A Lost Tradition: The Art of the Victorian Christmas Ghost Story
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There are few lost literary traditions so totally forgotten but immediately accessible as the Victorian Christmas ghost story. Since they were first popularised, the practice of sitting around and reading stories to one another has been slowly supplanted, first by radio, then television. It’s worth remembering though, that there was a time when the only way you would hear a new story was if there was someone else to read it to you.
There are those of you who’ll take this as a moment to give thanks for the blessings of internet and Christmas-movies-on-TV, but if you’re like us, the idea of a long tradition of Christmas ghost stories will have caught your attention. Moreover, reviving an old tradition is an excellent excuse to get the whole family together over the holidays, sit them all in a circle, and take turns reading from some excellent old storybooks.
Unfortunately, the fact that Christmas ghost stories have seen a dramatic decline in popularity means that most people don’t know exactly what it is that they’ll want to read over the Christmas period. If you’d like to gather the family, sit them in a circle, and then scare them senseless with seasonally appropriate spooky stories, then look no further.
Jerome K. Jerome: Told After Supper
Jerome Klapka Jerome is better known as a humor writer than as an author of festive horror, but the light-hearted comic style of his writing is pretty much a perfect fit for the tricky business of writing ghost stories for the whole family. What’s more, Jerome writes as though he were entirely aware that the art of season ghost-story-telling would soon die off. As a result, his Told After Supper is an excellent introduction to the form.
Jerome’s book opens,
It was Christmas Eve.
I begin this way because it is the proper, orthodox, respectable way to begin, and I have been brought up in a proper, orthodox, respectable way, and taught to always do the proper, orthodox, respectable thing; and the habit clings to me.
Of course, as a mere matter of information it is quite unnecessary to mention the date at all. The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story…
It’s a very simple device, but one that immediately puts the reader in the right frame of mind for the coming short stories. After all, when one is reading a ghost story to the whole family, it’s usually better not to read anything that might actually scare the little ones.
In reality, Told After Supper is less a collection of Christmas ghost stories than it is a parody of the most serious of the genre. There are lengthy meditations on the potential economics and class systems of the theoretical “ghostland” from which spirits come to earth, as well as jabs taken at other writers in the genre.
It might seem strange to recommend a parody ahead of the things it parodies, but in a world in which the genre is largely dead, Jerome’s stories read as light-hearted fiction around a once-popular theme. However, if you’ve already read some of the other recommended Christmas ghost stories, you’ll find that there is an undertone of biting sarcasm to Told After Supper that’s makes it all the more enjoyable.
Of course, if you’d like to read more of what Jerome K. Jerome is poking fun at, you’d do well to check out…
Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings
Everyone knows A Christmas Carol, it’s among the last of the remaining Victorian Christmas ghost stories to have survived to the modern day. Like the shark, it has been unchanged while the rest of the food chain evolved around it. Now, A Christmas Carol is the uncontested apex predator of the Christmas ghost story.
While most will already be familiar with A Christmas Carol’s bittersweet emotional rollercoaster, you may not have known that it’s just one of a selection of Christmas-themed works by Dickens. What you might not know is that it flies in the face of many assumptions about Dickens’ work that modern readers can sometimes make.
Many assume that Dickens is just plain boring, particularly after attempting to read Great Expectations. What we’re here to tell you is that, though he can be staggeringly long-winded, Dickens had a razor-sharp sense of humour that undercuts a tremendous amount of his Christmas writing.
Obviously, to describe too much of that humour would spoil things a little, so we’ll stick with this quote from the beginning of A Christmas Carol,
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Aside from the ubiquitous A Christmas Carol, the uncontested highlight of Dickens’ Christmas writing is The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton. For those of you not familiar with the position of “sexton,” it’s the name given to a church caretaker (and general roustabout), typically responsible for digging graves among other things.
The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton is a strange short story, in which the sexton is a reprehensible character named Gabriel Grub who finds himself digging graves on Christmas Eve. It’s a strange combination of the genuinely eerie and the frankly hilarious. When he is suddenly surrounded by goblins in the graveyard, they ask him,
“What man wanders among graves and churchyards on such a night as this?” said the goblin.
“Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!” screamed a wild chorus of voices that seemed to fill the churchyard. Gabriel looked fearfully around—nothing was to be seen.
“What have you in that bottle?” said the goblin.
“Hollands, Sir,” replied the sexton, trembling more than ever; for he had bought it of the smugglers, and he thought that perhaps his questioner might be in the excise department of the goblins.
It’s an odd combination, but one that Dickens executes perfectly, and it was a genuine struggle not to continue littering this post with ridiculous quotes. The overall result is a story that’s genuinely scary, but periodically takes the edge off the horror with a burst of honest comedy. The rest of the collection is similarly excellent, though it’s hard to beat the high of The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton.
M. R. James: Collected Ghost Stories
While many of M. R. James' collected ghost stories don’t explicitly take place at Christmas, some of the best are specifically referenced as happening during the holidays. The best of these is probably Martin’s Close, though The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance deserves a mention too.
Martin’s Close has many of the expected features of a good ghost story, an isolated country house, a sordid history, and rumors of a murder. A large part of the story is taken up by a transcript of a court case from the 17th century, replete with of-their-time barbs. It has almost none of the sense of joyful exuberance of the Dickens short stories, and instead is more of a slow-burn combination of horror and suspense. It’s an excellent reminder of the slow-burning tension that a good ghost story can provide, without ever slowing down enough to be boring.
It’s also an excellent source of Christmas insults… because let’s face it, everyone’s Christmas-with-the-family reaches that point sooner or later.
Att. Was she comely?
S. No, not by no manner of means: she was very uncomely, poor child! She had a great face and hanging chops and a very bad colour like a puddock.
L. C. J. What is that, mistress? What say you she was like?
S. My lord, I ask pardon; I heard Esquire Martin say she looked like a puddock in the face; and so she did.
L. C. J. Did you that? Can you interpret her, Mr. Attorney?
Att. My lord, I apprehend it is the country word for a toad.
L. C. J. Oh, a hop-toad! Ay, go on.
While the stories themselves seldom revolve around Christmas, it's worth noting that James himself comments in the appendix to the Collected Ghost Stories that he wrote most of the stories to patient friends, “usually at the season of Christmas.” With that in mind, these ghost stories are particular gems in that they were written specifically to James’ friends around the same time as they might be sitting down to read ghost stories with their own families.
For those of you who'd like an alternative to the traditional Christmas activities of sitting-inside-and-bickering and eating-so-much-you-feel-sick-and-then-making-a-turkey-sandwich, the Victorian ghost story is an excellent break for the whole family.