If the title of this story is familiar to you, it is probably due to the fact that it is often touted by editors and literature professors as the predecessor to A Christmas Carol – and rightfully so. Like Dickens’ most famous supernatural tale, this is a Christmas story which follows the reformation of a misanthropic curmudgeon through the agency of psychic visions administered by preternatural agents, resulting in a transformative comprehension of human suffering, beauty, and love. Like most of Dickens’ early ghost stories, this one will not prevent you from falling to sleep from fear, but it is capable of lingering in the imagination for longer than you may at first suppose, and although it is a tremendously suitable tale for Christmas, this story of a gravedigger kidnapped by a grotesque goblin king and hauled into a cavern of telepathic visions is also highly fit for reading on a crisp Hallowe’en. As an aside, many devotees of Disney’s vintage macabre shorts will recognize the pattern they borrowed from Dickens: that of a victim being momentarily dragged to hell by ghostly rascals, one which features in such disturbing cartoons as “Pluto’s Judgment Day,” “The Goddess of Spring,” and – fittingly – “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.”
Excerpted from “The Pickwick Papers,” the story is told by Pickwick’s friend, Mr. Wardle’s mother, as a holiday ghost story. It follows the perils of Gabriel Grub, a miserable, miserly sexton – a churchyard groundskeeper and gravedigger – who drowns his bitter life in gin and spitefully spurns all human company. One Christmas Eve, he lumbers towards the cemetery to dig a grave, without a single thought of the season that he is missing out on. He is enraged by the sounds of merry-making throughout the streets, and even beats a boy with his lantern for singing a Christmas carol.
As he enters the moonlit graveyard and begins shoveling out the frozen earth, he gets into the morbid work and an hour goes by before he takes a break to slurp down some gin. While he does, he thinks that he hears a strange, otherworldly voice repeating his sacrilegious, drunken laughter: “Ho! ho! ho!” At first he writes this off as an echo, but when it comes again, he looks up in horror at one of the gravestones opposite him, where a misshapen goblin is perched casually on a tombstone.
Grotesque and bizarre-looking, he is sitting cross legged with his arms akimbo, dressed in a short cloak with curl-toed slippers, a pointed, wide-brimmed “sugarloaf” hat, and a campy collar.
He notices an entire crowd of goblins swarming between the tombstones, crowding around their gloating king, playing leapfrog over the graves. The king goblin lunges at Grub and somehow pulls him down below the earth into their subterranean lair, where they force the drunk to swallow a flaming liquor and bully him around.
As the underling goblins settle down, their king directs Grub to a magical portal – something like a movie screen – that shows him the private lives of the human swarms that he so loathes: he watches families grow, suffer, love, and die. Specifically he observes a tableau not unlike the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner and the death of Tiny Tim, wherein a loving family suffers the loss of a young son. Grub remembers the boy he beat for singing a carol and feels shame for the first time in years.
He watches dozens of similar scenes of human interactions – heartbreak, misery, celebration, and bonding – but is most struck by the scenes of misanthropic bullies like himself. The goblin king repeatedly draws Grub’s attention to these parallels and brutally points out his life of cruelty. The underling goblins, meanwhile, run around kicking him in the shin and abusing him. But as the reality of his miserly lifestyle sinks in, the goblins begin to fade – one by one – until they are all gone.
On Christmas morning, Grub awakens in the churchyard where he checks his momentary skepticism when he notices the throbbing pain where the goblins had kicked and punched him. Shaken from his life of isolated inhumanity, but certain that no one will take his story seriously, he vanishes from town, leaving behind his lantern, spade, and gin bottle, which – Ichabod Crane-like – lead to wild speculations about what happened to the man. This becomes a legend in and of itself, with the most popular version stating that he was seen been spirited away on a one-eyed horse with a hoard of goblins in pursuit.
Ten years later, though, Gabriel Grub returns – still plagued with rheumatism in his wounds from the goblins – as a poor, but contented teetotaler. The villagers are disappointed that he wasn’t carried off to hell, but when he settles back in among them, they decide that his version of his story has a moral: “that if a man turn sulky and drink by himself at Christmas time, he may make up his mind to be not a bit the better for it: let the spirits be never so good, or let them be even as many degrees beyond proof, as those which Gabriel Grub saw in the goblin's cavern.”
“Sexton” is understandably lauded for its prefiguration of A Christmas Carol, and this is a justifiable legacy. Just as interesting as its influence, however, are its influences, namely, the supernatural literature of America’s first professional man of letters, Washington Irving. Irving was unquestionably the most influential writer to Dickens, who adored and emulated his command of whit, satire, prose, and character. Irving’s Christmastime festivities in Bracebridge Hall and The Sketch-Book were the authoritative inspiration for Dickens’ own yuletide literature (before Irving, Christmas was a mere business holiday in Britain, having lost traction during the puritanical Civil War. Irving along with Dickens and Prince Albert reignited Britons’ appetite for Christmastime). But aside from the Christmas setting – a favorite of the nostalgic Irving – the supernatural activity is uncannily similar to that in Irving’s two most beloved stories: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Featuring a group of dwarfish spirits who mischievously steal a man away only to awaken transformed forever, and an aftermath in which his discarded personal artifacts fuel the false rumors (or shall I say “legend”) of his being “spirited away” by a vindictive hellion, the story is a deep homage to the man whose use of the supernatural – like Dickens’ – was always a roundabout pursuit of something impishly hidden if the reader only look past the paper-dry humor and the farcical characters.