Christmastime may seem like a slow season for Hollywood Gothique; after all, aren’t all the exciting haunts in October? The truth, however, is that (in England, at least) there is a great tradition of Christmas ghost stories that goes back to the Victorian era.
Why this should be, I don’t quite know, being an American myself, but I suspect it has something to do with sitting round the fireplace on cold evenings, sipping egg nog and hot buttered rum while icy winds outside moan like banshees, blowing gusts of snow into phantasmal shapes against the windows. (Think of the opening scene from the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights, and you’ll get the idea.)
As you can imagine, such a setting is conducive to the telling of frightful tales. As a matter of fact, many ghost stories by noted author Montague Rhodes James were composed for just such occasions – to be told round the fire during Christmas break at Cambridge University. James was a master of atmosphere and setting, and it’s easy to imagine how “Count Magnus,” “O, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas” could be enhanced by hearing them read under appropriate circumstances. As Michael Cox writes in his “Introduction” to the James anthology Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories:
By the turn of the century, the ghost stories had become part of a yearly ritual enjoyed by a gathering of James’ close friends. […] The story was often composed at ‘fever heat’; as one listener [Oliffe Richmond] recalled: ‘Monty emerged from the bedroom, manuscript in hand, at last, and blew out all the candles but one, by which he seated himself. He then began to read, with more confidence than anyone else could have mustered, his well-night illegible script in the dim light.
James short stories (he wrote no novels) have been collected into several different volumes, such as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, but I recommend the Casting the Runes collection. The story from which the volume takes its title is one of James best, and it served as the basis for a great horror film, 1958’s Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon in the US).
There is another author named James who is associated with ghost stories – or rather, with one ghost story. Henry James wrote many books dealing with upper-crust Victorian society, but one of his most intriguing is the short novel The Turn of the Screw. The bulk of the enigmatic tale is set in summer at an isolated mansion in the English countryside, but the prologue sets the spooky atmosphere by framing the narrative as a story being read by a gathering of friends during the winter season:
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 say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion – an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate the dread and sooth him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him.
The Turn of the Screw is one of the great achievements in supernatural literature, at least in part because there is some debate as to whether it is supernatural at all. (Many critics read it as a psychological tale of an unstable governess who only hallucinates that her two young charges are haunted.) It was also turned into an excellent film, THE INNOCENTS (1960), starring Deborah Kerr. The Christmas setting appears only in the prologue (omitted from the film), but that is enough clarify that, for Victorian readers, yuletide and ghosts naturally went together like eggnog and rum.
The connection that these ghost stories have with Christmas, however, is in the telling, not the plotting. The cold, wintery season may provide the perfect setting for telling a gruesome tale of a dreadful apparition, but the apparitions do not necessarily appear with carolers singing “Noel” in the background.
There is of course one very famous exception. No doubt the most famous Christmas ghost story begins thusly:
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Probably everyone has seen at least one film or television adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which at this point exists in so many versions that, should the rights be secured by a single station, could account for at least a day-long marathon. Everybody from Alistair Sim to Albert Finney, George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart, has taken a turn at the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, and such is the strength of the source material that all of them are interesting in their own way.
But how many people have taken the time to peruse the source material – a novellete that fuses Christmas and ghosts in the most blatant manner imaginable? Charles Dickens original literary version of the story is a genuine classic in its own right that deserves to be read. In fact, I can give no higher recommendation this year than that you run out and pick up a copy at your local library or bookstore, then read it, at least to yourself and preferably aloud to those you love, be it family, friends, spouses, or lovers. With only five chapters, we’re not talking about a great investment of time, but the returns will be greater than you can imagine.
Of course, being so short, it’s not as if the Dickens tale is filled with plot details that had to be excised for the movie and television adaptations. You’re not going to find all sorts of sophisticated or complex ideas that had to be toned down to make a mass-appeal movie. (The truth, of course, is that Dickens was writing a popular tale, so it’s not as if the filmmakers had to move it any further in that direction.)
No, what you will derive from reading this story is the richness of the language, the magic of a prose style perfectly calculated to tell the tale at hand. This brief excerpt quoted above should provide some clue regarding the amusement that awaits: the overemphatic stress on a point that could have been made in a single sentence, the attempt to convince the reader as if overcoming some sort of resistance to the idea being stated—this points to a joy at the use of words as tools of entertainment. By the time Dickens moves into the second paragraph of the story, featuring his doubts regarding what is particularly dead about a doornail (as opposed to a coffin nail), you will know beyond any doubt on your part that you are indeed in for a fine evening’s entertainment.
And need I even mention at this point that the story story is best read around a crackling fire in the quiet hours of the evening? Wind and snow are preferable but optional (especially for those of us who live in sunny California).
You will occasionally stumble across a Victorian colloquialism, but you should be able to figure out the gist from the context. (I myself am still not sure what “good upon ‘Change” means, except that it seems to imply Scrooge’s name was the equivalent of legal tender [i.e., money]; therefore, it had some intrinsic value or validity for whatever it was applied to.) Whatever the stumbling blocks for your tongue, they won’t be enough to impede you from enjoying a rich piece of fiction that will delight you, no matter how many times you’ve seen the story acted out.
I won’t belabor the point by trying to convince you any further, except to say that I myself will be revisiting this story once again this year (as I try to do every Christmas season). Hopefully, reading the tale will warm your heart to the concept that Christmas really is a great season for enjoying ghosts and other things that go bump in the night. Perhaps, after the pleasant fantasy of Dickens’ uplifting tale, you might even take a chance on some other Victorian ghost stories, be they Turn of the Screw, “Count Magnus” or some other titles you find on your own. Also it’s worth remembering that A Christmas Carol was not a one-off for Dickens; you can find the novel in anthologies containing the author’s other Christmas ghost stories, so that would be a could place to start.
Have a Merry, Scary Christmas!