There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago….
– Most Wonderful Time of the Year
There’s always been a thin sliver of fear in the underbelly of the Christmas Season. Rosy-cheeked Father Christmas, with his sleigh and his magical deer, is only one side of the Christmas coin. On the other side is the biting heart of unforgiving winter: totems of the sunless cold. Across the world, jollity is tempered with whispered words of warning. Be good, for Krampus, wrapped in shadow, waits to whisk away the naughty children off into the cold, black night. Be good, or find your intestines replaced with straw and pebbles by Frau Perchta, the Germanic spirit who punishes the misbehaved. Be good, or never be seen again. Behave, or die.
The old myths and folklore are not the only Christmas stories with teeth. Modern pop culture has its share of Holiday horrors. Take The Exorcist, in which the Devil climbs into the soul of a little girl, to tell a grieving priest exactly what his mother is up to in hell. Or in Black Christmas, when the psychotic murderer practically makes Christmas cookies out of human skin. John McClane just wanted to come out to the coast, get together, and have a few laughs. Instead, he has to deal with that whole Nakatomi Tower thing, with the terrorists, and the glass in the feet…just a rough Christmas Eve all around.
But there is a particular comfort in the juxtaposition of the macabre and the merry. The Season is a shelter of sorts, perhaps. There’s security in being surrounded by family and friends, the unforgiving wind shut away outside, a comfort in the murmuring glow of coals behind the tarnished brass fender that hems the fireplace. Standing by the soot-blackened bricks, fragrant glass of cognac warming in hand, talking of good times past beneath the beatific glow of the angel atop the tree, we are emboldened to examine the darkness beyond the pane. Our comfort is compounded by the fear and the unknown outside, in knowing that we are nestled safely, warmly away from it.
What’s that? Why, yes, I have been reading dozens of nineteenth-century English ghost stories just lately. How did you know?
Of all the long and varied traditions of Christmas, the telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve is the one most unjustly relegated to history. The Christmas Season is, after all, largely one of nostalgia. There are few things more nostalgic than unfurling intrigue in an idyllic English manor, ruminations in waistcoats, wood-paneled rooms with shifty servants looming through languorous wreaths of aromatic pipe smoke, carrying evening tea or an announcement of a late stranger at the door. All the while, snow falls heavy and hushes the impenetrable wood outside, where men long dead are seen, sometimes, to walk.
I’m telling you, this stuff is great!
As with all things rooted in an age before smartphones (or airplanes, or the internet), old traditions faded with the coming of new fads and holiday rituals, it can be difficult to dig in and find the good stuff. To know where to start. So. Here’s a little primer on two of the best English ghost stories to read by gaslight this Christmas. (I’m not including Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, because everyone and their Muppets have read or watched it.) We’ll explore some nuance of the tradition as we go. So pour yourself some Armagnac brandy, light a fine fill of black shag, and pull your housecoat closer.
Pay no mind to the knocking from the red room, for surely ‘tis the wind.
Smee, by A.M. Burrage
No,” said Jackson, with a deprecatory smile, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to upset your little game. I shan’t be doing that because you’ll have plenty without me. But I’m not playing any games of hide-and-seek.
Burrage’s unsettling short story starts with two of the hallmarks of great Christmas ghost stories: a group of adult friends gathered for a game on Christmas Eve, and the storyteller (our protagonist) telling their story very hesitantly.
The story is short, and ruined if I give too much away. Here’s what you need to know: Jackson will not play because he stays at a house where a little girl was killed playing a hide-and-seek game in the dark. The game she was playing finds children standing in the dark, in silence. And, once upon a time, Jackson played the game…at the house where she was killed.
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.
By many accounts Henry James’ short novel The Turn of the Screw is the best ghost story ever written. It is the quintessential silent scream, building on subtleties and minute cracks and little oddities that function to slowly twist the reader (and the heroine) into stark fear. And, perhaps, madness. As with all great English ghost stories, the tale starts around a fire on Christmas Eve. The main story, told by the host of the house, is told with reticence.
He tells the story of a young woman who is hired as governess for two children at a remote manor house. Learning that the previous governess had died under mysterious circumstances, the young governess inquires about her new job, and the children she is to oversee. That’s when things take a turn. Something is changing the children. Calling to them. Corrupting them. Something always a windowpane away, or just around the corner of a doorway…gone when our heroine turns to look.
There are sounds in the night, and a skeletal, sparse wood on the grounds in which sounds are heard and children are lost, and found. Children’s games, somehow sinister beneath the surface, like a smile an inch too wide. Letters written in a fine hand, in pale ink. There is the corrupting hand of paranormal evil, and there is unutterable tragedy.
And to All a Good Night
The ghosts of English authors past are a perfect bow on the rosy gloaming of Christmas. There are terrors and tension, but these stories deliver a delicious shiver. They may be horrors, but as Stephen King noted in Danse Macabre (1981), horror sells best in times of peace. When better than the season of Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men?
And besides, Christmas lights are most beautiful in the dark.