By GW Thomas
The telling of a winter's tale, a gory or fantastic story around a merry fire in the depths of the dark, cold season, is as old at least as Shakespeare. He couldn't have written the play The Winter's Tale (1623) if it had not existed. By it's very title, we know the story will not be realistic and offer a happy ending. But old Willy didn't invent it either. The tradition goes back into time wherever there were people living in northern climes and had some form of forced inactivity imposed on them. The last remnants of this tradition in North America is the campfire tale that is so often featured in movies, just before the madman starts cutting up teenagers.
So it's been around awhile. The Christmas version is usually told by a grandmother or a trusted nurse, the tale having a homely feel, but a cold shiver as its ultimate goal. It should be no surprise that Elizabeth Gaskell wrote "The Old Nurse's Tale"(1852), one of my favorite Christmas tales. The author of Cranford (1851) was doing what many women Victorian writers did, penning a ghost story for Christmas (and some holiday cash). Many of these stories were published by Mr. Dickens in his Christmas numbers of Household Words and All the Year Round. In this way Dickens did contribute to the popularity of Christmas ghosts over and beyond Tiny Tim and Jacob Marley. Fortunately for us, these tales take after Dickens' "The Signal-Man"(1866) more than A Christmas Carol (1843). For this was Dickens' other fault besides wanting to sell a lot of copies of a magazine (a sin I understand only too well): his ghosts tend to be lessons or morals dressed up in chains. A Christmas Carol rises above the lecturing because it is so entertaining and it has creepy ghosts. Other Dickens' Christmas stories such as "The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain" (1848), "Baron Koeldwethout's Apparation" (1838), "A Child's Dream of a Star" (1850), and "The Last Words of the Old Year" (1851) are all heavy on message and light on supernatural thrills.
Dickens was the promoter of Christmas and ghosts, but fortunately the man they all turned to for inspiration was J Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu's many ghost stories set the holiday scribes on the right path. "Madam Crowl's Ghost," "The Child Who Went With the Fairies," "The White Cat of Drumgunniol," "Sir Dominick's Bargain," "The Vision of Tom Chuff," and "Stories of Lough Guir" all appeared in Dickens' All the Year Round, usually around December. Others appeared in Le Fanu's Dublin University Magazine. Le Fanu, despite seeing himself as a serious historical novelist, is largely remembered for these and other ghost and mystery stories. The Irish writer drew upon the tales of his country for inspiration, and why not? The winter tale is related to "Marchen" or fairy tales, both being part of the oral tradition of storytelling.
The greatest ghost story writer of them all (my opinion, but many would agree) was Le Fanu's disciple, MR James. The Cambridge and Eton don wrote an annual Christmas story and shared it with students and friends. These yearly treats were much looked forward to and there was even a little prestige in being including in such a reading. The thirty-three stories that James produced over the decades are sterling examples of what a ghost story can and should do. Classics like "Casting the Runes," "Count Magnus," "The Ash Tree," "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," and "Lost Hearts" all begin quietly, usually about an amateur antiquarian on a holiday, but end with a glimpse into the cold netherworlds that lurk near by. James' ghosts are never fun, kind, or even well-defined. They are truly terrible, half-glimpsed, and cruel. How Christmasy!
"Christmasy?" you ask. Yes, of course. The shiver that goes down your spine after a truly effective ghost story is not so much different than the feeling of outré joy that the story of Jesus's birth inspires in Christians. In a way, the whole purpose of the Christmas ghost story is to jump-start your sense of the impossible, a faculty that becomes atrophied after months of going to work, enduring the hum-drum tedium that is life. Here is a small dose of Something Greater. Dickens tried in several stories to create this jump-start from a happy place. He fails. James and his wicked spirits never do.
Me? I'll stick to the harder stuff. Perhaps a little Algernon Blackwood, who used to read his stories at Christmas on the BBC. Feeling Victorian? Then there is no better place to go than the Gaslight website. Like a mix of Radio and print? Then the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks will do.
One last suggestion: if you'd like a taste of MR James, try Mark Gatiss's BBC TV version of "The Tractate Middoth" and his documentary about James. And if you catch the mood, there is a collection of MR James BBC shows.
Happy holidays and enjoy the ghosts!
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.