Happy people will agree that life above all other things is sacrosanct; unhappy people will care about little details or none at all. The qualms of conscience from which the vast majority of us suffer should therefore reflect our concerns, and the unhappy cannot be expected to worry themselves about the big picture. That is to say, if what plagues you is your coworker's hairstyle, salary, or ability, we cannot hope that you will have empathy for those who cannot afford meat much less envy. Some particularly woeful shades will even look down upon those who have nothing and claim that they are lazy and complacent (and I think I need not share my opinions on that approach to humanity). Yet it is true that we all quietly mete out imaginary sentences to those who have offended or betrayed our ideals or pride – which brings us to this terrible tale.
The premise is plausible enough: Malcom Malcomson, an advanced student of that coldest of sciences, mathematics, frets over his upcoming exams for which he needs absolute serenity. As such, the young man betakes himself by train to "the first name on the local time-table which he did not know." I say plausible enough because an utterly unfamiliar location would be as time-costly as one's own neighborhood, if in a very different way. In any case, Malcomson is convinced, perhaps foolishly, that all English villages have enough in common to allow for easy adaptation. When he arrives in Benchurch, he puts up at the town's only inn all the while looking for "quarters more isolated than even so quiet an inn as 'The Good Traveller' afforded." As it were, there was "only one place which took his fancy," a house that has been empty for so long that it has made itself a victim of "absurd prejudice." What type of "absurd prejudice," you may ask? One can well imagine what the villagers have in mind; but the only details provided to Malcomson relate to a nameless Judge who was particularly cruel and bloodthirsty to anyone unfortunate enough to cross his docket. He is warned that staying in such a residence might be detrimental to his spiritual well-being, an admonition he summarily dismisses. A man reading for his mathematics exams "has too much to think of to be disturbed by any of these mysterious 'somethings.'" A bold statement made, of course, well before he has encountered any of the somethings in question.
I am naturally loath to reveal too much of a bad thing, but I will add a few more pieces to our puzzle. The general temperament of the house is transformed by a loving charwoman whom Malcomson hires, and he falls into the very student routine of work, dinner, more work, and tea (some prefer coffee, but that would be a tad continental). Slowly Malcomson realizes that he is not alone. His company is a pack of hateful plague-carrying rodents who at first do not scare as much as annoy him. Yet a strange occurrence attends his unwillingness to rid himself of these beasts and instead examine his shadowy surroundings:
The carving of the oak on the panels of the wainscot was fine, and on and round the doors and windows it was beautiful and of rare merit. There were some old pictures on the walls, but they were coated so thick with dust and dirt that he could not distinguish any detail of them, though he held his lamp as high as he could over his head. Here and there as he went round he saw some crack or hole blocked for a moment by the face of a rat with its bright eyes glittering in the light, but in an instant it was gone, and a squeak and a scamper followed. The thing that most struck him, however, was the rope of the great alarm bell on the roof, which hung down in a corner of the room on the right-hand side of the fireplace. He pulled up close to the hearth a great high-backed carved oak chair, and sat down to his last cup of tea. When this was done he made up the fire, and went back to his work, sitting at the corner of the table, having the fire to his left. For a little while the rats disturbed him somewhat with their perpetual scampering, but he got accustomed to the noise as one does to the ticking of the clock or to the roar of moving water, and he became so immersed in his work that everything in the world, except the problem which he was trying to solve, passed away from him.
He suddenly looked up, his problem was still unsolved, and there was in the air that sense of the hour before the dawn, which is so dread to doubtful life. The noise of the rats had ceased. Indeed it seemed to him that it must have ceased but lately and that it was the sudden cessation which had disturbed him. The fire had fallen low, but still it threw out a deep red glow. As he looked he started in spite of his sang-froid. There, on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fire-place sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes. He made a motion to it as though to hunt it away, but it did not stir. Then he made the motion of throwing something. Still it did not stir, but showed its great white teeth angrily, and its cruel eyes shone in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.
Those familiar with how such narratives function will come to conclusions which they will wonder why Malcomson himself did not entertain. And yet he goes on in his studies, flinging books at the rats that seem to come from the very darkness that wreathes the top of his study like, well, a giant noose.
Our tale is collected in this slender tome, long since relegated to the dusty shelves of more eccentric booksellers because its first story is improved upon in the opening chapter in this most famous of horror novels. Stoker's style is better when he observes from a neutral perspective, as his first-person narratives tend to be overwrought with the emotion a conventional Victorian mind would never openly admit it enjoyed (although it would have likely comprised a secret pleasure). When separated by third-person distance, he paints in much more terrifying colors because so much of horror stems from not knowing your adversary. And even that ignorance doesn't stop some very bright people.