"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.