Honeysuckle Cottage (P. G. Wodehouse, 1925)

What? P. G. Wodehouse… ghost story? Are we maybe in an alternate universe? Should we allow… [lowered voice] comedy?

Think of it as something light and refreshing after the challenging perplexities of Henry James. Purists will not allow “Honeysuckle Cottage” into the genre, but … OK, I will.

We begin with Mr. Mulliner, a regular and well-known raconteur at the Angler’s Rest, who has a limitless supply of relatives about whom he can tell a tale, and this evening’s tale is about his cousin, Mr. James Rodman, a writer of sensational mystery stories, i.e., “revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without a gash in the throat.” James learns that an aunt, Leila J. Pinckney, writer of romances, has passed away and left him her home, Honeysuckle Cottage. Nice! No sooner has James moved in, though, than a strange influence seems to be exerting itself, causing him to insert romantic, sentimental heroines into his work-in-progress. Where he intends to have the hero’s door open and a dying man fall in, gasping “Tell Scotland Yard that the blue beetle is –” and then expiring, he writes

Then the noise came again, faint but unmistakeable — a soft scratching at the outer panel … he tiptoed to the door; then, flinging it suddenly open, he stood there, his weapon poised.
On the mat stood the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld … then with a pretty, roguish look of reproof, [she] shook a dainty forefinger at him.

It is, of course, the spirit of the dead aunt, haunting the cottage and spreading her baleful, romantic influence over her nephew, slowly driving him, not insane, a la “Turn of the Screw,” but to an extreme of soupiness. Will James escape the creeping sentimentality — or will he be inexorably drawn into an engagement with the sweet, wholesome girl who shows up on his doorstep?

You can find this story in Meet Mr. Mulliner, and probably a number of other collections. And if you haven’t read anything by Wodehouse, you should not stop at that book, but go on and read Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), Code of the Woosters (1938), Joy in the Morning (1946), and The Mating Season (1949) — and as many others as you can get your hands on. Enjoy!

P.S., for an excellent introductory essay, see “What Ho! My Hero, P. G. Wodehouse” by Stephen Fry, here.

The Judge’s House (Bram Stoker, 1890)

University student Malcolm Malcolmson’s examinations are coming up and he needs a quiet place to study. No distractions. A place, he decides, where he knows nobody, so he won’t be tempted to spend any time with friends. He doesn’t even want his friends to know where he is.

A little extreme? Just wait. He buys a train ticket for a town he’s never heard of, three hours away, a sleepy little town called Benchurch. He stays one night in a quiet, respectable little inn and, the next day, looks for a place even more isolated:

There was only one place which took his fancy… in fact, quiet was not the proper word to apply to it — desolation was the only term conveying any suitable idea of its isolation. It was an old, rambling, heavy-built house of the Jacobean style, with heavy gables and windows… surrounded with a high brick wall massively built… His joy was increased when he realized beyond doubt that it was not at present inhabited.

Not by humans, anyway.

The real estate agent is glad to rent it to him. No one else will take it, for there is an “absurd prejudice” against the place.

The landlady of the inn… threw up her hands in amazement when he told her where he was going to settle himself. “Not in the Judge’s House!” she said, and grew pale.

Malcolmson is amused by her concern and by her attempts to talk him out of it. Right about now, is anyone starting to think that this foolish young man deserves whatever he gets?

He takes up residence in the house, fixing his study area in the house’s great dining room. The great number of rats scurrying about in the walls and their little eyes glittering in the holes they’ve chewed in the paneling don’t bother him. He does become annoyed at the enormous, cocky rat that emerges and sits itself down on the seat of an oak chair by the fireplace, “steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes.” He throws his books at the creature to scare it away, and only the final volume has the desired effect:

[The rat] gave a terrified squeak, and turning on his pursuer a look of terrible malevolence, ran up the chair-back and made a great jump to the rope of the alarm bell and ran up it like lightning… He picked up the books one by one, commenting on them as he lifted them. “Conic Sections he does not mind, nor Cycloid Oscillations, nor the Principia, nor Quaternions, nor Thermodynamics. Now for a look at the book that fetched him!” Malcolm took it up and looked at it.

It is the Bible given to him by his mother.

Undeterred, he continues his residence in this nice, secluded study nook. Ooh, he is just asking for it, isn’t he?

You can find the story here. An audio version is here. An illustration by Edward Gorey: here. This story is widely available and easy to find; it’s in many anthologies and Bram Stoker collections.

On the fear-meter, this ranks 8 out of 10. Higher, if your relationship with rats is a little uneasy.