or what have you.
And then: wondering if the three had pre-arranged to fool Barnes, or not. It seemed so ... but Meagle himself can't awaken the other two.
I also thought there was a bit of bait-and-switch on the part of Jacobs. Barnes was set up to be the primary skeptic in the party, and seemingly this painted a large and obvious target on his back. But it's Meagle we're left to follow at the end, with Barnes wandered off somewhere in the house.
In the end, Jacobs left me as uncertain and confused as the party in the house, the best circumstances for ending the story on a strong emotional note.
I thought this was an interesting and minimalist haunted house story.
>4 elenchus: Yes, the idea of a haunting manifesting as people falling asleep was novel. After all, most ghosts seem to want to be noticed.
I got the sense that Lester and White and Meagle had planned an elaborate joke, but then the power of the house manifested itself and really put them asleep.
Exactly what happens when Meagle follows Barnes is a bit confusing -- deliberately so, I suspect, since I think one of the figures Meagle sees is not Barnes but the same figure, a head hanging out a window, that the inn-keeper mentions earlier.
It's also interesting that we get no explanation whatsoever as to why the house is haunted. There's no mention of a crime committed in it, that it was built on someplace special, that it is at the focus of cosmic geometry or ley lines or whatever. It's just a bad house.
The atmosphere of the house is nicely invoked. It's as easy to imagine its interior spaces as it is to feel that something malevolent is lurking about. I agree that strategically picking the men off one by one by having them fall asleep instead of simply killing them is a nice touch. It's obvious as soon as he bangs on the front door that Meagle is far to flippant to survive.
I was trying to track the house's rules a bit. Apparently "living" in the house includes simply staying overnight, as we see with the tramp and Meagle. The house's caretakers are included in that, but the landlord is not, presumably because while he owns it, he's never actually stayed there. But a one-night stay doesn't necessarily guarantee death, as evidenced by the survivors in this tale.
There are tons of haunted house tales out there, but the "The Toll-House" reminded me a lot of REH's fearsome "Pigeons From Hell", in which there is also an overnight stay that goes horribly wrong.
I pretty much assumed that Lester and White were gonners when they fell asleep and couldn't be wakened; I was happily surprised that they lived and Meagle was the one to die instead. Barnes, seemingly, was less a skeptic than someone feigning skepticism in an attempt to puff up his self-image.
I did a bit of a double-take at "the clean, wholesome smell of tobacco". Longer-term health concerns aside, tobacco smoke tends to make me cough my lungs out and I find the smell nauseating.
I thought the story was very well done.
>7 AndreasJ: I did a bit of a double-take at "the clean, wholesome smell of tobacco"
Funny! I've never been a smoker, but I often surprise myself at how good I think pipe tobacco can smell. Cigarettes and cigars are another thing. In this case, I took the reference to be class signaling on the part of Jacobs.
I agree the story was very well done, an example I think of how style and enjoyable prose (storytelling) can elevate a tale above its fairly standard plot or characters (story).
>8 elenchus: I second on the pipe smoke. It's a different thing from cigarettes or cigars.
I was underwhelmed honestly, but I attribute that to perhaps over saturation with haunted houses, mostly in film: The Haunting, House on Haunted Hill (Vincent Price and Geoffrey Rush), Poltergeist, etc. One could also bring in literary descriptions of creepy place, like the ruins of Moria in Fellowship of the Ring. That was, to me, one of the more dread-filled pieces of writing, even if the narration was choppy.
I did find myself pondering Meagle's name a fair bit. It felt like an odd choice to me, like the object was to make him seem diminutive in some way. It brings to mind beagle, so a small breed of dog, but also 'meager' like he's not a terribly effective or strong person.
>7 AndreasJ: "the clean, wholesome smell of tobacco"
It wasn't bad for you in those days.
>9 WeeTurtle: I did find myself pondering Meagle's name a fair bit.
You mentioned Tolkien, and for whatever reason I kept hearing Smeagol / Deagol whenever Meagle came up in the story. But your beagle / meager reference is both more apt and chronologically feasible.
>11 elenchus: Yeah, Smeagol/Deagol was in there for me, too, but same thing. Timelines.
I do like the detail of the blister though. If it was all an act, White wouldn't be looking strangely as his finger because he would have known what had happened.
I know, of course, that public and medical opinion on tobacco was quite different back then. But I doubt that my own physiological reaction to tobacco smoke would have been different if I'd lived back then, or if I'd personally considered it clean and wholesome. I react more strongly to it than typical for non-smokers.
I didn't think anything in particular about Meagle's name, except to note it's unusual. Google informs me it's also the name for a beagle / miniature pinscher cross, but I have no idea if the portmanteau may have been current in 1907.
(I pronounce Sméagol and Déagol with an unreduced second syllable, so they don't rhyme with, or sound much like, Meagle to me.)
>13 AndreasJ: Maybe the "clean, wholesome" part was sarcastic and the smoke was part of the issue? ;).
I poke fun at my literature education sometimes, telling people I have a degree in "b.s." I don't think I was satisfied until I came up with at least three potential readings of any story or piece to writing, just to make a point that yes, stuff can mean things (like the choice of a certain name) but we can also be wildly off in our interpretations.
I find "meagle" even more silly now, but that's from my own opinions on designer dogs.
The protagonists are very typical of Edwardian fiction of the time. At the start of the story they reminded me very much of the characters in Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. That being the case, I would take the comments about pipe smoke at face value.
The falling asleep in the face of danger is certainly creepy and I wasn't expecting it, but I have a nagging feeling that I've read or heard of something similar..in a fairy tale, or the Arabian Nights, perhaps?
Methinks he doth protest too much. =) Amplified false bravado dooms him. He was trying too hard. Most unattractive.
I liked the term 'exaggerated carelessness', and loved the tortoise image.
The Empty House story floated up in my memory, especially when a kitchen was mentioned. That featured an elderly aunt and her nephew who humoured her enough to tag along. Somehow they both seemed more respectful than this quartet looking merely for a way to alleviate their boredom. Another story surfaced, about a woman who steps off a train and treads a determined path to a nearby abandoned home for a few hours sleep while others choose to wait in the cold at the station. Some stranger carries her baggage and she assumes that he is a porter. Her fearlessness or naivity also adds a comedic hit amidst the perceived terror.
With both of these lingering in my mind, I fully expected the three men to fall asleep and their spirits to wreak havoc on the fourth guy. As though the house was releasing them for one night from their social constraints where anything goes. The men were free to goad him and taunt and terrify him but I did not expect them to find him dead in the morning. Too much Radcliffe perhaps.
The audiobook was narrated by Michael Whitehouse in a Scottish lilt which added to the comedic nudges. He seemed to highlight funny moments that might have gotten past me with a flat scan in my own female voice.
>12 WeeTurtle: I did not at all understand the point of the wound on White, since my focus was on Meagle having the candle conk him on the head and him needing to relight it. I felt White went to sleep first because he was the lightweight in the group, therefore less of a threat to the sinister house. It had nothing to prove to him, as he was already thoroughly petrified. I did think he might die though, since often the more vulnerable or uncertain attract the attention of 'bully' spirits. White needed the calming effects of the booze and pipe (Any significance to Lester bringing two candles and Barnes having the matches? This strikes me as odd.) and a further distraction of playing cards, or was this standard stuff back then? I felt there might be some payback by the servant element to the repeated insults, even passive ones. These young men had no need of money like the last man killed so the house may have had no particular beef with intruders. I did also picture Monster House, the film, having seen it with my kids.
The audiobook accent brought Meego or Migo or Migeaux to mind which I associated with Mongo (Blazing Saddles) so the comedy was there pronto, but it wasn't until reading this thread that I saw what the name was supposed to be. I like to sometimes read the text in tandem with listening but that didn't happen in this case.
>13 AndreasJ: As someone who suffers from straight up severe allergies, who stopped ingesting meds at 40, this makes me sad, but it does invoke an image of the old boys' club young bucks. Trying to follow papa's footsteps and keep up with peer pressure. I equate pipes with my grandfather so had to keep reminding myself that they were young men on a ten day romp.
Gramps used to think it was cute that I would ask to go outside when he fired up his pipe inside, but it was either that or vomit on his slippers. My dad smoked cigarettes until I was 12 in the days when children helped roll the tobacco from a pouch. Trust me, my mother's Adorn hair spray was no better. As a child, I was helpless to make them believe I wasn't just putting it on for show. Even now, I am the beast because I avoid all smoke and fragrance and pets. Tough to do in an agricultural region. To me, pipe smoke is the worst due to the over-sweet nature of the tobacco. People think it is just a stuffed up nose so stop complaining, but it is complete shut down of breathing passages; cough in the throat, blocked nasal area, streaming watery eyes from the cough and smoke etc., nausea in the stomach AND instant headache from the combination of everything. This doesn't even take into account the skin's reaction with welts, or my eye swelling shut when my eyelash catches a floating cat hair. Yikes, just typing that makes me itchy!
In any case the sentence also stuck in my mind as part funny and part sad.
Lots of allergies in my family, and they can't be made light of. Being a dog person, my gripe is that one of the issues with people not wanting dogs anywhere is usually allergies. Yeah, I understand that, but what about your (insert over scented body product here)? A well behaved, clean dog on a bus is going to cause me (and most of my family) less trouble than someone with too much cologne.
Anyway, that's not especially relevant here.
White's wound is, I suspect, just to establish that he really was sleeping. (I assume you mean the blister here.) If he has been feigning sleep, that probably would have woken him up. If it was a normal sleep, a burning finger would have probably woken him up as well. So, that he has no idea how it got there, lends weight to the idea that something supernatural is going on.
>20 WeeTurtle: Very clever of him to use that to qualify the effect, but how did he get it? He never actually touched a candle did he? I must be fixated on this one element because it's just not sinking in... too bleary I guess after Varney the Vampire and Hodgson's The North Land. Sooo long. And yes, fragrance is a killer, especially in enclosed areas. I had to give up going to Stratford Festival. =( Everyone in the crowd has at least three scents overlapping, between hair products, body products, lotions, perfume, scent sachets in handbags. Older men who smoke often overdo the cologne because they rarely wear it and cannot smell it anyway. Grotesque. Concessions are made, and nature welcomes me. Funny that pollen doesn't bother me.
>21 frahealee: Oh! One of the other men actually held a match up to his finger in an attempt to wake him up. Can't recall specifically who. Meagle, maybe. I think it was an M name.
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