Saturday, December 3, 2016

Spirits of the Season

When my father and my uncle were children, my grandfather used to read them Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. When my siblings and I were children, my father tried several times to revive the tradition—first reading it himself, then, when I was old enough to handle words like “ironmongery” and “legatee,” getting me to read it. It never really caught on. While shorter than a novel, it was too long to be read comfortably in one sitting. We were lucky if we made it as far as the second stave before giving up and watching a TV adaptation instead (usually the Mister Magoo version).

Which is really too bad. As I wrote last year, the Christmas ghost story is a fine old tradition that ought to be preserved. And there are lots of Christmas ghost stories besides A Christmas Carol. Last year I started collecting them. One of my happiest finds was the short book Told After Supper, by Jerome K. Jerome. Jerome was a late 19th-early 20th century English humorist best known for his comic travelogue, Three Men in a Boat.

In the introduction to Told After Supper, Jerome talks about the English tradition of ghost stories on Christmas Eve:
Christmas Eve is the ghosts' great gala night. On Christmas Eve they hold their annual fete. 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.

. . . .

All these things happen on Christmas Eve, they are all told of on Christmas Eve. For ghost stories to be told on any other evening than the evening of the twenty-fourth of December would be impossible in English society as at present regulated.

Jerome goes on to describe a particular Christmas Eve at the home of his Uncle John and Aunt Maria. After supper, Aunt Maria retires, “leaving the local curate, old Dr. Scrubbles, Mr. Samuel Coombes, our member of the County Council, Teddy Biffles, and myself to keep Uncle company.” The men entertain themselves with whisky punch, card tricks, more whisky punch, ghost stories, and more whisky punch. As you might expect, as the evening wears on, the whisky punch begins to take its toll. I found myself laughing out loud at most of the stories, but my favorite was the non-story of the curate:
I could not make head or tail of the curate's story, so I cannot retail it to you. We none of us could make head or tail of that story. It was a good story enough, so far as material went. There seemed to be an enormous amount of plot, and enough incident to have made a dozen novels. I never before heard a story containing so much incident, nor one dealing with so many varied characters.

I should say that every human being our curate had ever known or met, or heard of, was brought into that story. There were simply hundreds of them. Every five seconds he would introduce into the tale a completely fresh collection of characters accompanied by a brand new set of incidents.

This was the sort of story it was:-

"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 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. She'd come up with her cousin to London—her cousin was my sister-in-law, and the other niece had married a man named Evans, and Evans, after it was all over, had taken the box round to Mr. Jacobs', because Jacobs' father had seen the man, when he was alive, and when he was dead, Joseph—"

"Now look here, never you mind Evans and the box; what's become of your uncle and the gun?"

"The gun! What gun?"

"Why, the gun that your uncle used to keep in the garden, and that wasn't there. What did he do with it? Did he kill any of these people with it—these Jacobses and Evanses and Scrogginses and Josephses? Because, if so, it was a good and useful work, and we should enjoy hearing about it."

"No—oh no—how could he?—he had been built up alive in the wall, you know, and when Edward IV spoke to the abbot about it, my sister said that in her then state of health she could not and would not, as it was endangering the child's life. So they christened it Horatio, after her own son, who had been killed at Waterloo before he was born, and Lord Napier himself said—"

"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. Whereupon we covered him over with the tablecloth, and he went to sleep.

Told After Supper is in the public domain, and is therefore available as a free download from Project Gutenberg or the Amazon Kindle Store. And if you prefer your Christmas ghost stories more frightening than funny, don’t worry. I will be posting a few scarier ones in the weeks to come.

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