Monday, 22 December 2014

Told After Supper ~ Jerome K. Jerome

Jerome Klapka Jerome (1859~1927), author of the comic masterpiece Three Men in a Boat, needs no introduction. But many who admire his humorous classic are unaware that he wrote a number of ghost stories.

Told After Supper was Jerome's only volume comprised entirely of ghost stories. It was published in 1891 by The Leadenhall Press and contains linked tales, interspersed with over ninety wonderful illustrations by Kenneth M. Skeaping, one of which you can see below, all printed on thick pale blue paper. It really is a lovely book, and a funny one; these tales are intended to make you chuckle in amusement, not scream in terror.

The narrator tells us that it is Christmas Eve at his Uncle John's, at no. 47 Laburnum Grove, Tooting. Christmas eve... the only night in the year on which it is considered correct, within the regulations of English society, to tell ghost stories. Indeed, the only night on which most ghosts think it fit that they should appear. Generally speaking, we are told, ghosts do not go frightening people on Christmas Day, mainly because they have worn themselves out haunting people the night before.
'Christmas Eve is the ghosts' great gala night. On Christmas Eve they hold their annual fête. On Christmas Eve everybody in Ghostland who is anybody - or rather, speaking of ghosts, one should say, I suppose, every nobody who is any nobody - comes out to show himself or herself, to see and to be seen, to promenade about and display their winding-sheets and grave-clothes to each other, to criticise one another's style, and sneer at one another's complexion.'
The party consists of the narrator, old Dr Scrubbles, the local curate, Mr Samuel Coombes, Teddy Biffles and Uncle John, all of whom have been at the punch and are much the merrier for it. Somehow or other, they find themselves telling ghost stories.

'Johnson and Emily, or The Faithful Ghost' was Teddy Biffles' story, and it is all about Johnson, the old fellow who haunts Teddy's family's home, 10 pm to 4 am as a rule, and 10 'til 2 on Saturdays. The old ghost is harmless, but the family, being fed up of his consant moaning, which doesn't half interfere with card games and house parties, decides to try to get him out of the house.

Dr Scrubbles goes next, but the narrator can't tell us his story, despite it being the best of the lot, as he can't make any sense of it. So on we go to Mr Coomes' tale: 'The Haunted Mill, or The Ruined Home'. Mr Coombes' brother-in-law, Mr Parkins, takes a lease on a mill in Surrey that is said to contain treasure, hidden long ago by a wicked old miser. The old miser's ghost starts appearing to him, and Parkins sets about knocking holes in things, trying to find the old man's loot.

The local curate's story is a nonsensical epic, containing a cast of thousands, that nobody understands. So Uncle John tells his story, 'The Ghost of the Blue Chamber', which he claims is true. He explains that the house they are in - the Blue Chamber to be precise - is haunted by the ghost of a sinful man, who killed a number of musical performers, including a Christmas wait (a street singer of Christmas carols), who he did in with a lump of coal, just as he opened his mouth for B flat. Every year, the sinful man's ghost does battle with the musicians he did away with. The narrator immediately announces that he will spend a night in the Blue Chamber, and his account of the events of that night follows after 'A Personal Explanation'.

In the narrator's story, the ghost of the sinful man appears and is more than happy to discuss his musician-murdering exploits. He did away with so many and was kept so busy doing it that 'there were few ghosts who could look back upon a life of more sustained usefulness.' He did not just do away with the musically inclined, though; more than one muffin-man had been lured into a passage and muffined to death. This last section is my favourite part of the book.

A very good, sound copy of Told After Supper will set you back anything from thirty pounds upwards (that's about $50), but generally speaking copies turn up in pretty bad shape; the covers are usually soiled and the pages tend to come away, which is a shame because it's such a nicely put together book. There is a free Kindle edition available at Amazon, but I don't know how good it is (I don't suppose it has the illustrations, which are such an important part of the book). 

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