Ed Elf: I don’t know how you work that out, Mrs. C. I’m usually a few feet off the ground with this kind of subject – jumping out of my skin.
Mrs C: There’s no escaping the fact, though, that Christmas is a time for spooky stories. Let’s see how it all came to pass. If you are intrigued enough to buy some ghostly material, we have recommendations to follow.
They should be at opposite ends of the festive spectrum, so why is it that ghosts and Christmas combine so wonderfully well?
The easy explanation would be to lay it all at the door of Charles Dickens and his 1843 book “A Christmas Carol”. Four ghosts appear in his timeless story: Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmases past, present and future. And it’s true, all things supernatural intrigued Victorian Britain. Spiritualism was big business. There are even examples of ghosts appearing in pantomimes of that time.
But ghostly obsession stretches back much further. William Shakespeare was never afraid to explore supernatural themes and in “The Winter’s Tale” there is the reference: “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins…”. The fireside story to be told by Prince Mamillius is a ghostly one.
However, the delight in sharing the spooking is likely rooted in ancient pagan rites. As the winter solstice approached, daylight dwindled and darkness prevailed. The line between the living and dead was considered so acute at this time of year that supernatural tales flowed.
The tradition remains strong. English author M.R. James (1862-1936) produced some of the finest ghost stories ever written, including “Number 13” and “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. Such tales were written as Christmas Eve entertainments and read aloud to friends. “Number 13” was adapted into a short film as recently as 2006.
The BBC’s “A Ghost Story for Christmas” series ran from 1971 to 1978 and was revived in 2005. The brilliant Mark Gatiss wrote the supernatural drama “The Crooked House” for the BBC’s 2008 Christmas schedule. He then made his directorial debut with the 2013 Christmas night drama “The Tractate Middoth” from the 1911 book by M.R. James. We have since seen Gatiss bring more of James’s stories to the screen, including Simon Callow in “The Dead Room” and Peter Capaldi in 2019’s “Martin’s Close”, as BBC Four have continued the ghostly tradition.
Gatiss explained the Christmas-ghost connection in a BBC interview, saying: “Perhaps it is a reaction to the otherwise jolly time of year. Something feels right about pushing things off kilter, beside a warm fire, for the safe thrill of having your flesh creep. It’s a healthy scare…just as important as having a good laugh.”
Let’s leave the last word with the unlikely Mr. Andy Williams. In his song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, he sings: “There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and carolling out in the snow. There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” Scary ghost stories and Christmas: inextricably intertwined.
“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Chapman & Hall first published this novella on December 19th 1843 to popular acclaim. The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from bitter miser to generous patriarch, as engineered by ghosts from his past, present and future, is a work of genius. Charles Dickens’s story is considered one of the greatest influences in resurrecting old Christmas traditions, while also serving as a morality tale for the age. Dickens completed writing the book in just six weeks from September 1843.
Montague Rhodes James is renowned as one of the great writers of ghost stories and this hardback collection contains more than 30 short stories sure to chill and thrill, including “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, “The Tractate Middoth”, “The Haunted Dolls’ House” and “After Dark in the Playing Fields”. We know King’s College, Cambridge for its magnificent choir and historic Christmas Eve carol service. But Christmas Eve at King’s was also a time, around a century ago, for the provost to read out spine-tingling, handwritten ghost stories to a select gathering of colleagues and friends. The provost was distinguished medieval scholar M.R. James.
“The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Oscar Wilde’s short story combines his typical humour with the creepy and macabre in a wonderful twist on the traditional Gothic horror tale. It was the first of his stories to be published, appearing in the 1887 magazine “The Court and Society Review”. The Canterville Ghost admits to feeling duty bound to “rattle my chains, groan through keyholes, walk about at night.” He does it all in a perfectly creepy old English country house – but not always with the greatest impact – as a materialistic American family moves into the mansion. A clash of cultures is beautifully captured.
“The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In” by Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
This short novel was written and published in 1844, a year after “A Christmas Carol”. The book is divided into four parts that Charles Dickens calls ‘Quarters’ in the way he named the five sections in “A Christmas Carol” ‘Staves’. The chimes are the old bells in the church on whose steps the story’s pivotal character, Trotty Veck, operates as a messenger. On New Year’s Eve, the bells call to Trotty and he climbs the church tower to find the spirits of the bells and their goblin escorts. He is scolded about his attitude to others, most notably for condemning those who have fallen on hard times and for offering them no help. When Trotty later sees his desperate daughter Meg ready to take her own life, he cries for the chimes to save her. Trotty wakes at home and Dickens asks the reader to decide if the awakening is a dream within a dream. This was the second in a series of five Christmas books by the Victorian author in the 1840’s, most containing strong social and moral messages.
“The Woman in Black” by Susan Hill (b. 1942)
First published in 1983, Susan Hill’s eerie book was turned into a darkly atmospheric 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe. This is a traditional English ghost story – a disturbing tale of tragedy and rage. The haunted house and the marshes that surround it are described in a way that transports you to the very flesh-crawling place of supernatural terror awaiting young solicitor Arthur Kripps. When he is forced to stay the night there alone he…well, he isn’t! Read this at night at your peril.
“Tales of Unease” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave the world Sherlock Holmes but also had the ability to deliver weird and wonderful tales as far removed from the Baker Street boys as you could wish to be. The 15 short stories in this collection include “Horror of the Heights” (first published in 1913) and its mysterious blood-stained notebook and “The Terror of Blue John Gap” (first published in 1910) and its cave-dwelling beast. “The Case of Lady Sannox” is another of the largely compelling tales in which a certain facial part is horrifically severed in a twisted revenge plot. They are called tales of unease after all.
“Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories” by Roald Dahl (1916-1990)
A creepy collection selected by the great Roald Dahl, master of the tales of the unexpected and children’s classics galore. But be warned, he isn’t the author but the selector of the ghost stories in this 1983 book. However, if you can’t trust Dahl’s taste here, who’s can you trust? Dahl read more than 700 supernatural tales before selecting 14 for publication. “Spookiness is, after all, the real purpose of the ghost story,” wrote Dahl in the foreword. Prepare to be spooked.
This ghostly offering from the genius mind of Charles Dickens was published in 1848 and is the fifth and final of his Christmas novellas. Redlaw, a chemistry professor, is the central character but is never referred to by a first name. He cannot let go of the past and perceived wrongs gnaw away at him. He is haunted by a spirit – his phantom twin – and told to “forget the sorrow, wrong, and trouble you have known…to cancel their remembrance”. Bitterness overtakes Redlaw and it spreads to those he comes into contact with, except for Milly Swidger. She presents the climactic moral to the tale.
“Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems” by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
The king of the short story and the master of the macabre, this is a marvellous addition to any library of the unnerving. Edgar Allan Poe’s heralded work “The Raven” headlines the collated poetic works. “The Fall of the House of Usher” (first published in 1839) is perfectly ghostly for our Christmas purposes. Poe’s unexplained death lends an extra dose of darkness to all that’s presented here.
“Ghost Story” by Peter Straub (b. 1943)
Peter Straub’s horror novel was published in 1979 and became a bestseller. Four elderly men in a small New York town have taken to telling each other ghost stories – influenced by the death of a former fifth member of the group, who died in an upstairs bedroom during one of their gatherings with a look of horror on his face. The Chowder Society’s nightmares are only just beginning.
“Sir Gawain And The Green Knight” by Simon Armitage (b 1963)
Sir Gawain’s Christmas quest is to seek out the mysterious and magical Green Knight he beheaded the year before when, riding in on his green horse, he had rudely interrupted the Round Table’s Yuletide celebrations. Yorkshire poet and author Simon Armitage’s 2006 translation of the medieval poem is splendid and compelling, bringing renewed life to the Arthurian tale of chivalry and the supernatural. Preserved on a single surviving manuscript (circa 1400) and composed by an anonymous master, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was rediscovered around two centuries ago. It was published for the first time in 1839. It is a ghost story, an adventure, a romance and a morality tale all wrapped up in one.
Did you know…an age-old Scandinavian belief is that ancestors might visit to enjoy a feast while the household sleeps on Christmas Eve? A welcoming light might be left on, plenty of food and drink placed on the table and a clean white cloth draped over a chair before retiring to bed. If there are black marks on the cloth the next morning, ancestors have risen from the grave to visit and dine.