Table of Contents
Introduction by Tim Martin
M. R. JAMES The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance
JENN ASHWORTH Dinner for One
E. NESBIT The Shadow
LOUIS DE BERNIÈRES This Beautiful House
MURIEL SPARK The Leaf-Sweeper
FRANK COWPER Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk
E. F. BENSON The Step
BERNARD CAPES The Vanishing House
L. P. HARTLEY Someone in the Lift
ROBERT AICKMAN The Visiting Star
NEIL GAIMAN Nicholas Was
JEROME K. JEROME The Ghost of the Blue Chamber
KELLY LINK The Lady and the Fox
We may think of ghost stories as a Victorian tradition, but the habit of telling spooky tales at the end of the year goes back a long way. Centuries before Dickens and his contemporaries began writing for a mass market fascinated by spiritualism and the occult, workers and families were gathering in the long nights to work, talk and swap tall stories of magic and horror. In 1725 the Newcastle historian Henry Bourne noted that ‘nothing is commoner in country places than for a whole family in a winter’s evening, to sit round the fire, and tell stories of apparitions and ghosts’. Even further back in time is Shakespeare’s character Mamilius, who observes that ‘a sad tale’s best for winter: I have one/ Of sprites and goblins’. In the trough of the seasons, where the days wither and the nights stretch out, our old nocturnal anxieties start to prickle again –and there has always been a delicious Schadenfreude about the ghost story, with its implicit contrast between Them Out There (hag-ridden, bedevilled, plagued by horrors) and Us In Here by the fire with our friends.
Despite the title, this isn’t entirely a book of Christmas ghost stories. The spooky tale set at Christmas, as opposed to told at Christmas, turns out to be less common than one might think –and one stricture feels like enough for a collection. Accordingly, and because misrule is another Christmas tradition, the wandering spirits that throng this collection haven’t had their IDs checked very carefully. Some are ghosts of Christmas past. Others are half-glimpsed Christmas monsters, horrifying Christmas presentiments, amorphous pools of Christmas malevolence, Christmas drunken hallucinations and, in one case, what may well be a Christmas demon. All, however, confine their haunting, chasing, shambling or manifesting to the festive season.
Ghost stories, appropriately, are a moonlighter’s profession: even the big names rarely build entire careers on them. M. R. James, whose Christmas chiller The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance is one of his most frightening pieces, was a medieval historian, director of the Fitzwilliam and translator of the Apocrypha who wrote (and read) his ghost stories to make friends shiver by candlelight. Edith Nesbit, who appears here with the elusive and terrifying The Shadow, fitted hers in between bestselling children’s novels (The Railway Children, The Phoenix and the Carpet) and running the Fabian Society. Writers as austere and waspish as Muriel Spark jostle in these pages with those as foppish and jolly as Jerome K. Jerome; in her bewilderingly calm ghost story The Leaf-Sweeper the ghost is still alive, in his Christmas entertainment (The Ghost of the Blue Chamber) the phantom likes to tempt boozers and strangle carol-singers. Like many such collections, this one is a strange come-all-ye of authors, like a hobbyist’s convention or the cast list for an Agatha Christie mystery.
‘You must have noticed,’ runs a line in Nesbit’s The Shadow, ‘that all the real ghost stories you have ever come close to, are like this … no explanation, no logical coherence’. Literary ghost stories, however, tend to split into two camps: the haunting and the horrifying. Robert Aickman’s The Visiting Star, like all this inimitably peculiar writer’s work, is more Tales of the Cryptic than Tales from the Crypt as it weaves its theatrical Christmas nightmare out of stifled comedy, semi-obscure mythical allusions (Iblis and Myrrha, among others, are worth scurrying to the encyclopaedia for) and moments of heart-stopping dread. In The Vanishing House, by the forgotten Victorian writer Bernard Capes, a bunch of travelling musicians encounter a winter horror in a brief dialect story that starts out as broad and boozy comedy and ends up feeling like a lost fragment of folktale. The yachtsman Frank Cowper’s Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk, a story disconcertingly cast in the documentary tone of real experience, is choked with ambient dread –few ghost stories manage to make sound so terrifying –but similarly light on explanation and dramatic form.
Other stories train their sights on emotions more complex than terror. Jenn Ashworth’s clever, despairing Dinner for One, not the only story in this volume to be narrated by the ghost, casts its central haunting as a ghastly co-dependent relationship or a form of domestic abuse. Louis de Bernières’s My Beautiful House is an oddity: a supernatural story, told with an admirable lightness of touch, that turns out to be more interested in heart-tugging melancholy than in bald horror. Kelly Link’s rather wondrous The Lady and the Fox, meanwhile, mixes timeworn notions of Christmas ghostery with a crackling contemporary tone and a fantasy story as old (and everlastingly youthful) as Tam Lin himself.
Not all the revenants here are quite so subtle. Neil Gaiman’s Nicholas Was, written for a Christmas card, is a 100-word exercise in jet-black comedy, describing a seasonal favourite who is less St Nicholas than Old Nick. Someone in the Lift by L. P. Hartley (famous for The Go-Between, but a dedicated producer producer of supernatural stories as well) is a Twilight Zone-style shocker whose nastiness is almost too blatant –that dot-dot-dot ending!–but manages a genuinely unsettling tone of supernatural foreshadowing in the first part. Written with dreadful relish, E. F. Benson’s The Step may be the least subtle of the stories in this collection: it’s a tale that demands to be read aloud, with the kind of climactic ‘boo’ that should send listeners howling into the festive night.
And what a long night it is, out there beyond the warm rooms and the firelight. Don’t worry about the noises. Ignore the moving shapes. It’s time to step out. Turn the page. Oh, and happy Christmas. If you come back.