Fiction Reviews

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings
A medieval ghost story

(2021) Dan Jones, Head of Zeus, £9.99, hrdbk, 96pp, ISBN 978-1-801-10129-5


Now this is a curious little book, and when I say little, I do mean little as it has been published as a small-format hardback, and if you don’t know what that means, think of old-style paperbacks or a book the same size as the BBC/Target Doctor Who books. Smallness here has a double meaning, not only applying to the size of the book but also to the length of the tale therein. Reading The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings I can’t help being reminded of the first time I visited the United States and saw adverts for Wendy’s fast-food restaurants on television as they featured an angry old woman standing at the counter and demanding to know “Where’s the beef?”. I know how she feels reading this, as where is the filling, or the meat or the beef? What we have is here is a book that comes in at less than ninety pages when you take off the number of blank pages at the start and throughout the text. Far more interesting than the actual tale is Jones’ introduction telling the story of how the original tale was written down in the fifteenth century by an unknown monk, and then transcribed from the original Latin in 1922 by a medieval historian by the name of M.R. James – yes, that M.R. James. The anonymous monk seemingly transcribed twelve true ghost stories of the time involving strange apparitions, helpful ghosts and vengeful spectres, and of the twelve accounts, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings was by far the longest story. Perhaps what is really of interest is what comes after the tale itself, in that we get a note on Byland Abbey where the tale was originally written, followed by James’ version of the original text, and next to this we see the actual text James had to deal with, which is very compact and not easy to follow. Perhaps the thing that is most interesting in this short book are the footnotes that James has made when editing and annotating the text, noting the need to peep inside your house before entering if you have had a ghostly encounter; and also the risk of seeing a light after such an event.

Jones retelling of the original tale is told over forty pages and in seven chapters, recounting what happens when a tailor called Snowball is riding home from Gilling to Ampleforth on a dreich day and can’t wait to get back to the warmth of his home, but is knocked off his horse by a raven which transforms into a dog and gives him a warning and a task to perform, or there will be consequences involving two other spirits that haunt the road. The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings is an interesting little story, a yarn that would be good to tell in front of the fire at Christmas or Halloween, but it is really only a macabre, strange, story, not very frightening, nor, alas, memorable.

Ian Hunter


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