When Comedy Falls Flat: The Difficulties of Writing Comedy

 

That Scoundrel E_mile Dubois 001 M-1

I couldn’t resist posting that new cover from EBook Launch  for ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’. I think the former one was too cartoon like.  Some might say that there is a difficulty with this one in it being too romantic. That all fits in with the end of this post.  I do like it, though. I think the artist did a brilliant job. Sadly, Émile’s freckles are missing…

One of the problems with writing humour is that everyone’s sense of humour must be slightly different. Of course, there is mainstream comedy, and there is dark comedy, and there are satires and spoofs. What one person finds hilarious leaves another cold.

And that is the problem with comedy. If you don’t amuse, you can annoy. Comedy, or books with a strongly comic undertone, must surely be amongst the most difficult of genres to write.

For instance, I usually enjoy the writing of that writer of the mid-twentieth century Monica Dickens.  The regular reader of this blog won’t be surprised to find that I came across a copy of the first book I read by her, ‘One Pair of Hands’ at the age of twelve on one of those invaluable and innumerable bookshelves my mother had stocked with books bought by lot in furniture auctions. It was a 1930’s edition, and even had the postscript left out of modern editions, the discussion on ‘the servant problem’ at the end.

To digress a bit: Monica Dickens was the great-grand-daughter of Charles Dickens,  a debutante who went to work as a ‘cook general’, an amazingly eccentric move in the UK of the 1930’s.  This led her to write this book of her experiences with various employers in the London of the Great Depression.

Work may have been scarce, but ‘good servants’ were equally so just before the outbreak of World War Two, as people came to regard the long hours, poor wages and necessary subservience of ‘service’ as demeaning. In Victorian times, any lower middle class household would have had its ‘Mary-Ann’ who had to do just about everything for her employers; in the 1930’s things had changed, while many employer’s attitudes had not, and Ms Dickens’ book was about just that, and written with sharp observation and humour.

il_fullxfull.958617418_kwmv
The edition that I found on my parents’ bookshelves.

I found some other books of hers on the shelves, including, ‘Man Overboard’. This, an account of the misadventures of a British naval officer axed by a reduction in the navy circa 1955, I found so dull that I nearly stopped reading it, save then – as now –  a stupidly stubborn streak usually kept me reading a book I didn’t enjoy as ‘I’ve put this much effort into it; I might as well go on to the end.’

Most of it hardly raised a smile from me. That was, until I got to the climatic bit, which is is fact, the protagonist’s coming to a sense of proportion through the death of his father. At twelve, I was shocked to find that Monica Dickens had written a humorous depiction of a funeral. I had thought myself irreverent! That was black comedy indeed, and I was full of admiration that back in the conventional 1950’s she had dared to write it.

She did not in any way ridicule the grief of the mourners, but she did send up the foolish emptiness of many of the rituals, and much hypocrisy on the part of various distant relatives to a family loss. I was fascinated at how a humorous attitude towards life’s tragedies can in fact be a great bulwark, and I think I learnt a lot about dark comedy.

I read various other books of hers that I did consider funny (and tragic, for this author often combined the two). ‘Kate and Emma’ was one, ‘The Heart of London’ was another, and ‘The Listeners’ was another ( and no, that isn’t about the day-to-day ups and downs of the hard working people who do surveillance; it is about the author’s experience as a member of The Samaritans).

But I am unable to say why it was exactly that I found some of this author’s work hilarious, and other parts only raised from me a weary smile. It might have been that ‘Man Overboard’ was told from the point of view of the male protagonist, whereas her books are usually either told from the point of view of a female one, or have multiple points of view.

Another aside: How I wish that style of writing would come back into fashion…

It could just be that every comic situation depicted in that book left me cold until the end.

And that is one of the perils of writing comedy. When it falls flat, it’s about as acceptable to the reader as a heavy cold pancake, without any sugar, lemon, syrup, etc.

When it fails, it often frankly grates. Far more so than, for instance, pathos which misses the mark and turns into bathos, which after all, does make you smile at least.

I found this a couple of years ago, when I read some of a comic series by a female author. The books were well written. I enjoyed the first. In it, the heroine allowed herself to be beguiled by a charming wastrel, who subsequently let her down and wandered off with a regretful wave.

On beginning the second, I realised with dismay that the scenario was much the same as in the first. The protagonist had learnt nothing from being so badly let down by the first anti -hero. She met another one here, a supposedly different character, but in fact, virtually identical to the unreliable lover in the first. He looked the same, and his character flaws were identical. The heroine allowed herself to be drawn in by  him in exactly the same way as she had with the first, and he let her down in just the same way . So indecisive was he, that he didn’t even finish things properly; he wandered off exactly like the first, possibly to return in some future volume.

I looked at the third. Here that same anti-hero was again, hardly changed at all, though with a different name and a slightly different hair colour, being unreliable and winning the heroine’s heart and letting her down all over again…

This was obviously the case of a protagonist who learnt nothing and remained static. She was depicted as being supposedly sophisticated and in her late thirties. The author obviously found her guillable nature adorable, but for myself, I only find a naïve and ridiculously romantic female protagonist charming if she is young and inexperienced. If my own twenty-one-year-old Sophie de Courcy had led a less sheltered life, then her romantic silliness over the eponymous Scoundrel Émile  would have been  less exusable…

The protagonist of the series I mentioned seemed to have had many love affairs, but in the ones the reader is shown she was a sort of romantic recidivist, falling for the same sort of man, and being exploited in exactly the same way, again and again and never learning anything. In subsequent volumes, the former exploiters had a habit of returning with a weak apology, and the starry eyed heroine would admit them to her bed all over again before they strayed off again…

It was certainly realistic about a certain sort of woman. I found these constant re-runs of the first story not hilarious, as it is clear from the reviews that many did, but irritating.

There are in fact, ways in which an author can allow her protagonist to make the same mistake about one character, a love object, without depicting her as a static character incapable of learning. Magic is one, hypnosis is another, and a theme involving re-incarnation is a third.

In fact, in one of my favourite fantasy series, ‘Child of the Erinyes’ by R A Lochlann, a combination of these magical and reincarnation explanation is used to great effect. The heroine has no memory of the anti-hero’s abuse of her in previous incarnations, and so we do not become frustrated with her.

I suppose the author of the series about the non-developing woman had looked at some of the characters in classic comedy – ie, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, and seen that they were essentially static, but this in no way detracted from people’s enjoyment of the stories.

And the odd thing is, that I enjoy those stories, myself.

She may have been right in her assessment. In all fairness, only a minority of reviewers reacted as I did. The majority seemed to enjoy the female protagonist, and to root for her without respecting her, chuckling indulgently as she made the same mistake about men all over again.

Which comes back to my point; writing comedy is so hazardous precisely because readers’ tastes and sense of the ridiculous differ so greatly.

A reader of  one of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ wrote to me, ‘I found it read more as a straight paranormal romance. I couldn’t find any spoof elements.’

She added, ‘But I really enjoyed it.’

Well, that’s the main thing, anyway…

Advertisements

Johnson’s Criticism of Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ and the Problematic Nature of Dark Comedy

300px-Souchon1872ImogenCymbeline

‘To remark on the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbicility…’

That is not an attack of a piece of work by some hack writer churning out pot boilers. It is  part of a review of William Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’.

It’s by Samuel Johnson, an opinionated writer by any standards. (I should know, being opinionated myself). Part of the problem, as I see it, is that he is applying the standards of the so-called Age of Reason – Johnson was writing in the eighteenth century UK, which prided itself on its ‘enlightenment’ – to a fairy story/dark comedy, which verges on the surreal.

But even taking Johnson’s view – that he represented The Age of Reason in his attack on the play  and its fantastic notions – there is something biased and absurd about a critic saying this of Shakespeare, when he had praised to the skies that  deeply flawed sentimental novel ‘Evelina’ by Fanny Burney. That is meant to be realistic, with believable characters. Any modern reader who has ploughed through it will have noted the absurd co-incidences in it, and also, the wholly unbelievable behaviour of the characters.

It is of course, possible that characters whose behaviour is plausible to one century might seem to have the strangest motivations to readers two centuries later; an intriguing thought.

Johnson, whose approach in literary criticism often seems unimaginative, approached a fantasy story looking for realism in the plot, and was bitterly disappointed.

The way I see it –  and there are many interpretations of ‘Cymbeline’ with critics arguing about what exactly Shakespeare was getting at – is that Shakespeare was experimenting with a new, darker form of comedy. He did this several times later in his career after the much simpler comedies such as ‘A Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and most people believe that ‘A Winter’s Tale’ is a far superior play to ‘Cymebline’ which is, if our ideas about the timing of his plays is correct, one that followed his great tragedies.

Well, ‘King Lear’ is a pretty hard act to follow…

Anyway, this play seems to follow on from ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ in that it combines traditional fairy tale themes and stereotypical characters from such legends with a contrasting realism in their presentation, which can confuse the reader. The events in the stories are quite dark: however, I don’t believe they are meant to be taken wholly seriously.

In ‘All’s Well That Ends’ Well’ Helena, a ‘low born’ but admirable physician’s daughter cures the king of a supposedly incurable malady. Naturally, he asks her what she might want, as he’ll give it to her. What she wants is to marry her guardian’s son, the Count of Rossillion, and this is an interesting twist. In fairy stories, it is usually the enterprising miller’s son or some such who wins the hand of the king’s daughter, and she is assumed to find being given away as a prize quite acceptable.

By contrast, in ‘All’s Well That Ends  Well’ (which is based on a story by Boccaccio) the Count throws a tantrum, goes through with the marriage, but announces that he will never consummate it. He leaves her a note stating impossible conditions for her to fulfil in order for him to accept her as his wife, and runs off to join the army, egged on by a cowardly braggart toady called Parolles.

So, this brings a new, realistic twist to the fairy tale theme. Helena now has to fulfil these impossible conditions – that is of course, a fairy tale convention – and so bring about a happy ending.

‘Cymbeline’ is actually named after a king of Ancient Britain, whom we don’t see much. Unlike that other defective ruler, King Lear, this king is a shadowy presence in the play named for him. He has fallen under the evil counsel of his second wife, who is also a Wicked Witch and Evil Stepmother to the king’s daughter from his first marriage, Imogen, who has secretly married her comparatively low born childhood playmate Posthumus Leonatus. She is, unusually for these times, also the heir,  as his two sons were kidnapped by an estranged courtier (they all reappear at the end of the play). Accordingly, the king is furious with her for making such a marriage, and banishes Posthumus, and puts pressure on her to renounce him and marry the Wicked Queen’s son, who is a portrayed as a buffoon.

Meanwhile, Posthumus has gone about boasting about how Imogen would never be unfaithful to him, and even enters into a bet with an idle fellow called Iachmo, who insists that he could seduce any woman. He travels to the court to  hide in a trunk and have himself carried into Imogen’s bedroom, where emerges in the night, and leering at her naked, takes back the news to Posthumus that she has a mole on her breast.

Posthumus_and_Imogen

Instead of wondering if Iachmo has found this out through trickery, Posthumous immediately takes his word and having run off in a rage, returns to address the audience in a wild rant where he says that all women are sex obsessed, and incapable of fidelity: –

Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain’d,

And prayed me oft forbearance…O, all the devils!

This yellow Iachmo, in an hour, was’t not?

Or less; at first? Perhchance he spake not, but

Like a full acorn’d boar, a German one,

Cried ‘O’ and mounted…’

This is very ridiculous (I assume the said ‘German boar’ wouldn’t have said ‘O’ and the actor makes a  bestial grunting noise), and I found it grimly funny.However, it is worth noting that  when on the ‘Goodreads’  ‘Shakespeare Fans Group’ we discussed the play recently, a lot of people said they could see no humour in the play at all.

Later, however, Posthumus orders his servant to kill Imogen. Naturally, the man doesn’t, and Imogen and Posthumous are eventually reconciled. He does repent, even suggesting that being unfaithful to him was a comparatively small fault compared to his own enormous one in ordering her murder ( one wonders: why one earth did he think it fair to order his servant to do his dirty work?).

This, an unusual admission for the times, made me wonder if Shakespeare was here attacking the notion that a woman’s worth was equivalent to her so called chastity – the word ‘honour’ was used of both of women, though not of men. If so, he was well ahead of his time. More than two centuries later, the puritanical Samuel Richardson was writing in ‘Pamela’ as if physical virginity and mental virtue were the same for his heroines, and the astoundingly repressive view of women and sexuality being mutually exclusive so common in Victorian times is a commonplace.

That, however, is to wander off the topic, which I really meant to be, that experimenting in comedy was a tricky matter many centuries ago, and it remains as tricky a form of writing to do today. Humour is so individual a thing, even in individuals within a culture.

After all, sarcasm and irony, historically so much a part of the British character, aren’t invariably part of it. I have met Brits who wouldn’t know an ironic quip if they met it in the road, and these people aren’t in any way intellectually deficient. It is more that their brains seem to be connected in a different way to those who have a  keen sense of the absurd.  No doubt the same applied in Shakespeare’s time. Presumably, there were many in the audience at the Globe who would assume that Postumus, being the hero of the play, is expressing his creator’s own views, even if he is acting rather dramatically…

I have said before that the line between horror and the ridiculous is perilously thin. Sometimes, it seems easier to write unintentional comedy than it is to write it intentionally…

But for instance, one wonders about much of the melodrama in  various Victorian novels. ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example. The scene, for instance, where Cathy lies on the sofa ‘grinding her teeth as if she would turn them to splinters’. Is that meant to be as absurd as I find it? Or Heathcliffe’s hissed remark when Nelly rebukes him for his ill treatment of his bride:  ‘Let the worms writhe! I have no pity!’ seems to me so melodramatic as to be ludicrous.

And that is one of the good things about dark comedy. The two sides of that thin line between horror and humour, comedy and tragedy, meet and combine. I believe that was what Shakespeare, in his darker comedies, was exploring, in ‘Alls Well That End’s Well’ ‘Cymbeline’, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and others.

The Villainous Viscount Or The Curse Of The Venns Now Out on Amazon…

The-Villainous-Viscount-300x200

 

‘A good humoured satire of the cliches of Gothic romance…

When Clarissa Greendale inherits the fortune from a disreputable uncle she hardly knows, she does not expect to find herself forced into marriage with an aristocratic fortune hunter and wild, brawling, debauched social outcast.

Neither does she expect to inherit too the legacy of a wrongdoing from half a century before…

For the wicked Lord Venn is rumoured to have inherited a family curse, which, having dispatched the main perpetrators of the old crime, now moves on to their heirs, who are just as wild a set of rakes as their elders. There are rumours of violent deaths preceded by appearances from an inexorable Hooded Spectre, of inexplicable strikes of lightning, and of haunted mirrors.

The light hearted Harley Venn dismisses all these as conjuring tricks. He even hires a drunken charlatan of a professional magician to prove it.

Clarinda is far from sure that there is any rational explanation. Still it would take more than an enforced marriage to a pugilistic libertine or persecution from malevolent spectres to damage her steely nerves and ready sense of humour.

This lively Gothic comedy, written as a appreciative satire of the cliches of Gothic romance, gives the reader a warm hearted and courageous heroine, a wicked but beguiling anti-hero and an authentic historical background to the delightfully over-the-top adventures, plus a host of vivid supporting characters and many chills on its way to its tumultuous conclusion.’

Having worked on this for quite a while on and off, I’ve got quite attached to the characters.  I think if an author is with them for more than six months, h/she is  sorry to let them go.

No wonder so many authors write series.

As I said in a previous post, first I wrote it was a pure comedy – that seemed in bad taste given the tragic background story in France of the Ancien Regime. After 28,000 words, Writer’s Block settled in, horribly…

Then I wrote it mainly as tragedy – that didn’t suit the frequent bathetic happenings of the main story. The absurd goings on in Venn’s London house alone, with the awful valet O’Hare and his ungovernable children, the shameless maid Betsy and the life beseiged by creditors was far too ludicrous. Then, how could I bear to write out Ludovico Sharman, the Professor of Magic, Markmanship, Swordsmamship,  Languages and Subtle Influence?

In the last eight months, I’ve been re-writing it as dark humour, and  that went far better. I was so happy it didn’t end up as ‘The Manuscript in the Drawer.’

Now, I must get on with the ‘sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’, which is half done.

Here are the links:

https://www.amazon.com/Villainous-Viscount-Curse-Venns-ebook/dp/B01KXU8QUC

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Villainous-Viscount-Curse-Venns-ebook/dp/B01KXU8QUC

Medieval-Castles

Scene: The Dastardly Duke and the Spirited Heroine (in the role of governess) now take dinner together, in the great hall of his castle somewhere on the Yorkshire Moors. The great hall is, of course, full of sinister shadows cast by the flickering candles.  The Spirited Heroine does not, of course, occupy the chair at the foot of the table, which is drawn back invitingly.

DD:             Damn me!  This sinister flickering gets on my nerves of an evening. I  know I’m meant to be sinister and brooding, with surroundings to match, but I sometimes  wish electricity was invented (A warning jolt from the censor) – Ouch!  Apart from the censor giving me shocks for anachronisms, that is.

SH:             [The glow of her reddish hair, and the pearly tinge to her skin lit up by the candlelight]  Well, they use it for those grotesque experiments with galvanism, of course, where they bring a newly hanged criminal back to life.

DD:             What? If only I’d known – when – when…[Grimaces and hastily refills his glass of wine]. No matter.  Do I live, or do I grind out an existence of dust and ashes.  No smile of mine has illuminated this gloomy castle these ten years, because no smile of hers… No matter. What were we speaking of? [Savagely] And I don’t care if that’s ungrammatical.

SH:             [Kindly changing the subject, though burning with curiosity]      Your Grace, I am honoured that you stoop to eat with a hireling. Why, in my last post, I had to take my dinner from a tray served in the schoolroom. Still, at least I could read and eat. At least I could put my elbows on the table, and read.

DD:             [Savagely addressing the footman] The main course, you damned low born cur!

Footman:    [Aside] This is so demeaning, in front of one of my former  heroines. I was a fool to risk demotion in putting off  recalling her to my arms in our last, even if she was tiresome! The number of times  I’ve beaten this wretch with the flat of my sword when he was the villain!  Still, from the way he’s carrying on this time, he’ll soon be demoted again. [bows and clumps out].

SH:             [Aside]  Such savagery! I must get to the bottom of this    Intriguing Mystery surrounding the isolation of this wickedly handsome and embittered man. [aside]   Thank goodness I’ve got that line out with a straight face. Now it will be a plain sailing through the Gothic bits.

DD:             You may wonder at it, my good young lady. But I sometimes weary of my own company, and I saw you  were a female of spirit. I am surprised, almost sorry, to think of your charms wilting in a schoolroom, under   the care of tiresome brats.51Iw-60CWnL._SX218_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_

SH:             Really, Sir, surely you do not see your own daughters  in such a light?  I haven’t met my sweet pupils yet.

DD:             You won’t find them so. And why shouldn’t I see ‘em as brats? I care for nobody and nothing since the  death of my first wife. I didn’t give a hang for the     second.

SH:             You have been unlucky, Sir, twice widowed, and   yet still in your prime.

[Enter footman, lugging a heavy silver tray]

Footman:   I wish there was a service lift in this place – I know,      anachronism, Ouch!  [Sets down the dish on the table].  Do you wish me to carve, Your Grace?

DD:             No, get out of it.  I’ll serve us both. [Carves the joint     savagely. A sudden flash of lightning illuminates the chair  at the foot of the table, and in its light, a ghostly figure is visible there.]

SH:             [Continues to eat a moment, as if reluctant to leave  her dinner. Then drops her knife and fork]. My goodness,  I thought I saw –

DD:             [With set, ghastly look] Then you saw it too? Can I credit my eyes after all?

Footman:    [Coming back in]  And here’s the rest of the courses.

DD:             Curse you, fellow, I haven’t rang –  [He breaks off at another                    flash of lightning. Now the ghostly figure is clearly visible in the chair]  It is She!

SH:             Oh dear, there is never an uninterrupted meal in these Gothics.

Footman:      [To spectre, gabbling hysterically] Some nice beef, Your Grace?

Spectre:         Why not? [smiles round generally], then vanishes.

DD:                   She smiled so, on all…[quotes brokenly]    ‘Then smiles stopped altogether…’  Ouch! What was  that for, you cursed censor?

Footman:      Anachronism! Robert Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’   was not written until 1840. This is 1812, and you’re not the  sixteenth century  Duke of Ferrara, who in the poem had his wife killed for arousing his insane jealousy,  you’re the Duke of Somewhere Made Up  in the Yokrshire Moors, and it is only rumoured that your beloved late wife died at your hands, though your mad possessiveness was legendery throughout the moors.

DD:                 Leave me,  you literary minded low born cur!

Footman:      Only too happy, you Miserable Murderer!

DD:                  You lie, you damned insolent dog! [Leaps up and chases him from the  dining hall. The sounds of a violent dispute and blows exchanged drift back through the open doors]120px-John-Pettie_Two-Strings-To-Her-Bow_1882

SH:             I’m glad he’s fighting back. He’s quite sweet, really. I much prefer him to this current hero.

[The spectre of the Duchess re-appears, smiling again]

SH:               Your Grace, you seem very friendly. Shall we have some  girl talk? [wearily] Yes, I know, anachronism…

Authors Note; The full text of Robert Browning’s fascinating and brilliant dramatic poem can be found on:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Last_Duchess

 

When the Ghostly Meets the Absurd

mrx%2BnecronomiconSome months ago, I wrote a post about the thin line between horror and comedy; and on how one can so often lead into the other. It can be so difficult to get the balance right. After all, at times even the masters of terror, like Stephen King and Bram Stocker, can mistakenly stray over into the ludicrous.

That is one comfort about writing spoof Gothic. Here, the relationship between the two is out in the open. If the reader laughs a bit where the writer is aiming for pure terror, or is appalled by a bit which on the contrary is intended as one of the comic episodes, then it really doesn’t matter.

I mentioned in that post, how I let out a hoot of laughter when reading one of HP Lovecraft’s short stories, which unluckily, was not meant to be comic at all.

In it, a monster, born of an unnatural mating between a creature from outer space and a woman, was trying to obtain a copy of ‘The Necromican’, apparently so that the other members of the race to which his father belonged could come to earth. Well, it’s nice that he was a fond son, anyway…

There being no Internet and no Amazon in those days, and seemingly no public libraries willing to loan a copy of this book of magical rites (even if he had to read it in the reading room, as in the British Library), he broke into a private library to steal a copy.

Here, a watchdog attacked him, tearing his trousers and revealing that his body below the waist was ‘the stuff of fantasy’ (and certainly not of the sort found in the ‘Romance/Erotia’ section in Amazon, either).

The unlucky miscreant soon began to melt into a pool of goo. I was worried that the dog might have been poisoned by tearing at his flesh, but we didn’t hear that it suffered any ill effects.

There was another, which involved a man whose body had been stolen by these same aliens, and who came back to life in the coffin of one of their dead human accomplices (I forget why). He somehow got out, and made a series of warning phone calls, but as his vocal cords had begun to disintegrate, the recipients only heard, ‘Obscene gurgling noises’. Again, I collapsed into laughter. 51qDfwesoBL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_

It’s decades since I read those short stories, and I can’t, unfortunately, remember the names, though I do remember I read them as part of an anthology of possibly, ‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ or ‘Tales of Terror’ or some such thing. When I’ve mentioned them, people have been eager to read them too, so that’s a shame (that’s the annoying thing about short stories, they are so hard to track down).

Recently, however, I read the most absurd ghost story I have yet read, and I am sorry to say that it was chosen for ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’. I do remember the title of this. ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ by one Margery Lawrence.

This choice is the more extraordinary, as I gather that this largely forgotten writer was fully capable of writing genuine tales of terror. I can’t imagine what made the editor choose this, apart from the fact that it does stray repeatedly over into the ludicrous, and this, seemingly, by accident.

I did wonder if it is meant as a spoof, though this is not mentioned in the write up. Rather, I think, the combination of the dated, class-based assumptions of the characters, and their strangely cardboard nature, combine with a not sufficiently alarming ghostly presence to make for an unintentional comic effect.

By contrast, ‘Juggarnaut’ in the same volume, by D K Broster, a tale about a haunted ‘bath chair’, written about the same time (1926) with the same dated assumptions, is clearly meant to be ludicrous as well as horrific, and is highly entertaining.

The Haunted Saucepan’ comes from a book of collected stories by the author called ‘Nights of the Round Table’. In it, the hero, Conner, is an engineer come back to the UK along with his devoted manservant who is positively grovelling in his subservience towards the hero – and called the incongruous name of Strutt ; Conner is looking for affordable accommodation in Mayfair, near St James Park. 300px-Savile_Club_New_Bar_2

Unable to find any, he fears – horrors – that he would be reduced to living in a hotel, or else, his club (it isn’t clear where he would have placed Strutt; presumably in the attics) . This is hardship indeed, as he says he needs to live near his business interests. Then he comes on a fully furnished flat to let at a startlingly low rent. The agent tells Connor that the owner is abroad, having left abruptly for unspecified reasons.

The devoted Strutt has even been approached by a cook, an elderly woman who turns up, offering her services. He says to his master, ‘I took the liberty of exercising my own judgement…I hope I did right, Sir?’

The woman is an excellent cook. After his first dinner, Connor concedes; ‘Tell her I’m pleased.’ (What, no tip? Well, you mustn’t indulge staff too much; they’re bound to take advantage.)

Naturally, we have guessed at once that the flat is haunted. The mystery is in what form this haunting is going to take. The object of terror is in fact, a saucepan, which bubbles in a sinister way when the stove isn’t alight. Not only that, but if anyone eats anything cooked in it, he or she suffers from terrible agonies. This happens to Connor, after the delightful meal, for Strutt heated him some coffee in that saucepan.b732a28730f411f534c740cb1564b6ed

Connor, reading late on that first night, finds that Strutt has failed to supply him with fresh soda for the siphon, and he has to go along to the kitchen to get it. Here on the stove:
‘One, a little saucepan, had it’s lid not quite on – not fitted on levelly, I mean –and it had the oddest look for a moment, just as if it had cocked its lid up to take a sly look at me!’

Later in the night, Connor awakes: ‘Shaking and gasping, my hands alternately grasping my throat and stomach as most awful griping agonies seized me, throwing me into convulsive writhings…’

Strutt to the rescue: ‘My God, Sir, what’s the matter? You waked me coughing! Wait a second, Sir, I’ll get you a drop of brandy…If you’ll take my advice you’ll change those damp things and let me rub you down…’

The next day Connor feels fine, and his doctor says there’s nothing wrong with him.

But then, Connor is dismayed when he and his friend Trevanion, who’s come to dine, hear an odd bubbling noise coming from the kitchen, but a visit their reveals nothing:

‘Trevanion’s cheery laugh died away down the street…The kitchen door stood ajar…craning forward, I peeped round the door…The little saucepan stood where I had put it, on the stove, still cold and unlit – but it was boiling! The lid was rakishly aslant, and tilted a shade every second or so as the liquid, whatever it was, bubbled inside, and gusts of steam came out as I gasped, dumbfounded –somehow as I listened, the noise of the bubbling shaped itself into a devilish little song, almost as if the thing was singing to itself, secretly and abominably, chortling to itself in a disgusting sort of hidden way….’b732a28730f411f534c740cb1564b6ed

This was the point at which I began to chortle to myself in a disgusting sort of hidden way at Connor and Strutt’s terrors, and the general Boys’ Own way in which the hero and his friend Trevanian set out to resolve the mystery.

The servile Strutt taken ill, too, after boiling himself an egg in the murderous saucepan (Connor is so astonished that his man is late wth his early morning tea that he goes to investigate). Now, Trevanian callously decides to engage in some animal experiments. He borrows a dog, boils up some bones in the pan, and gives them to the unfortunate animal, which is seized by the symptoms of poison also:
‘Poor old brute! Never mind; he’ll be all right in a jiff.”

Then, the two friends decide to wait in the kitchen –along with the unlucky dog – in an attempt, it seems, to see the ghost:
‘We had brought cushions and rugs with us, and threw them in a corner, the furthest away from the stove…from where we could watch both door – and stove – and saucepan…Settling ourselves down, I rummaged in my pocket for my pipe.’

SaucepansAtWW30sI’ve read a number of descriptions of such night vigils in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but Conan Doyle can make the situation full of alarming suspense rather than absurdity. He achieves this in ‘The Speckled Band’, for all the baboon which runs across the garden, and the cheetah that snuffles at the window.

With this story, by contrast, I began to snigger heartlessly again. Then I came to the climax of the vigil: –
‘A faint movement in the passage at the further end – on tiptoe for greater stealth, something stole towards the kitchen door…the Thing in the passage trailed nearer and nearer…a faint footstep accompanied by a soft rustle like a trailing skirt. At this moment, I became aware of another phenomenon –there grew a heavy scent on the air, like patchouli, I think…our throats dry with fright, we shrank closer to each other, staring at the dog as he moaned and whimpered, and the steps drew nearer, and paused outside the kitchen door, as if Whoever walked that night paused to peer at us through the crack in the kitchen door, and laughed at us through the chink!
‘For sheer terror, that beat all that I have ever known, yet still the spell held us both motionless…the dog’s eyes fixed about five foot from the floor, followed – Someone – who entered…suddenly upon the silence broke a sinister little sound – the clink of a saucepan lid lifted…with a yell of mortal fear I threw aside the rugs, and bolted past that horrible stove like a maniac, Trevanion close at my heels, blundering madly over poor old Ben as he ran.’
51qDfwesoBL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_
At this, I laughed so much that I thought the story deserved a place in the collection for its sheer entertainment value. If it was written tongue in cheek, which I doubt, as it seems the author had little sense of the ridiculous, it is a masterpiece of understated satire.
None of the comedy of these two he man types running in terror from the apparition of a living and lovely young woman is indicated as the story draws to  a close (for the siren murderer who owns the flat and who killed her husband with poisoned meals from the saucepan still lives abroad with her male accomplice).

Connor and Trevanion take Strutt into their confidence. He is all gratitude, and says he threw the dread saucepan out, but it turned up in the kitchen again. On no account is his beloved master to touch it.

The cook is called. Trevanion seizes her, and Strutt, rather like a school sneak, informs them that she laughed when Connor was taken ill, and threatens to make her eat something cooked out of the saucepan.

After this ungallant treatment, she crumbles and tells all of her former mistress, her lovers, and the elderly husband subject to painful attacks of acid indigestion , and the wife carefully cooking him invalid’s meals in the dread saucepan, laced with a strange white powder from her doctor lover. For all this deviotion, he faded slowly away. Then the doctor married the siren and they went abroad…

After that, the wicked old woman used the saucepan now and then to scare away tenants, as she wished to keep her caretaking job (it’s never explained why, with her skills as a chef, she didn’t take up work as a cook; but perhaps it was harder work). Connor sternly dismisses her:
‘The door closed on her dismissed figure, and Trevenion’s eyes met mine. With one accord we said, ‘My God, what a horrible yarn!’ That is redolent of Rinaldo Rinaldini, where his men are forever speaking in chorus.

It is left to Strutt to throw away the saucepan. The environmentally unfriendly Connor suggests he tie a stone to it, and sinks it in the Thames (but might it not poison the whole river?)

I was disappointed to come to the end of the tale; it had given me a wonderful laugh.41h7eo8lA4L._SS160_

I hasten to add that there are far more spine chilling ghost stories in ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’ – ‘Miss de Mannering of Asham’ by F M Mayor, for instance, is brilliant and touching, and ‘The Eyes’ by Edith Wharton is truly alarming, and has a wonderful psychological slant that in no way detracts from the ghostliness.

It is also only fair to add, that I lived in a reputedly haunted house myself for several years, and I found listening to the sound of disembodied footsteps decidedly unpleasant myself (though their owner was almost certainly dead). I also found the inexplicable mechanical clicking noises which passed up one of the long corridors at dead of night disturbing, neither of which sounds frightening when recounted in the light of day (though I often heard them in the light of day, though more often at twilight, including the last time that I heard them, about which I will write next Halloween).

The problem, then, is less with the prosaic nature of a ghostly saucepan than the whole Boy’s Own Adventure Story atmosphere which surrounds this 1920’s ghostly tale. However, as laughter is the best tonic, I strongly recommend it.

Spoof Sequel to Wuthering Heights; Heathcliff, Huntingdon, and Gambling for Grassdale Manor

wuthering heightsSetting: Wuthering Heights, the dining room . The table is laid for three. Joseph clumps about in his heavy boots, slopping unappetising looking porridge into bowls.

Arthur: Silence, fellow! Last night’s excess has overwrought my steely nerves. I can no more take that appalling din, than I endure to eat any of this filthy slop. Make me some coffee and be quick about it. Milk indeed; are we infants?

Joseph: [only daring to speak to himself under his breath] Are things come to this, that I, fifty years in this house, mun take orders from such a nought? [Aloud] Maister Heathcliff, am I to endure this?

Heathcliff: [even more darkly brooding than usual  this morning] Quiet, or I’ll  kick you out. Make some coffee and I’ll have some too. Be quick about it, or i’ll use your good books to stoke the fire.

Jospeh: Ah, wicked furren ways. Hareton, lad, sup thy milk in blessed innocence.

Hareton: I’ll have some too. [Jospeh goes out, lamenting ]

[Some minutes pass in grim silence]

Hareton,[to Heathcliff Did I hear knocking last night?

Heathcliff: Tha’ did, lad. A lass knocked on the door, and I sent her away into the wind and the rain. You know what I always say: ‘Let the worms writhe, I have no mercy’.

Arthur: [to himself] Just the sort of quip to set the table on a roar; this fellow’s a social lion.

Hareton: Nay, it weren’t right, if it were a lassie.

Arthur: You’re right, young sir. I should have spoken up for the wench, plain-looking though she was, but I was a trifle elevated. Here’s that old Pharisee with the coffee at last

[Enter Joseph] They drank all the wine and brandy I keep for t’good of my health and my old bones last night, and now they’re at my coffee. Sinful. Someone knocks. Mayhap, the devil himself.

Heathcliff; Just so long as its no more trespassers from other novels.

thHareton: If it’s that poor lass Jane Eyre, let her in this time.

Huntingdon: Damn me, I can’t stand this biblical cant over breakfast, when I’ve got to surmount last night’s excesses. My wife was bad enough for that, but at least she had didn’t have a face like that. I’ve seen happier looking ghouls. Young sir, what’s the best way to Wildfell Hall?

Hareton: I’ll put you on your way, Mr Huntingdon.

[Joseph returns] Maister Heathcliff, there’s two boxes of books out there, wi’ fair shocking covers, wi’ wenches a-flaunting their bosoms in indecent low gowns, wi’ their cheeks and lips looking fair painted, and t’wind a blowin’ their skirts above their ankles, and you with your shirt off, and a snarlin’ like our house dogs, and all called ‘Wuthering Heights. T’shame of it! That folks should credit such things go on here!

Hareton [hurries out] I must see this!

Huntingdon: A shame I’ve seen no such fine wenches here. Why anyone would choose to write about this damned sorry place, is beyond me. Now I’ll take my leave. I thank you for your hospitality. I believe I lost tuppence over the cards last night? As a debt of honour, I must pay that. [throws down coin]63daa92b710561d87498049b891eb71b

Heathclif: [hurls his marked cards down on the table in a rage] And I was dreaming of getting my hands on that Grassdale Manor of yours!

Huntingdon: Never mind, at least you have some reading matter more agreeable than ‘Torments in the Pitt (Extended Edition,  with Lurid Illustrations by Hironymous Bosche)’ and ‘One Thousand Reflections for a Sinner’. [Exit]

Hieronymus Bosch - Hell 2