In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the character of the same name is presented as a world-weary old man who has the uncanny, perhaps supernatural, ability to hypnotize his listeners, to whom, as an act of penance demanded by a deity, he must recount the cautionary tale of what befell him and his fellow sailors after he shot and killed an albatross for no reason. Many critics consider the bird to represent a symbol of God’s grace, making the ancient mariner’s act similar to the crucifixion of Christ and the mariner’s fate like that of the proverbial, anti-Semitic Wandering Jew, who was punished, as the story goes, for having mocked Jesus as he was hanging upon the cross by having to wander the earth until Christ’s second advent.
This type of character, the vagabond menace, although not necessarily common in horror fiction, has appeared in several stories of this genre. Often a male, this character has no home of his own. Instead, he travels from place to place, under an assumed name, causing havoc and misery (or, less often, averting the same), sometimes as a result of a curse (or as the result of having been assigned a mission). He is not the same as another type of itinerant character, the herald, for he does not go before another, greater character, announcing or otherwise preparing the latter’s way, as, for instance, the Silver Surfer scouts planets for his master, Galactus, to consume. Many times something of a trickster, the vagabond menace almost always has specialized, usually occult, knowledge or wisdom, which he uses to effect his covert plans or, less often, enlighten or rescue others, saving them from the same or a similar doom as that which has befallen them. He may be a force of good, but, more frequently, he is an agent of evil. He may represent a higher power, but he often acts merely in his own interest, according to his own plans, which usually remain unshared until the end of the story if they are revealed at all, although the reader may surmise the motives for the vagabond menace’s actions from clues provided by the writer.
For example, he appears as a houseguest in W. W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” In this tale, he is a traveler who has come to visit parents who have recently lost their son Herbert. He has with him the monkey’s paw of the story’s title, a talisman, or charm, that grants its user three magic wishes.
The wise (or at least knowledgeable) traveler also appears in Stephen King’s novel Needful Things as a shopkeeper who offers customer’s their hearts’ desires--in exchange, if not for their souls, a steep spiritual price that involves both sin and cruelty to their fellow townspeople. That this stranger may be the devil himself is hinted at rather strongly by his past and present, especially his ability to perform supernatural feats. Of course, he is also a wedge between the residents of Castle Rock, Maine, where, in the novel, he most recently sets up shop.
Another King story, Storm of the Century, features a villain of supernatural powers who, again, it is hinted, may be something on the order of a demon, who, getting along in years, visits the island town in search of a protégé who can, when properly trained, take his place.
The vagabond menace also makes an appearance in Shirley Jackson's quirky short story "An Ordinary Day, With Peanuts." This character goes about her day creating as much havoc as possible in as many individuals' lives as she can. At the same time, her husband does the opposite, playing, as it were, the angel to his wife's demon. They discuss their respective days when they get home, and the husband reminds his wife that, the next day, it's his turn to play the loving, caring role and hers to play that of the hateful, malevolent part. (Or maybe it's the opposite; it's been some time since I've had the pleasure of reading this clever tale, and it's not easily found, but the point is that the spouses switch roles, alternately playing the angel and the demon every other day.)
Even Mark Twain makes use of a vagabond menace in his short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” a tale that has suspiciously strong similarities to King’s Needful Things. In Twain’s story, the vagabond menace is a stranger who, in passing through Hadleyburg, which has a reputation as an “incorruptible town,” is offended by the deeds of one of its residents. To avenge himself, he offers a bag of gold worth $40,000 to the person who gave him $20 in a time of need and some invaluable advice. To claim the gold, one need only to submit, in writing, to Hadleyburg’s Reverend Burgess, the advice that he or she offered to the traveler. Unknown to the others, each and every resident receives an anonymous note from the stranger that reveals the advice that he was given, and they all submit the same remark to the minister, thereby claiming to be the rightful claimant of the stranger‘s reward. They all run up enormous debts, buying merchandise on credit, knowing that they can easily repay the debts once they have been awarded the gold.
At a public meeting, the townspeople are shamed when Burgess, reading the submitted slips of paper, reveals that all the residents of Hadleyburg have submitted the same bit of advice, but that none of them has submitted the entire statement that the stranger says he was told. They have submitted only the first half: “You are far from being a bad man--go, and reform.” The complete statement is “You are far from being a bad man--go, and reform--or, mark my words--some day, for your sins you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg--try and make it the former.” Finally, another note in the sack of gold is opened and read. It offers some advice of the stranger’s own to the townspeople whom he has duped and humiliated. They should not be so quick to claim incorruptibility, he suggests, because it is easy to do so when one’s virtue has gone untested. The gold turns out to be lead.
One couple, the Richardses, submitted the same note as all the others in Hadleyburg, but theirs is never read, and they receive the money that the sale of the sack of lead earns at an auction, but they are unable to enjoy their newfound wealth, as they live in constant fear that their duplicity will be revealed. However, their note is never read aloud, the stranger claiming to have prevented this occurrence in honor of a favor the couple did for him long ago. Before the old couple die, Mr. Richards confesses their guilt in hiding the secret that they, too, like all the other residents of their town, lied as to their advice to the stranger. They never gave him any advice or money, but merely wrote the same statement on the slip of paper they submitted in claim of the gold as everyone else had done. Twain ends his tale with the ironic statement, “It is an honest town once more, and the man will have to rise early that catches it napping again.”
The prototypical vagabond menace is Satan himself, the slanderer who appears before God, arriving from his wanderings in the earth, to accuse Job of false piety and devotion to God and afflicts God’s “good and faithful servant, Job” with a series of distressing conditions, including the loss of servants, livestock, and offspring and painful boils all over his body:
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.
And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down
And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?
Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?
Hast not thou made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.
But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face (Job 1: 6-11).