Jerome has a way of writing metaphorically that seems to turn life on its head. The most serious topics are discussed in the most irreverent and humorous way. While the most superficial subjects will take on an almost religious sacredness. To do this credibly, his characters are sometimes drunk, eccentric, or plain mad. But never so much so that we cannot identify or empathise with them. There is always an undiminished human element to them.
By inverting the serious and the superficial, the writer allows the reader to explore familiar territory with new eyes and vice versa. And in so doing, throws up the myriad of contradictions and incongruities on which Victorian society is founded. Jerome's writing is not exciting; it's not supposed to be. Jerome's writing doesn't shout. It whispers. It reveals its worth over time. And when it does, you marvel at the clarity of its insights.
Jerome's writing looks simple because it's readable, and because you can't see any of the scaffolding but, ultimately, his writing looks easy because, like all good magicians, Jerome doesn't give away his secrets. And his timing is nothing short of perfect.
The story below, The Ghost of the Blue Chamber, is one of several included in the book Told After Supper, in which a group of friends begin recounting ghost stories, after a lavish Christmas dinner, where wine and spirits flowed most freely.
(My Uncle's Story)
"I don't want to make you fellows nervous," began my uncle in a peculiarly impressive, not to say blood-curdling, tone of voice," and if you would rather that I did not mention it, I won't; but, as a matter of fact, this very house, in which we are now sitting, is haunted."
"You don't say that!" exclaimed Mr. Coombes.
"What's the use of your saying I don't say it when I have just said it?" retorted my uncle somewhat pettishly. "You do talk so foolishly. I tell you the house is haunted. Regularly on Christmas Eve the Blue Chamber [they called the room next to the nursery the 'blue chamber,' at my uncle's, most of the toilet
service being of that shade] is haunted by the ghost of a sinful man--a man who once killed a Christmas wait with a lump of coal."
"How did he do it?" asked Mr. Coombes, with eager anxiousness.
"Was it difficult?"
"I do not know how he did it," replied my uncle; "he did not explain the process. The wait had taken up a position just inside the front gate, and was singing a ballad. It is presumed that, when he opened his mouth for B flat, the lump of coal was thrown by the sinful man from one of the windows, and that it went down the wait's throat and choked him."
"You want to be a good shot, but it is certainly worth trying," murmured Mr. Coombes thoughtfully.
"But that was not his only crime, alas!" added my uncle. "Prior to that he had killed a solo cornet-player."
"No! Is that really a fact?" exclaimed Mr. Coombes.
"Of course it's a fact," answered my uncle testily; "at all events, as much a fact as you can expect to get in a case of this sort.
"How very captious you are this evening. The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming. The poor fellow, the cornet-player, had been in the neighbourhood barely a month. Old Mr. Bishop, who kept the 'Jolly Sand Boys' at the time, and from whom I had the story, said he had never known a more hard-working and energetic solo cornet-player. He, the cornet-player, only knew two tunes, but Mr. Bishop said that the man could not have played with more vigour, or for more hours in a day, if he had known forty. The two tunes he did play were "Annie Laurie" and "Home, Sweet Home"; and as regarded his performance of the former melody, Mr. Bishop said that a mere child could have told what it was meant for.
"This musician--this poor, friendless artist used to come regularly and play in this street just opposite for two hours every evening. One evening he was seen, evidently in response to an invitation, going into this very house, BUT WAS NEVER SEEN COMING OUT OF IT!"
"Did the townsfolk try offering any reward for his recovery?" asked Mr. Coombes.
"Not a ha'penny," replied my uncle.
"Another summer," continued my uncle, "a German band visited here, intending--so they announced on their arrival--to stay till the autumn.
"On the second day from their arrival, the whole company, as fine and healthy a body of men as one could wish to see, were invited to dinner by this sinful man, and, after spending the whole of the next twenty-four hours in bed, left the town a broken and dyspeptic crew; the parish doctor, who had attended them, giving it as his opinion that it was doubtful if they would, any of them, be fit to play an air again."
"You--you don't know the recipe, do you?" asked Mr. Coombes.
"Unfortunately I do not," replied my uncle; "but the chief ingredient was said to have been railway refreshment-room pork-pie.
"I forget the man's other crimes," my uncle went on; "I used to know them all at one time, but my memory is not what it was. I do not, however, believe I am doing his memory an injustice in believing that he was not entirely unconnected with the death, and subsequent burial, of a gentleman who used to play the harp with his toes; and that neither was he altogether unresponsible for the lonely grave of an unknown stranger who had once visited the neighbourhood, an Italian peasant lad, a performer upon the barrel-organ.
"Every Christmas Eve," said my uncle, cleaving with low impressive tones the strange awed silence that, like a shadow, seemed to have slowly stolen into and settled down upon the room, "the ghost of
this sinful man haunts the Blue Chamber, in this very house. There, from midnight until cock-crow, amid wild muffled shrieks and groans and mocking laughter and the ghostly sound of horrid blows, it does fierce phantom fight with the spirits of the solo cornet-player and the murdered wait, assisted at intervals, by the shades of the German band; while the ghost of the strangled harpist plays mad ghostly melodies with ghostly toes on the ghost of a broken harp.
Uncle said the Blue Chamber was comparatively useless as a sleeping-apartment on Christmas Eve.
"Hark!" said uncle, raising a warning hand towards the ceiling, while we held our breath, and listened; "Hark! I believe they are at it now--in the BLUE CHAMBER!"