Originally published in August, 2012
There is something about early 20th century ghost literature that just scares the crap out of me. I’m not sure what it is. I think, though I’ve not spent a lot of time thinking about it, is that where modern audiences are into horror for large scares and big lead-ups, the ghost stories of the M.R. James generation are about slowly mounting terror and quiet desperation.
I’ve not heard of Oliver Onions prior to reading this piece, but I wonder what the rest of his work is like. I should give him a more thorough reading in the near future. While his language and semantics are dated (but really, is that fair?) his work has this creeping quality that really drew me in.
Onions’ ‘Rooum’ is the tale of a man haunted by someone or something that only he can see- at least at first. The titular Rooum is a man who seems to be wandering from place to place, though it becomse apparent by the end of the story that perhaps it’s more like he is running from place to place. Rooum is an odd man with an odd appearance- the narrator refers to him as a piebald. A water witch, a dowser, he is a man of unmatched skill with heavy equipment but little understanding of the physics of his work.
Rooum’s drifting from job to job is caused in large part by his belief in a ‘thing’, the Runner, that is following him. This conviction, or possession, becomes so large and his sense of alienation and isolation (as explained by the narrator, though assumed by the narrator may be more accurate) eventually leads to his own destruction.
I think that it is Rooum’s desperation that makes this story so effective for me. Whether or not the Runner exists is almost not important. What is important is that he or it exists for Rooum, and it is his fear that extends to the reader.