One of the best classic ghost stories may not even have a ghost at all. 'Jerry Bundler' [published 1901 in the collection Light Freights] by W.W. Jacobs, who also wrote the more famous 'The Monkey's Paw', has all the ingredients of a good traditional chiller - it takes place over Christmas, in an old coaching inn, and begins with that ghost story staple: a group of friends telling eachother scary stories by the fireside.
'Jerry Bundler' takes place in the fictional market town of Torchester, in the various rooms of the Boar's Head Inn. It is a story that is built on rising tension, and this tension builds almost innocuously from the start. In a true horror cliche, one of the stories proves 'so enthralling' that the waiter, 'whose presence had been forgotten, [creates] a very disagreeable sensation by suddenly starting up from a dark corner and gliding silently from the room'.
Of course, it turns out that there is a ghost associated with the inn. This one's name is Jerry Bundler, a one-time highwayman and pickpocket, who was pursued to the same inn and found by his pursuers in one of the bedrooms 'dangling from the top of the bed by his own handkerchief'. His ghost has since haunted the Boars Head; one old gentleman relates the experience of his father when he stayed there, and the ghost 'lowered itself on top of his bed and tried to strangle him'.
This is where the fun begins, and where the tension begins to tighten. Sightings of one kind or another soon follow, but whether they are of the prankster or the ghost is unclear. What is for certain is that the nerves of the company are soon shredded. By the time a 'distinct' step pauses outside the door to the room where they are all gathered and 'a white, leering face with sunken eyeballs' peers in at them, the scene is set for.....well, that would be telling.
'Jerry Bundler' is all the more impressive for being only eight pages long. Within these eight pages, Jacobs crams in a novel's worth of tension, atmosphere and intrigue. And it has all the nostalgia and warmth you'd expect of a classic ghost story. Try it. You won't be disappointed.
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