There is a tinge to tales of the morbid that appeals both to the vulgarian and those of elevated sensibilities. The vulgarian, of course, will enjoy first the trepidation and the terrorizing and lust secretly for disembowelments; those of finer mind will be able to read the same pages with the same words and detect a design far more sinister than plain brutishness. Is this why I have always loved ghost stories? Is this the vulgarian in me or someone striving towards greater understanding of our realm through the prism of art? Whatever the case, those of faith know hooves when they see them dragged through the dirt. Which brings us to this horrid little gem.
Our titular character is not a merry old soul, and never a merry old soul could he possibly have been. He is, however, a man of particular sway since his bench has wrought the most death notices of any other under the crown – well, actually, that matter may be implied but not confirmed. A description of our judge during his last living year suggests something of the Dickensian tyrant laden with terrible auspices:
The Judge was at that time a man of some sixty-seven years. He had a great mulberry-colored face, a big, carbuncled nose, fierce eyes, and a grim and brutal mouth. My father, who was young at the time, thought it the most formidable face he had ever seen; for there were evidences of intellectual power in the formation and lines of the forehead. His voice was loud and harsh, and gave effect to the sarcasm which was his habitual weapon on the bench. This old gentleman had the reputation of being about the wickedest man in England. Even on the bench he now and then showed his scorn of opinion. He had carried cases his own way, it was said, in spite of counsel, authorities and even of juries, by a sort of cajolery, violence and bamboozling, that somehow confused and overpowered resistance. He had never actually committed himself; he was too cunning to do that. He had the character of being, however, a dangerous and unscrupulous judge; but his character did not trouble him.
The identity of the narrator is of little concern. Le Fanu used the papers of literature's first occult detective, Martin Hesselius, to achieve several degrees of separation and lend his tale what all good ghost stories need: the strength of hearsay. Hesselius lived well past the erasing of Roger Harbottle's traces from this earth, but a tenant known to a friend of his spoke of a "dark street in Westminster" and "a spacious old house" where one unforgettable night, two men emerged from a closet in a locked room and began to traipse insouciantly across his bedroom floor:
A slight dark man, particularly sinister, and somewhere about fifty, dressed in mourning of a very antique fashion, such a suit as we see in Hogarth, entered the room on tiptoe. He was followed by an elder man, stout, and blotched with scurvy, and whose features, fixed as a corpse's, were stamped with dreadful force with a character of sensuality and villainy .... this direful old man carried in his ringed and ruffled hand a coil of rope.
These specters "walked as living men do, but without any sound," and our judge, given what we learn later on, is clearly the older, scurvy-ridden of the two. And his dark, thin companion may very well be a certain Lewis Pyneweck.
Pyneweck was once a grocer in Shrewsbury, to become in the course of our narrative "prisoner in the jail of that town." His charge, perhaps ironically, is forgery. As in so many of the cases presided over by Judge Harbottle, the only questions to weigh are whether the charge is valid, and if so, whether the punishment meted out conforms to the dimensions of the crime – and here is where our narrative begins to swerve and slope. Harbottle is visited by a rickety old man, Hugh Peters, who warns him of a plot afoot against the judge by his peers. A few pointed remarks are bandied about before Harbottle has the mole followed by his footman, who will be surprised at his quarry's hidden talents. In time, it is also revealed that another mole resides in Harbottle's own home, his housekeeper Flora Carwell. Carwell is the maiden name, now reassumed, of the former Mrs. Pyneweck, and into this household she brought her only child in exchange for the silence of the Judge on what had previously transpired, what was transpiring between two consenting adults, and what would occur to her husband, incarcerated and abandoned to the whims of injustice. Were Harbottle's promises just more taradiddle? Given his propensity for "jollifications," it would appear that Mrs. Carwell is at best a muted conspirator and at worst a galley slave. Imagine her horror, therefore, when she consults a Shrewsbury paper one May morning on the only Friday the 13th in 1746 to find her ex-spouse among the most recently executed.
Some may argue that Le Fanu's talents were wasted on the occult, yet I must dissent. Surely mystery and murder can be deemed a lesser genre than the pure pleasure of first-rate art; but as soon as genius decides for a more layered interpretation of reality, it may find the supernatural the most plausible of all phenomena. Harbottle is a baleful rogue, but he is not immune to logic or logic's fearful consequences. In this vein he reconsiders his guest that night and begins to doubt the senses he so loves to indulge:
I need hardly say that the venerable Hugh Peters did not appear again. The Judge never mentioned him. But oddly enough, considering how he laughed to scorn the weak invention which he had blown into dust at the very first puff, his white-wigged visitor and the conference in the dark front parlor were often in his memory. His shrewd eye told him that allowing for change of tints and such disguises as the playhouse affords every night, the features of this false old man, who had turned out too hard for his tall footman, were identical with those of Lewis Pyneweck.
A quick check with prison officials confirms what cannot be reassuring: that Pyneweck has long been accounted for and has never once been released from his murky dungeon. And if you think this would be nightmarish enough among the waking, wait until you see what godforsaken corners our judge visits when he sleeps.