After Supper Ghost Stories by Jerome K. Jerome

One of the funniest books I’ve ever read, a title that makes me laugh every time I read it and which I’d take with me to a desert island, is Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”. It’s the title for which he’s best known, and I’ve read it several times; but although I’ve tried several other books by him (including “Three Men on the Bummel” and “Diary of a Pilgrimage”), I’ve never found that any match up to “Three Men…” However, one thing I didn’t know he wrote was ghost stories and so when I heard that Alma Classics were issuing a new edition of “After Supper Ghost Stories”, I was very keen to read it.

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A slim volume with a beautiful cover design (in that almost plasticky texture that so many paperbacks have nowadays), the book contains a number of short pieces. The first group is the titular collection, and the introduction was enough to have me smirking as the narrator explains the habits of English ghosts and how they only work on Christmas Eve. Set in his Uncle’s house, there is plenty of alcohol flowing as the guests relate their scary stories, trying to outdo each other. But our narrator is somewhat unreliable, gradually getting more and more confused as the alcohol takes hold, until the final story has him behaving very badly and blaming on a local spook!

Whenever give or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfied us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.

Jerome is obviously poking fun at the whole genre of Christmas fireside ghost stories and it’s great fun: not really scary, but very funny and enjoyable and full of Jerome’s trademark wit. You won’t get the shivers from reading these tales, but you will get a laugh!

The rest of the volume is made up of miscellaneous pieces which make fascinating reading. It’s difficult often to pin down what they’re actually about as they’re wonderfully random pieces that are all over the place! “Evergreen”, for example, which begins with Jerome lauding those ordinary, regular, stolid everyday people, ends with a screamingly funny sequence about a woman with a bulldog under her crinoline which had me laughing like a drain! “The New Utopia”, a strange tale which visualises an impersonal and regimented future, celebrates human life with all its ups and downs, its good and bad.

Similarly, in “Dreams”, Jerome looks forward and foresees his unhappy grandchildren growing to “loathe electricity. Electricity is going to light them, warm them, carry them, doctor them, cook for them, execute them if necessary. They are going to be weaned on electricity, ruled and regulated and guided by electricity, buried by electricity. I may be wrong, but I rather think they are going to be hatched by electricity.” Now, while I wouldn’t want to be without electricity, when I think of how dependent people are nowadays on their electrically powered gadgets, I think he may have a point…

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I often feel that JKJ was fighting his natural tendency towards humour in an attempt to produce serious works, and often struggled to decide quite what he wanted to do with his writing. Sometimes he seemed to be finding it difficult in his works to get in the right levels of humour and serious material, and although I like his funny writing he certainly has some more weighty points to make about humans and the world they live in which are still relevant today.

Truth and fact are old-fashioned and out of date, my friends, fit only for the dull and vulgar to live by. Appearance, not reality, is what the clever dog grasps at in these clever days. We spurn the dull-brown solid earth; we build our lives and homes in the fair-seeming rainbow land of shadow and chimera.

With “Three Men and a Boat” Jerome got the balance right, and in many of the pieces here too his words of wisdom are tempered with some wonderful humour. “After Supper Ghost Stories” is a lovely little collection, ideal reading for the long winter nights when you want something to lift the spirits and make you think. So kudos to Alma for reissuing the book which goes a long way towards proving that Jerome K. Jerome had more to him than just his most famous title!

Review copy kindly provided by Alma Classics, for which many thanks!

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