"The Judge's House" is a classic ghost story by the Irish author Bram Stoker. The story was first published in the December 5, 1891, special Christmas issue of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News weekly magazine. It was later republished in Dracula's Guest and Other Weird Stories (1914). The short story has since appeared in many anthologies.
In the story, a student arrives in a small town looking for a quiet place to stay while preparing for his examination. Making light of the local superstitions, he moves into an old mansion where a notorious hanging judge once lived. He is comfortably settled and engrossed in his work when, in the middle of the night, he is visited by an enormous rat with baleful eyes. As soon as the giant rat appears, other rats that infest the old house fall silent. When the great rat returns on the second night, the student begins to feel uneasy. He soon learns why the locals fear the Judge's House.
"The Judge's House" was adapted as a radio play for the Hall of Fantasy show in 1947. The dramatization is largely faithful but contains some simplifications. CBS Radio Mystery Theater aired an episode based on the story in 1981. The CBS version presents the story as a recollection by an American scholar of events that took place while he was in England to work with a former schoolmate. A modernized stage adaptation of the story premiered in Dublin in 2013. The story has also been adapted for comic books.
Malcolm Malcolmson, a mathematics student, decides to find a quiet town away from distractions to prepare for his examination. He takes a train to a random little town he has never heard of called Benchurch. He spends the first night at the only inn in town then goes out the next day in search of more suitable quarters. He finds exactly what he was looking for – an old Jacobean house surrounded by high brick walls, uninhabited and exceptionally desolate. The house agent is delighted to hear Malcolmson wants to rent the house. The agent says the house has been empty for so long that the locals have developed an "absurd prejudice" about it. Malcolmson pays his rent and gets the name of an old woman who might tend to his needs.
The inn's landlady, Mrs. Witham, is shocked to hear Malcolmson will be living in the Judge's House. A hundred or more years ago, a judge lived there who was notorious for his harsh sentences. Mrs. Witham does not know what there is against the house itself, but she is genuinely worried. Malcolmson assures her that he will be too busy with mathematics to be disturbed by anything mysterious. Mrs. Witham offers to secure the necessary provisions for him while Malcolmson goes out to engage the old woman recommended by the agent.
With help from Mrs. Witham and Mrs. Dempster, the charwoman, Malcolmson settles in the great dining room of the old house which is big enough to serve as his apartment. Mrs. Witham offers kind wishes before running off, too scared to stay any longer. Mrs. Dempster says she is not afraid of bogies because they are only rats, creaky doors, and so on. She tells Malcolmson there are many rats in the old wainscoting. Saying “Rats is bogies, I tell you, and bogies is rats,” Mrs. Dempster sets to work. By the time she leaves for the night, the room is clean and comfortably tidy, with a fire burning in the old hearth and supper on the table.
After supper, Malcolmson takes out his books and begins to study. He works hard till eleven o'clock then takes a break. As he sips his tea, he starts to hear the rats. The noises grow louder as the rats get used to having a stranger in the room. Malcolmson can hear them gnawing, scratching, and racing up and down behind the old wainscoting. He takes his lamp and walks around, examining the room and admiring the beautifully carved oak wainscoting, doors, and windows. There are old pictures on the walls, but they are coated with dust and dirt and he cannot see any details. As he goes around, Malcolmson sees rats peeking through cracks and holes. In the corner of the room to the right side of the fireplace is a rope hanging from the great alarm bell on the roof. Malcolmson pulls up a high-backed oak chair and sits down in front of the fire to finish his tea before going back to work at the table. He gets used to the noises and soon becomes immersed in his mathematics.
It is nearly dawn when Malcolmson looks up. The noises have suddenly ceased. On the high-backed oak chair is an enormous rat glaring at him. He tries to shoo it away, but it bares its teeth and refuses to move. Amazed, Malcolmson grabs the poker and runs at it. The rat runs up the rope and disappears into the darkness. As soon as it is gone, the rats begin to make noises again. Hearing a cock crow outside, Malcolmson decides to go to bed.
Malcolmson sleeps soundly until Mrs. Dempster wakes him for breakfast. Refreshed by strong tea, he goes out for a walk, taking along his book and some sandwiches. He spends most of the day studying in a quiet spot then stops at the inn on the way back. He thanks Mrs. Witham and tells her about the rats and the "one wicked-looking old devil" that sat on his chair by the fire. Although Malcolmson laughs about it, Mrs. Witham tells him to take care, saying that it may indeed have been the old devil himself.
On the second evening, the rats begin making noises earlier, and some even venture out on the floor. Malcolmson finds it difficult to concentrate at first, but he eventually becomes engrossed in his work. His concentration is broken when the room becomes quiet. The rope moves slightly. Looking over, Malcolmson sees the giant rat back on the chair. He starts throwing books at it, but the rat dodges them easily. He grabs another book and stands up. Now the rat seems afraid. Heartened by the reaction, Malcolmson throws the book and strikes the rat. With a terrible squeak, it looks at him malevolently then runs up the rope and disappears through a hole in one of the pictures, the third from the fireplace. Picking up the books, Malcolmson is startled to see that the one that hit the rat was the Bible his mother gave him. He sits down as the rats begin to make noises again. He is too distracted to work, however, and gives up at dawn.
After a heavy but dream-filled sleep, Malcolmson wakes late in the morning feeling uneasy. He asks Mrs. Dempster to clean the pictures then goes out to his quiet spot again. He is able to make some progress with his mathematics problems in the afternoon. His mood improved, Malcolmson stops at the inn on his way back. Mrs. Witham introduces him to a Dr. Thornhill, and the doctor advises him to give up strong tea and the late hours. Malcolmson thanks the doctor and the landlady for their concern then tells them about the enormous rat. The doctor listens with grave attention and informs Malcolmson that the rope the rat ran up is the very rope that was used to hang the Judge's victims.
After Malcolmson leaves, Mrs. Witham scolds the doctor for talking about the history of the rope and upsetting the student even more. Dr. Thornhill explains that he mentioned it on purpose to bring attention to the rope. In case Malcolmson becomes frightened in the night, the doctor hopes he will pull the rope and sound the alarm bell.
Malcolmson returns to the house late. Mrs. Dempster has already left. The place is bright and the fire is welcome on a cold and windy evening. Malcolmson sits down to dinner in good spirits, glad for the noises of the rats which keep him company. As he studies after dinner, the winds turn into a storm and the house begins to shakes with the gale. The rope rises and falls as the alarm bell swings on the roof. Malcolmson remembers what the doctor told him about the rope. He walks over, takes the rope in his hand, and begins to think about the Judge and his victims. Suddenly, the rope begins to shake. Malcolmson looks up and sees the great rat coming down. He drops the rope and curses, and the rat runs back up and disappears.
Malcolmson takes a lamp to the third picture from the fireplace to look at the hole into which the rat disappeared the previous night. Seeing the cleaned painting for the first time, he almost drops his lamp. It is a portrait of the Judge in his scarlet robe. His face is strong and merciless, and he has the same baleful eyes as the giant rat. The Judge is seated in the high-backed oak chair to the right of the fireplace, with the rope hanging down from the ceiling. Malcolmson looks toward the same corner of the room then cries out and drops his lamp. There in the chair sits the great rat leering at him with the Judge's baleful eyes.
The fallen lamp needs attention and Malcolmson pulls himself together. He mixes a drink to calm his nerves and sits down to work. An hour later, he looks up as everything falls silent. Then he hears a faint noise. It is the giant rat gnawing the rope. As Malcolmson watches, it chews through the rope and the severed end falls on the floor. Malcolmson realizes he can no longer call for help. He is terrified at first but quickly becomes angry. He throws his book, and the rat disappears into the shadows. Malcolmson decides to hunt. He takes the shade off the lamp to flood the room with light. The light shines on the pictures on the wall, and Malcolmson's eyes are drawn to the third painting from the fireplace. In the center of the painting, there is a patch of blank canvas where the Judge should have been. Horrified, Malcolmson slowly turns around. He begins to shake convulsively as he sees, sitting there in the high-backed oak chair, the Judge in his scarlet robe. With a cruel smile, the Judge lifts a black cap in his hand. Malcolmson stands frozen in terror. As the clock strikes midnight, the Judge triumphantly places the black cap on his head.
Rising slowly from his chair, the Judge picks up the cut piece of rope and ties one end to make a noose. He then positions himself between Malcolmson and the door and approaches the trapped victim. He throws the noose and Malcolmson dodges it with a great effort. The Judge tries again and again, his eyes fixed on Malcolmson who barely manages to evade the rope each time. Looking around the room in despair, Malcolmson sees the rats peeking out of their holes watching. Then he notices that the rope of the alarm bell is covered with rats. As more and more rats get on the rope, the bell begins to sway. The Judge hears the sound and angrily stamps his feet. He approaches Malcolmson with the noose held open. Malcolmson is paralyzed as the noose is tightened around his neck. The Judge then carries his rigid body to the oak chair. Placing the body standing on the chair, the Judge climbs next to it and grabs the rope hanging from the bell. The rats squeak and flee. The Judge then ties the end of the noose to the bell rope. Then he steps off and pulls the chair away.
The alarm bell sounds and a crowd gathers outside. They knock at the door but receive no reply. Led by Dr. Thornhill, they break down the door and run into the house. They find the body of the student hanging from the bell rope and the portrait of the Judge smiling malignantly.
- Sound file of public domain audiobook of "The Judge's House" from LibriVox
- "Dracula's Guest"
- "The Squaw"
- "The Rose Garden"
- ↑ In England, the black cap was historically worn by the judge over the wig when passing the death sentence.