There is something inherently Christmassy about settling down to enjoy a good ghost story at this time of year.
On the surface, this may seem strange when you consider that so much of the Christmas spirit is based around happiness, joy, colour, energy, and childish wonder. Nevertheless, the season can be exhausting for these very reasons, and it often feels cathartic to find a quiet moment to finally sit back on the sofa and lose one’s self in a haunting tale.
Picture the scene as you turn off the overhead lights and let the warm glow of the Christmas tree illuminate the room. The fireplace crackles away as you read, warming your soul as you pour yourself a glass of port and fetch a mince pie. Or if, like most of us, you do not have a real fire, the Netflix fireplace video will do.
The most well-known Christmas ghost story that springs to mind is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), which has been reproduced in numerous television and film productions. This year, Mark Gatiss and Nicholas Farrell have brought the story to the stage at Alexandra Palace Theatre in London, to rave reviews.
Perhaps it is the distinctly Victorian setting that appeals to us in ghost stories. Think of Christmas and you may picture people dressed in fine clothes enjoying a walk in the snow, like something out of a Christmas card you saw as a child. Especially when, in our modern world of technology and global warming, we rarely see a white Christmas. Though not a ghost story, this sense of nostalgia is no better captured than in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1952).
However, the roots of the ghost story go back much further than the Victorians. As far back as Pagan times, gathering in midwinter to tell ghostly tales was an essential tradition for most communities. It is also worth considering how much the line between truth and fiction became blurred, as they heard of such tales as the ‘Wild Hunt’ and ghost processions passing through the sky.
We like to think we know better than to believe such tales in our modern world of science and reason, yet the ghost story continued to thrive throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. Something in the unknown – this disruption of normality – appeals to us through our shared human experience.
With less than a week to go before the big day, here are a few ghost story recommendations to read this Christmas:
‘The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance’ by M. R James
It is almost impossible to settle on any one of M. R. James’ stories. My personal recommendations at any time include ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ and ‘The Ash Tree’. However, this particular story is told in the epistolary format, by way of four letters sent over Christmas in 1837. The story involves a remote inn, a terrifying puppet show, and the vengeful ghost of a clergyman. What else could you wish for…?
‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ by Elizabeth Gaskell
This classic ghost story has everything you would associate with a Victorian horror: ancestral secrets, a gothic house, creepy organ music and past tragedies. In one cold, snow-covered night the drama all comes to a haunting conclusion. What is done in youth can never be undone age…
‘Dark Christmas’ by Jeanette Winterson
For a more modern take on the Christmas ghost story, look no further than this offering, written for The Guardian newspaper. Winterson’s tale cleverly embraces and subverts the haunted, gothic house, as a group of friends decide to stay there over the Christmas period. Think of it is a marriage of the old world and the new. It all sounds very idyllic, until they discover a creepy old nativity set in the attic…
‘Dubliners: The Dead’ by James Joyce
Though not intended to be a ghost story as such, Joyce’s tale is nonetheless haunting and creepy in other ways. The final scene of this short story is set on a Christmassy winter’s night in Dublin, where the narrator recalls how her first true love died from pneumonia during a snowstorm, waiting outside her window. Ghosts do not always manifest as spectral forces, we are reminded, but sometimes as cold memories, fears, and guilt…
‘Chilling Christmas Tales’ by various
I received this paperback in my stocking in 1999. It features a host of chilling tales written by popular authors at the time from the classic children’s publishing house, Scholastic. You can still buy this cheaply online second hand – why not pop it in your own children’s stocking or indulge in a read yourself. My particular favourite was Robert Swindell’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’ where a family find themselves stalked by a dangerous man when their car breaks down.
BONUS: ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ a short film directed by Jonathan Miller
If you are not in the mood to read, then you may consider watching the classic 1968 television version of M. R. James’ tale, directed by Jonathan Miller for the BBC. I find myself watching this almost every Christmas Eve, revelling in the haunting black and white film quality, coupled with Michael Hordern’s wonderful performance that perfectly encapsulates James’ classic character of the absent minded, cranky scholar. This film remains a testament to what can be achieved with a limited budget and a simple premise.
What did you think of our list? Can you recommend any other tales to bring a winter’s chill this Christmas? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to share this blog with your friends and family!
In the meantime, from all of us at Surrey New Writers Festival, we wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
About the author – Alexander Comley
Alexander Comley is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at Surrey University and holds a special interest in reading and writing ghost stories, fantasy, and historical fiction. You can also check out his gaming blog here. When he is not writing, Alex can be seen headbanging with his heavy metal band, Bangover.