Dark Tales for Dark Nights: Ghost Story Edition

Join us on this dark night as Sheffield Gothic revives the tradition of telling Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve by recommending some of our favourites.

The Open Door (1882) by Charlotte Riddell

Amy Jackson

The Open Door is a classic Victorian ghost story which shares much with the popular sensation novel. I like this story because the premise is simple: there’s a haunted house in which a door will not stay locked. The narrator is a sceptic, he doesn’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural, and this makes him confident that he can shut the door, ‘take the ghost in hand’, and receive the reward of two sovereigns. However, there’s a dark secret lurking behind the open door and it’s up to the narrator to discover what truly happened. The Open Door is wonderfully eerie and a great story to read on a cold winter night.

You can read the full text here.

Young Girl c.1670-5

‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’ (1839) by J.S. Le Fanu

Hannah Moss

Shut the door, light a candle and curl up with a collection of J.S. Le Fanu’s short stories. ‘Schalken the Painter’ is a Gothic tale combining the demon lover trope with a dash of Dutch realism – what more could you want on a cold winter’s night? Inspired by the atmospheric works of Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), an artist renowned for his mastery of chiaroscuro, Le Fanu imagines a dark story behind one of his candlelit paintings. I won’t give too much away, but suffice to say a moment of horror results in a burst of creativity for the splenetic artist, and the resulting painting becomes a kind of ‘found manuscript’ inherited by successive generations along with the story that inspired it. I love how this story juxtaposes realist art of the Dutch Golden Age with the supernatural to comment on the precarious place of women in society:

‘There are some pictures, which impress one, I know not how, with a conviction that they represent not the mere ideal shapes and combinations which have floated through the imagination of the artist, but scenes, faces, and situations which have actually existed. There is in that strange picture, something that stamps it as the representation of a reality.’

You can read the full text here.

‘The Signal Man’ (1866) by Charles Dickens

Ming Panha

Dickens might be known as a creator of a throng of grotesque and comic characters in his own brand of realism, yet ‘The Signal-Man’, published in 1866 in a Christmas edition of All the Year Round, begins its story at a very dark and quiet night, near the train station, simply with an everyman character. ‘The Signal Man’ features only two main characters and plays with quietude, loneliness, terror, and impenetrability of truth. When the signal-man at a train station tells the narrator about his encounter with weird apparitions at the tunnel, with no flickering lights at its end, the story leads you deeper into the dark, where the reader might also encounter the unknown. Based on true story of a train accident in the nineteenth century, this ghost story is simple and ‘real’ and yet mysterious and fantastical. Also, in our period with unstoppable technological advancement, ‘The Signal-Man’ still speaks to us that, despite scientific progress, the world can still be unsafe, unfair, and inscrutable. ‘The Signal-Man’, to me, can perfectly function like it has been doing since its publication as a ghost story for Christmas time.

You can read the full text here.

The Cold Embrace (date) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Lauren Nixon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, perhaps best known for 1862 sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret, was one of the most popular and prolific writers of the Victorian period. In addition her novels and her founding of the Belgravia magazine, Braddon was also well known for her supernatural stoies – some of which were collected by the British Library a few years ago as part of their Terror and Wonder exhibition in a volume entitled The Face in the Glass. Braddon’s supernatural and ghost stories excel in the sinister, able to elicit that creeping, hairs raised on the back of the neck fear that’s hard to shake off even after you’ve finished reading. Whilst any of Braddon’s tales would make for excellent Christmas Eve reading – The Shadow in the Corner and Old Lady Ducayne were both close contenders – but for my money it has to the chilling (pun intended) The Cold Embrace. The story concerns a nameless German artist – ‘young, handsome, studious, enthusiastic, metaphysical, reckless, unbelieving, heartless’ – who falls in love with his beautiful cousin Gertrude, pledging himself to her with a unique ring shaped like a gold serpent to symbolise eternity. In many way a classic Gothic tale of the blindness of young love and the fallibility of youth, the way that Braddon builds suspense and dread of the course of the story is really fantastic.

You can read the full text here

1904 illustration by James McBryde

‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’ (1904) By M R James

Mary Going

Published as part of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, M R James’ first collection of ghost stories based on tales he had written to entertain his friends and students at Christmas, ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ (the title of which is taken from a poem by Robert Burns) is a perfect example of James’ ghost story telling credentials. It tells the tale of a Cambridge professor who finds a mysterious whistle while holidaying on the south east coast of England. This whistle has two Latin inscriptions, and of course, after the professor blows the whistle, strange, terrifying, and ghostly things start to happen. As a story that expertly builds its suspense, it will leave you terrified: its perhaps no surprise, then, that it has been adapted twice by the BBC, the first of which (originally broadcast in 1968) inspired the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series. Both adaptations are well worth watching, but there is something about the 2010 version that is both terrifying and heartbreaking so do be prepared if you watch it.

You can read the full text here.

And you can also watch the BBC’s 1968 version (here) and the 2010 version (here). 

The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James 

Carly Stevenson
A quintessential Christmas ghost story and one of the finest novellas in the English language, James’ Gothic tale begins with a fireside reading from a mysterious manuscript and ends with chilling ambiguity. If this isn’t the perfect opening passage to a ghost story, I don’t know what is: ‘The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.‘ Yuletide (or should I say Ghoultide) Greetings!

You can read the full text here.

‘The Old Nurses Story’ (1852) by Elizabeth Gaskell 

Sheffield Gothic

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention this classic ghost story by Elizabeth Gaskell, which we discussed at last year’s Nineteenth Century Christmas Ghost story reading group (jointly organised by Sheffield Gothic and the Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies). This fantastic story by Gaskell, master of the traditional ghost story, tells the tale of a young girl named Rosamond and her nurse who end up living at Manor House with the old aunt Miss Furnival upon the death of Rosamond’s parents. Curious events begin to unfold as Rosamond is lured into the snow by a little girl, although it is pointed out that there is only one set of footsteps in the snow…

You can read the full text here.