A Ghost Story For Christmas

There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories— Ghost Stories, or more shame for us—round the Christmas fire

Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Tree’, Household Words (1850)

The association between Yuletide cheer and seasonal fear emerged from the Victorian era’s appetite for the supernatural and persists into the present. In Britain at least, the tradition of a ghost story as Christmas entertainment continues to make its annual return.

The enjoyable repetition that constitutes festive tradition is perhaps the same enjoyment we find in the ghost story: the conventions are plentiful but predictable, the characters familiar, the symbols easily understood. It hardly seems to matter if the traditions of the ghost story have fallen into cliché. Knowing what to expect – whether a benevolent Santa Claus in a red cloak or a malevolent spectre in the ancestral hall – that’s all part of the fun. Well, at least Charles Dickens thought it was: in an autobiographical piece for the 1850 festive edition of his periodical Household Words, he declared that ‘ghosts have little originality and “walk” in a beaten track’, while in the same essay he celebrated their place amongst the many joyful Christmas traditions he sought to revive from his own childhood.

Scrooge visited by Jacob Marley’s ghost on Christmas Eve (Photo: A Christmas Carol, Disney, 2009)

The fear of the ghost is that of the ‘uninvited’ guest, one whose malevolent intentions are sure to disrupt and disturb the domestic felicity that Christmas promises – and yet by reanimating the tradition of the ghost story the spectre is invited back every year. The ghostly guest is hosted in our Christmas narratives, working its way into our brightly lit homes and reminding us of the wintry darkness that closes in, the shadows beyond the fairy lights.

Perhaps this is why the tradition has persisted; the festive ghost story allows the ambivalence of the season to be foregrounded. It is an acknowledgment that the merriest of times can also be the darkest of times if the prescribed elements of festive joy – family, feasting, goodwill – are lacking.

In the nineteenth century this pleasurable consumption of the dark side of the season was provided by the release of festive editions of popular periodicals, such as Dickens’s Household Words, packed with ghostly fare and eerie tales. Later in the century, M. R. James would rework the Dickensian tradition, with fellow Cambridge dons and scholars gathering round the fire on Christmas Eve to hear one of his menacing antiquarian tales. Today the ghost story is more likely to return on the television screen. The act of gathering round the softly glowing embers of the fire is replicated in gathering round the softly glowing screen.

Most recently, Mark Gatiss, creator of the latest Sherlock and Dracula series, has taken on the mantle of seasonal spook storyteller, injecting some genuine malice and dread amongst the seemingly unavoidable plethora of A Christmas Carol adaptations. His original ghost story ‘The Dead Room’ (2018) was followed up last year with his adaptation for BBC4 of James’s story ‘Martin’s Close’. This is a return to the tradition of the classic 1970s BBC series, ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’, which also adapted James’s ghost stories to terrifying effect. Gatiss is therefore reviving a tradition of reviving James’s Christmas ghost stories. It seems the ‘beaten track’ the ghosts of Christmas present walk can often lead back to the same place – James or Dickens.

Genuinely terrifying, the BBC’s 1970’s series, Ghost Story For Christmas, largely adapted works by M.R. James. (Still from the 1971 episode, ‘The Stalls at Barchester’)

As the familiar spectre of A Christmas Carol is sure to return to haunt us this December, it is interesting to consider how other popular writers of the Victorian era handled the form’s conventions and constraints as readers became increasingly accustomed to a deluge of spooky tales come Christmas time. Recently anthologised in the excellent Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings (part of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series), ‘The Shadow’ by Edith Nesbit and ‘Number Ninety’ by B.M. Croker are two examples of masters of the form playing with the ghost story’s ability to release the repressed darkness of the Christmas period.

Edith Nesbit – ‘The Shadow’

Best known for her children’s fiction (including The Railway Children), Nesbit’s spectral tales are conversely populated by the darkness and horrors of the adult world, with doomed marriages, death and social isolation permeating their pages. In ‘The Shadow’, young women gather round the fireplace after a Christmas dance to hear the housekeeper’s ghost story. But as the narrator states at the story’s opening: ‘This is not an artistically rounded-off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it, and there seems to be no reason why any of it should have happened.’ The immediate dismissal of any hope of resolution is reflected in Nesbit’s presentation of a very different kind of ghost: a dark, amorphous form that emanates from the shadows of a young couple’s relationship and lingers amongst the unsayable and the unsaid.

B. M. Croker – ‘Number Ninety’

Bithia Mary Croker was a successful novelist, drawing on the fourteen years she spent living in India in much of her fiction, including her many ghost stories. However, ‘Number Ninety’ is the rare exception, being set instead in Charleston, South Carolina. Like Nesbit’s tale, Croker’s narrator remembers a Christmas party past, neatly encapsulating the inevitability of the ghost story’s arrival amongst the festive cheer and champagne: ‘I distinctly recollect a long argument on mushrooms—mushrooms, murders, racing, cholera; from cholera we came to sudden death, from sudden death to churchyards, and from churchyards, it was naturally but a step to ghosts.’ The rapid shift of conversation topics from the mundane to the macabre reminds us that horror lurks not far beneath Christmas tradition.

As Jerome K. Jerome knew: “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”

Merry Christmas!

Further Reading:

Dickens, Charles. ‘A Christmas Tree’, Household Words. Vol 2, No. 39, 1850.

Kirk, Tanya. ed. Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings. London: British Library, 2018.

Thurston, Luke. Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism: The Haunting Interval. London, Taylor & Francis Group, 2012.

Katy Neal was an English teacher for eight years and is now a PhD student at Sheffield University, currently researching the role of objects, particularly artefacts and portraits, in ghost stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She is also interested in eighteenth century Gothic bluebooks, the ecoGothic and Animal Studies. Her research is funded by the AHRC through WRoCAH.