Perhaps like myself, you are fond of the traditional Christmas ghost story. It is a tradition that clings on, in books, cinema, and television, but one that has waned considerably these last few decades. We tend now to view ghost stories, and horror, as something more closely associated with Halloween.
I admit openly to being fond of a good Crimbo Chiller. I grew up with MR James and Dickens being forever associated with late night television, as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Morning. The BBC for many years produced short films, based largely upon MR James’ tales, but with some Dickens and some modern stories, that have been revived on and off across the years.
If you are unfamiliar with the tradition, my mention of Dickens has given you quite probably sent you thinking of A Christmas Carol, and given you quite the wrong idea. Carol is story with ghosts, and with Christmas, but it is not the kind of story I mean. It has distinctly cold moments (such as the visions of lost souls weighed down by chains, walking London’s streets) but it is a warm story full of hope, love and cheer.
We do not have to look far for more apt examples of a Crimbo Chiller. In the Pickwick papers, amongst the comedy and character pieces, and of course in The Haunted House, we can see Dickens effortlessly creating ghostly stories of dread, and unease, through a few well honed characters, their turns of phrase and simple mannerisms. The stories do not mistake shock, or violence, for horror, and instead produce lingering dread, and uncomfortable atmosphere.
Indeed, Dicken’s The Signalman is one of the perfect examples of the best Christmas Eve stories. Perhaps drawing on his own experiences of a terrible railway incident, that cost many their lives, Dickens weaves, in a short page count, the tale of a man haunted by echoes of some great disaster yet to come. It is a human tale, of a man fearing the consequences of distraction, as he stands vigil over a railway tunnel, as an ethereal, unseeable presence reaches out to him through small noises. At first a nuisance, but soon building, inevitably, towards a terrible fate.
The bleak, cold, lonely setting can seem, in term, quaint and beautiful, almost nostalgic, and then suddenly isolated and lonely.
It is this intimate scale to the horror that is essential. As much as I love HP Lovecraft’s tales, his sweeping scale of cosmic horrors, gods from beyond, and ancient civilisations are not Christmas Eve fayre, in the way that smaller, more personal horrors, like The Woman In Black, or Turning Of The Shrew, are.
It is MR James who offers us the quintessential Christmas horrors. There is a reason why the BBC chooses his works, time and again, for readings or adaptions. Small stories, indeed written to be read around a fire, to his students, often read as though they are his own experiences, or related to him by friends, these are the very essence of a Christmas tale.
The best of these, A Warning To The Curious, is one I return to every year. The tale of a would be treasure hunter, searching for long buried treasures on the coast of East Anglia, is well written, and is, at first, a cosy, amiable, tale. Soon however it grows as chill as the night air, with a haunting presence, existing on the page, and yet somehow only glimpsed, only vaguely understood by the characters, lingers in the mind. It makes you read back, deciding if this is the recently deceased last of the Jeager line, or something older and far less forgiving.
That you can see the outcome is not the point. Like Dicken’s Signalman, we are forced to stand by, waiting for those terrible last moments to reach us through the darkness.
So… might you consider reading this Christmas?
Grant Leishman has perfectly captured the feel of the classics, in a modern setting with his story The Photograph. It is a mystery that starts small, and keeps you hooked, as the atmosphere sours around the characters, and the presence moves from the psychological to the supernatural.
For a different kind of intimacy, perhaps consider Dolls House, by Colin Griffiths. This is a far more lively tale, with the feel of a Hammer Horror, complete with a buxom lass in a maid’s outfit. At the core, are chills that breed from our most intimate moments, our relationships and our betrayals.
So, pour yourself a brandy, find an open fire, and allow yourself that chill on your spine.
T.E. Hodden trained in engineering, and works in a specialised role in the transport industry. He is a lifelong fan of comic books, science fiction, myths, legends, and history. In the past he has contributed to podcasts, blogs, and anthologies.
You can discover more about T.E. on the Mom’s Favorite Reads website here: