NR: The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings

The plan is to produce an Advent Calendar of novella reviews and given the season there is no better way to start this endeavour than with a ghost story.

Author Dan Jones made his name as a historian, putting all that research to good use with the September 2022 launch of his novel Essex Dogs, but a year prior to that he dipped a toe in fictional waters with The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings, his retelling of ‘a Medieval ghost story’

In his chatty introduction Jones explains how M. R. James discovered a manuscript containing twelve ghost stories, ostensibly true accounts, written down for posterity by a monk at Byland Abbey back in the 14th century. Along the way he touches on James’ own career as a writer of ghost stories and the reason he was so successful in the field. Then he admits his own desire to produce something similar with which to impress his children, resulting in this adaptation of the longest story in the Byland collection.

Snowball the tailor is riding his horse Borin home from Gilling to Ampleforth, when he finds a dead raven in the road that miraculously comes back to life and attacks him. He repels the bird only for it to return as a monstrous dog, one that speaks to him and informs Snowball whose spirit it is, the ghost of a man who was buried outside consecrated ground for his sins. On pain of dire punishment Snowball is charged with travelling to York to find priests who will grant the sinner a pardon, which he does, though it costs him. Appearing first as a goat and then as one of the dead Kings, the ghost is granted absolution, warning Snowball of other perils in wait and the possibility of fortune.

This is a very simple story, but Jones gives it enough horror grace notes to entertain. His account of Snowball’s meeting with the clerics who sell absolution and haggle over the price is both amusing and at the same time, by the standards of the day when it was first written, makes a very serious point. Similarly the friend of Snowball who wishes to meet the ghost and then chickens out at the last minute adds more humour and demonstrates a keen understanding of human nature. The descriptions of the ghost are suitably macabre, as is its threat to Snowball and his methods of defence. Of course this can’t compare with the best of modern horror, but it is a decent enough tale and holds the reader’s attention, with some images that will stay in the mind for a fair while after the reading is done.

To round out the book Jones gives us a history of Byland Abbey and the original Latin story, as transcribed by James, so that those who have the benefit of a classical education can check how many liberties he took with the text.

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