"There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.."
Or so the carol tells us. To most Americans, this snippet from the Andy Williams classic has remained an anachronistic -- even disturbing -- oddity. Who tells scary stories at Christmas? That's Halloween, right? But for centuries -- especially in Britain -- they have been part and parcel of the Season (though the oral tradition of spending windy, winter nights listening to grandma's gory folklore has long since been resigned to the past). Ghost stories -- besides providing a fantastic means of family bonding and entertainment for kids cooped up on frigid days -- offer ethical dilemmas, moral quandaries, and social criticisms that go hand in hand with the season of introspection, repentance, forgiveness, and resolutions. Oldstyle Tales has been so devoted to the restoration of the tradition of reading and telling spook stories at Christmas that we even have published an anthology of Fireside Ghost Stories for Christmas Eve, which you can collect here, if you think it'd suit your tastes.
In the spirit of the Yule Tide, however, we can still find time to steal away and open up a dusty anthology in search of a good chill. To save some time (if you haven't already got a favorite in mind), I have twelve great ghost stories for you to peruse while you heat up a tea kettle and turn the lights low.
12. MARKHEIM - ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
A chilling moral fable that is frequently included in Christmas anthologies, Stevenson's "Markheim" is less a ghost story and more a Poe-esque fantasy of a man encountering his inner demons. The action starts right away as a Raskolnikov-like protagonist enters the pawn shop of a wealthy man and quickly murders him. It is Christmas Eve, and our Nietzschean anti-hero is left alone with the body of a man he slew because he felt that he had a right to do so in order to buy a present for his girl. Surrounded by mirrors and clocks, he stews by himself for sometime, but is startled to hear someone coming down the stairs. At first frightened, he is later mystified to see a form which resembles himself, but which is very clearly a denizen of Hell come to school its new disciple in the arts of evil.
11. THE OTHER DOOR - MRS. OLIPHANT
Margaret Oliphant has a small corpus of ghost stories -- some half a dozen -- but they make up for their small numbers by being very long, and almost exclusively masterpieces. Her crowning achievement remains one of the undisputed exemplars of the Victorian ghost story: "The Other Door." Set during a frosty, North Countree winter, this emotional ghost story (told with Oliphant's hallmark pathos and sympathy) tells of a father who's son has become mortally ill after encounter the ghost of a child, wailing at the ruins of the door he was evicted from in life. Desperate to exorcise the ghost and to save his ailing child, the father enlists his valet (a former soldier) to use bravery, but is rebuffed, and his servant is bedridden and puts in his notice. He turns to an atheistic doctor to use the powers of science, but the arrogant physician is astonished. His last resort is one which doesn't appear in many ghost stories: compassion. This uncommon supernatural tale is simultaneously chilling and heartbreaking -- a chef d'oeuvre.
10. JERRY BUNDLER - W. W. JACOBS
Jacobs' most famous ghost story -- "The Monkey's Paw" -- shares its themes, mood, and setting with this Christmas yarn: a collection of world-weary businessmen are holed up in a Georgian inn during a Christmas storm and find themselves collected by the hearth telling ghost stories. One man remembers that the very inn they are huddled in has a ghost: Jerry Bundler, the malevolent spirit of a highway man who was betrayed to the King's men and who hanged himself in one of the upper rooms. The party of men seem divided among the terrified, the skeptical, and the thoughtful. One of the skeptics is amused by the palpable fear of one of the terrified, and decides to make use of a Georgian costume he has upstairs, deciding to masquerade as the spectre. It's ending is just as bleak and devastating as "The Monkey's Paw."
9. THE SHADOW - E. NESBIT
One of the finest ghost stories in the English language, E. Nesbit's "The Shadow" is told in the tradition of Oliphant, but has a far darker and far -- far, far -- more complicated plot. An old maid is accidentally made the companion of a party of rich girls who have bunkered in front of a fire during a Christmas blizzard. They are sharing cliched ghost stories when one of them demands one from their shy elder. Coerced, she tells the tale of how she was in love with her best friend's husband, and how when her friend was bedridden during a troubled pregnancy, she and the husband grew closer. One night she finds herself followed by an opaque shadow -- one which then returns to haunt the husband, and which becomes their constant tormenter. When the friend dies soon after childbirth, she sees it at her funeral, then later when he dies, but most terrible of all, she has seen it tonight, and one of the girls has a secret connection to the story.
8. HOW FEAR DEPARTED FROM THE LONG GALLERY
- E. F. BENSON
Benson was probably the most prolific writer of winter and Christmas-themed ghost stories of the classic masters: in our anthology of Fireside Ghost Stories for Christmas Eve, he has four entries, and that doesn't even include them all. The most famous of the bunch, "How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery," tells a surprisingly emotional story about a woman who encounters a ghost who is known to frighten the people who witness it to death (running along the lines of the 50 Berkeley Square Phantom). Faced with her horrible fate, the girl pleads with her ghoulish visitor for her life, and the ending is uncommonly philosophical and touched with the pathos of Mrs. Oliphant's unwanted ghosts.
7. DRACULA'S GUEST- BRAM STOKER
Though I am admittedly not Stoker's greatest fan (check out J. Sheridan Le Fanu for a true master of the Irish horror story - the man whose tales fed Stoker's imagination), his ostensible prelude to Dracula stews in wintry horror. Passing through a German graveyard at night, the young protagonist (Harker, methinks?) encounters the tomb of a vampiress, and in a mounting series of macabre horrors -- including a Lovecraftian bolt of cleansing lightning -- find himself at the mercy of a pack of wolves. Upon escaping the perils he encounters a bizarre communication from the count warning him to beware of "dangers from snow and wolves and night." Though it takes place on Wulpurgis Nacht, the setting is frigidly fitting for Yuletide.
6. THE WONDERSMITH - FITZ-JAMES O'BRIEN
'Twas the night before Christmas... and an evil syndicate bent on world domination are possessing Christmas toys with evil spirits, arming them with poisoned needles, and preparing to sell them, only to have the little tots of New York City wake up to their soldiers and bears plunging envenomed wires into their skin. No, this is not the plot of a 1970s pulp comic, it is the basis of Fitz-James O'Brien's (the previously posted-upon "Celtic Poe") Christmas fantasia written in the 1850s. Bizarre, farsighted, and chilling -- though an insy bit racist -- "The Wondersmith" is "The Nightmare Before Christmas" without the whimsy.
5. THE PHANTOM COACH - AMELIA B. EDWARDS
Lost in the grim, snowy moors of northern England, a hapless hunter is on the brink of death when he is directed to the warm cabin of a bitter alchemist, whose theories on the unknown spike his imagination before setting off once more, this time in hopes of encountering the coach set to come their direction. The title of the story allows for little subtlty: he does find a coach thundering down the frosty highway, and he does halt it and manage to gain entrance to its interior. But what lurks within the interior might send him rushing back into the black winter night.
4. THE FESTIVAL / IN THE VAULT - H. P. LOVECRAFT
A great lover of Christmastime, Lovecraft committed to paper one of the most chilling depictions of an Eldritch celebration of the Yuletide: "The Festival". Returning to his ancestral town in order to honor a summons from distant family, the protagonist finds himself partaking in a Christmas party that few would care to join or remember. Lumbering alongside his ostensible family members, whose pulpy flesh sends his own crawling, the finale leaves him with several questions, including whether one can be related to a six-foot tall, two-legged graveworm.
In another wintry tale -- one with a touch of M. R. James -- a cynical New England undertaker (known for bungling his coffins when in drink) accidentally locks himself inside a vault during a bitter winter night. His only chance of escaping is to stack his own shoddy coffins and attempt to squirm out of the loose transom... But he is not quite alone "In the Vault," and the incident which cripples him for life is a lesson in the virtues of solid craftsmanship and the ghoulish power of revenge.
3. THE STORY OF A DISAPPEARANCE AND AN APPEARANCE - M. R. JAMES
While James is most famously associated with Christmas ghost stories (his tales make up most of the BBC's ghostly seasonal anthology), he wrote only one which solidly takes place on 25 December. It is a murder-mystery that broods with dark atmospherics, macabre irony, and some of James' darkest imagery - most notable of which is a Punch and Judy show where the typically comical murders take on a sickeningly life-like aura. While "Whistle and I'll Come" and "Warning to the Curious" may have captivated the Christmas season in many television viewers' minds, "Story" embraces the Christmas season directly, and the result is both chilling and difficult to forget.
2. THE GLAMOUR OF THE SNOW - ALGERNON BLACKWOOD
This frosty treat from one of England's greatest writer of spook stories always leaves me shivering. It tells the story of a man on a ski trip who finds himself drawn away from society, attracted by the allure -- the dazzling glamour -- of the snow. Increasingly disatisfied by mankind, he find unlikely company in the figure of a woman -- silent but beautiful -- who seems to love the snow as much as he. Undaunted by her silence and strange behavior, he chases her into the mountains one night... where he learns her true nature.
1. THE OLD NURSE'S STORY - ELIZABETH GASKELL
One of the great Victorian ghost stories, this tale of ghostly children, the pain of guilt, and the fatal threat of becoming lost in the shifting snows of northern England in midwinter is a certain pleaser. It is no pretty little tale: it concerns an old woman haunted by the ghost of her sister and young niece who perished in the snow one winter's night when she betrayed them to her violent father. Told in flashback by the eponymous nurse, it relates the then-young nursemaid's harrowing attempt to save her little orphan girl from being lured into the snowbanks by the vision of a little girl -- a little girl who leaves no prints in the bitter snow.
HONORABLE MENTION - A CHRISTMAS CAROL - CHARLES DICKENS
Of course we would be remiss to mention the first stave of A Christmas Carol - "Marley's Ghost." While the entire tale is less a ghost story than a brilliant social parable, we challenge you to read the first atmospheric chapter on a snowy night by the light of an oil lamp in a dark and lonely room, and attempt to avoid shivers when Scrooge sees a phantasmic herse lumber ahead of him in the dark.
I have all the confidence in the world in these authors, and I hope you find time to sit down with some of them in the days to come! A very Merry Christmas to you, and a Haunted New Year.