Ghost Stories at Christmas
“It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.” Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (1891)
The peculiar British tradition of sharing ghost stories at Christmastime is an old one. Historically, December 25th has a close link to pre-Christian solstice festivals that regarded mid-winter as a significant time when the light dies, the nights grow longer, and (similarly to Samhain) the veil between the world of the living and the dead becomes wispy. The earth sleeps, ready to reawaken in spring. Early Christian beliefs held that souls in purgatory ‘were most active on the day before a holy day, and thus more likely to intrude into our world’ (Kirk, p7, 2020). During the dark nights of Yuletide, Christmas Eve is one of the longest nights of the year in the northern hemisphere. The tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas, particularly on Christmas Eve, dates to the Victorian period, a time of great scientific and technological advancement. Perhaps the more people came to understand about the world around them, the more their thoughts turned to the world beyond... Seances became mainstays of the parlour, while printing technology enabled the production of countless publications of short stories, ‘penny dreadfuls’ and ever-popular ghost stories.
Indeed, there is many a ghost story connected to Christmas, perhaps most famously A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens. The framing narrative of Henry James’s classic novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) features a group of guests at a Christmas party gathering before an open fire to listen to the telling of a ghost story. Renowned medieval scholar and Provost of King's College, Cambridge, M.R. James has long been regarded as one of the finest purveyors of the ghost story in the English language. He wrote many of his creepy tales specifically to be read aloud at cosy Christmas gatherings. His stories are usually populated by bookish academics whose insistence on prying into ancient tomes, forbidden manuscripts and other esoteric materials plunges them into a world of malevolent entities, ghoulish spectres, and terrifying encounters. The following was originally printed in the Special Collections’ edition of James's More Ghost Stories (1911):
"If during the Yule-tide you wish thoroughly to enter into the spirit of the season, procure a good tumblerful of creature-comfort, steaming, with a trifle of powdered nutmeg in it, some thin lemon peel, and a grain of sugar, place it on a small stand beside your old arm-chair, in which you will have comfortably deposited yourself, and well gently inhaling the Virginian fumes in the presence of a cheerful Yule-log fire commence reading the 'Ghost Stories of an Antiquary', by M.R. James… On rising to retire to bed, say, when the clock is striking the hour of midnight, you will be heartily glad of a brave companion, who will assist you in ascertaining that all bolts and bars are scrupulously fastened, that all doors are locked, that there are no weird arms coming out from behind any curtains."
So, in the cosy tradition of sharing ghost stories at this time of year, here’s a few recommendations…
The Dead Smile (1899) by F. Marion Crawford
When a debauched patriarch dies with a morbid rictus grin on his face, his son and niece become enshrouded in a gothic nightmare of hereditary evil, ancestral secrets, and family curses. It all culminates with a shocking discovery in the family crypt after a gloomy Christmas party.
The Shadow (1910) by Edith Nesbit
Nesbit is an unfairly overlooked master of the ghost story, and this is one of her finest. The framing narrative features a housekeeper relaying a ghost story to a group of young women at a Christmas party. In the story, a love triangle between a married couple and their female friend conjures something sinister as they are haunted by a shadow that could be a manifestation of guilt. Lust, shame, terror, and unrequited love swirl together in this hauntingly ambiguous tale.
Lost Hearts (1895) by M.R. James
A young orphan is sent to live with his much older cousin at a remote country house in deepest, darkest Lincolnshire. The cousin is an alchemist obsessed with a forthcoming celestial event, and the boy begins to have troubling dreams and visions of two spectral children with holes where their hearts should be. The story unfurls throughout the winter months and culminates during the Spring equinox, as James twistedly subverts a time of year usually associated with rebirth and hope.
Herself (1894) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Spending the winter months in a villa surrounded by orange groves in the south of Italy, Lota is dismayed to find one of the rooms particularly dark and dank. When she discovers an antique mirror and begins to spend more and more time locked away from the world, gazing into its dark depths, she begins to lose her vitality, her will to live. Braddon creates a haunting atmosphere and provides a barbed commentary on Victorian gender roles and stereotypes.
The Beckoning Fair One (1911) by Oliver Onions
In this psychological creeper, a writer rents a derelict house in a little triangular ‘square’ in London to finish his novel. He begins to feel a presence, and suspects the house has ‘a tenant other than himself.’ Eerily captivated by the sound of a woman brushing her hair, he descends into solitude and madness, which could be supernatural, or brought about by his writer’s block. Onions ensures a chilling opacity lingers throughout.
The Open Door (1882) by Charlotte Riddell
After he loses his job at an auctioneer’s office, a young clerk undertakes an assignment to solve the mystery of a supposedly haunted house. An inheritance plot, an unsolved murder, and a door which will not remain closed all feature in this story by Carrickfergus-born Riddell, who masterfully builds an atmosphere of unease. Like many of her best ghost stories, this one features a house filled with secrets connected to a past misdeed involving greed and malfeasance.
Kirk, Tanya (ed.) (2020) Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season, London: British Library.
This article was originally published in UCL's library staff newsletter, The Peer Review: December 2022.