Friday, October 26, 2012

This Story Involves Both Kinds of Spirits

So it's October 26, and there are five days left until Halloween. That means that I have five days left of reading classic ghost stories. I love these stories, but I'm starting to feel like I need a break from the constant atmosphere of terror. Statues are starting to freak me out a little. And so are paintings, and Gothic architecture, and fog. Let's all read some comic ghost stories for a couple of days, okay? And let's start with the ghost stories of Jerome K. Jerome, who was one of the most hilarious writers ever.

(One of these guys is Jerome K. Jerome, and the others are the friends who show up in his book Three Men in a Boat.)

Jerome K. Jerome's novel Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog) is my go-to book when I want to be cheered up. It's amazing that anything written in 1889 could still be so funny today. And Jerome also wrote the funniest ghost stories ever, in a book called Told After Supper

(The 1891 edition. You can download it from the previous link, or you can read it online, with all 96 or 97 illustrations.)

Told After Supper is a short book about a drunken Christmas party that ends with everyone telling a ghost story. Ghost stories used to be a traditional part of a British Christmas party (that's why "A Christmas Carol" has ghosts in it), and most of the stories I've been reading this month were meant to be read at Christmas in England, not at Halloween in the United States. Jerome says that Christmas is the one night a year when the average ghost gets to walk around on earth. "Why on Christmas Eve, of all nights in the year, I never could myself understand," he says. "It is invariably one of the most dismal nights to be out in -- cold, muddy, and wet. And besides, at Christmas time, everybody has quite enough to put up with in the way of a houseful of living relations, without wanting the ghosts of any dead ones mooning about the place, I am sure. There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas -- something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails."

(I love the illustrations by Kenneth M. Skeaping in the 1891 edition.)

(And I love how he keeps putting snails throughout the book.)

Jerome makes fun of the whole genre of Christmas ghost stories in this book. Each of the stories told by the party guests parodies a different kind of ghost story: the sentimental kind about the ghosts of lovers, the "ghastly and terrible" kind, the true ghost story, the story about the ghost who reveals a buried treasure. My favorite is the curate's story, which is told so badly that no one can follow it:

"'Well, then, my uncle went into the garden, and got his gun, but, of course, it wasn't there, and Scroggins said he didn't believe it.'

'Didn't believe what? Who's Scroggins?'

'Scroggins! Oh, why he was the other man, you know -- it was his wife.'

'What was his wife -- what's she got to do with it?'

'Why, that's what I'm telling you. It was she that found the hat ...'


'Look here, do you know what you are talking about?' we asked him at this point.

He said 'No,' but he knew it was every word of it true, because his aunt had seen it herself.'"

(Appropriately, the curate's story is introduced with an initial letter made out of two bottles of liquor.)

As the party progresses -- and more punch is consumed -- things become more and more chaotic, until finally an actual ghost makes an appearance. And in the end, the poor narrator is left in a very embarrassing situation, for which the whole book turns out to be an explanation and excuse. "Slurs have been cast and aspersions made on me by those of my own flesh and blood," he says. "But I bear no ill-feeling. I merely, as I have said, set forth this statement for the purpose of clearing my character from injurious suspicion."

(A ghost, illustrated by Skeaping.)

It's nice for a change to encounter some ghosts that won't haunt my nightmares. Told After Supper left me amused, not terrified. Amused -- and possibly wanting a drink.

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