Jerome Klapka Jerome (1859~1927), author of the comic masterpiece Three Men in a Boat, needs no introduction. But many who admire his humorous classicJerome 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 solely of ghost stories. It was published in 1891 by The Leadenhall Press and contains linked tales, interspersed with more than 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 very 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.
Montague Rhodes James (1862 ~ 1936) is the father of the English ghost story. His short stories are, quite simply, the finest traditional supernaturalMontague Rhodes James (1862 ~ 1936) is the father of the English ghost story. His short stories are, quite simply, the finest traditional supernatural tales ever penned by mortal man. Utterly lacking in gore and in-your-face horror, James' fiction relies on the delicate manipulation of the reader's imagination to create a subtle, uneasy sort of suspense. James has inspired and unsettled countless writers and readers since his tales first came into print, and his popularity and influence remain undiminished.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary was published by Edward Arnold in 1904, bound in brown buckram, with superb illustrations by James McBryde. The first of James' collections of ghost stories, it is also widely considered to be the best. Of the eight stories included in this volume, James wrote in the preface:
'The stories themselves do not make any very exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained'.
Well, I think it's safe to say that James most certainly did achieve his goal. His stories, predominantly involving scholarly bachelor sorts who go ferreting about amongst old manuscripts or poking around in places that are best left unpoked, are delightfully frightening, humorous, and very convincing. Being a distinguished scholar himself, James knew academia and academics, and he created the most believable of scholarly characters when he put pen to paper.
'Canon Alberic's Scrap-book' is set in the French town of St Bertrand de Comminges, in the spring of 1883. Dennistoun, a Cambridge man, has travelled from Toulouse to see St Bertrand's church, and is shown about the place by the sacristan, a jumpy little fellow who perpetually glances behind himself, as though he is being followed. The old chap offers to take him home and show him something interesting... Canon Alberic de Mauléon's scrap-book. The book, a large folio bound in the seventeenth century, contains about a hundred and fifty pages, and on each one is fastened a leaf from an illuminated manuscript. And the old man is willing, in fact determined, to sell the book for less than it is worth. Of course, Dennistoun's heart is all a flutter, and he snaps the book up quick sharpish. But the canon's scrap-book comes with more attached to it than a bargain price.
'Lost Hearts' is set in 1811 at Aswarby Hall, the home of Mr Abney, a tall, thin and austere bookish recluse, who, according to the Professor of Greek at Cambridge, knows more about later pagan religious beliefs than anyone else. Much to the surprise of his neighbours, Abney has taken in his orphaned cousin, Master Stephen. But Stephen is not the first parentless child to be rescued by the old man, and Abney's actions are not motivated by a generous spirit.
In 'The Mezzotint', Mr Williams, who is responsible for enlarging the English topographical drawings and engravings collection of his university's museum, is sent a mezzotint on approval by a London dealer. The picture, a framed view of a manor house, seems unremarkable when it arrives; in fact, Mr Williams turns it over 'with a good deal of contempt'. But, as he soon discovers, the mezzotint is not a mere static image of any typical English country house. Artworks often seem to have a life of their own, but this particular mezzotint does literally have one.