The Ghost Stories of Christmas Past

James Oliver

James Oliver wanders back in time to discover where our collective taste for seasonal scares came from

21 December 2018 09:46

Ghosts are very particular in their habits. Their preference is firmly for the old and the antiquated over the modern and modish, and for the winter months over the summer. The cold and the damp suits them better than bright sunshine.

No wonder they are so present around Christmas. Amidst the wassailing and making merry, it is also a time for spectres and spirits. The telling of ghost stories has long been a part of the revels, a macabre addition to a festival predicated on generosity and fellowship and the birth of the baby Jesus.

It’s customary to lay the blame for this at the door of Charles Dickens, a man who liked both Christmas and a good flesh-creeping yarn, and who frequently brought the two together. Most famously there’s A Christmas Carol, although that’s not the best example (a melodrama tricked out with supernatural elements, it’s essentially intended to edify, not petrify). He committed more fully to the genre in the likes of The Signalman (of a railway worker haunted by ghosts and tragedy) or The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (in which supernatural therapy goes awry), and his advocacy helped secure an association that lingers still.

This is the dark of the year. The pagans called it the solstice and their heathen celebrations still linger in the folk memory.

If Dickens was the most influential exponent, it’s a custom he can’t claim credit for. This is the dark of the year, the shortest day and the winter equinox; the pagans called it the solstice and their heathen celebrations still linger in the folk memory. ‘A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins,’ said one of Shakespeare’s characters in A Winter’s Tale, and even he was late to the party. Ye olde ballad of Sir Gawain and the Green Night, for instance, begins at yuletide and features a headless horseman, amongst other supernatural happenings. Just the sort of thing to enthral an audience huddled around the fire in the bleak midwinter.

It was, though, the Victorians who took this singular strand of Christmastide and turned it into something approximating art. Dickens was far from the only author of his day who turned his hand to the form: rare was the novelist who didn’t pen an uncanny tale (for Christmas or otherwise), amongst them some of the most popular and respectable of the age – Henry James (not just A Turn of the Screw, he wrote loads); Elizabeth Gaskell (The Old Nurse’s Story); Arthur Conan Doyle (again, many to choose from, but The Captain of the Pole Star is pretty good); Jerome K. Jerome (The Man of Science); E. Nesbitt (John Charrington’s Wedding); Thomas Hardy (The Withered Arm); Rudyard Kipling (At the End of the Passage), and so on.

Beyond these dilettantes, for whom ghosts were only an occasional sideline, the Nineteenth Century produced some specialists, none more notable than M.R. James. Actually, ghost stories were technically a sideline for him too: he was, by trade, an academic – a Cambridge theologian, no less, whose work on biblical apocrypha is still cited by scholars.

It’s his ghost stories that define him, though. These were written for performance, to be read aloud in the December gloom before the small audience he had invited to his college rooms. Like so many dons, M.R. James had a dash of the theatrical about him and knew how to keep his listeners hooked. His stories withhold details, the better to conjure atmosphere and emphasise the fear his characters feel, because what is more frightening than uncertainty? This pervasive dread he punctuates with moments of sheer terror (‘…how dreadful it was to him to see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed…’).

Trailer for the BFI DVD collection ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’

James was a writer who understood the value of landscape and environment; the topography of his stories is bleak, empty and eerie – wide, lonely beaches or unwelcoming countryside. Even when he ventured somewhere more populous, he rarely went to a modern metropolis, but to cities still dominated by medieval architecture with an abundance of crevices and crenellations where nameless things might lurk. All of this was modelled on places he knew; those who wish to understand his stories most fully should visit where he lived and worked.

Cambridge hasn’t changed so very much since his day; it’ll take more than a park-and-ride scheme to banish the gothic shadows that criss-cross the city still. The colleges there take pride in their ghosts (they certainly offer them a congenial home). If you leave Cambridge and strike out east, you’ll wind up in his native Suffolk; broad, flat land, well made for haunting. There’s no relief even at the seaside; although the likes of Dunwich, Felixstowe and Aldeburgh became resorts by dint of their location, their charms are not… immediately obvious – the beaches rocky, the landscapes desolate. There is no better setting for a ghost story (cf. Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, set in a thinly disguised Felixstowe).

While the purists might insist that James’s stories are best experienced through his own written words, there’s a case to be made for some of the adaptations derived from them. Most specifically, those that the BBC made during the Sixties and Seventies and aired over the festive season. They didn’t just restrict themselves to James – there’s an admirable version of Dickens’ The Signalman (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1976) – but he was a firm favourite, with versions of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (Clark, 1974) and The Ash Tree (Clark, 1975) being amongst the most successful. When they revived the strand on BBC 4 in 2004/5, all four of the stories were taken from his tales.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Marley, by Arthur Rackham

Over the years, these versions have been seen by more people than have ever read the stories on which they are based. Even so, no matter how popular they were, and are, the Christmas ghost story itself has never since enjoyed the heights – the sheer centrality – that it did during Christmases of the Nineteenth Century, something worthy of at least a little consideration.

This was a deeply conflicted era. On the one hand, the Victorians were forever boasting of their invention and progress, girding the earth with steam trains and telegraph machines. On the other, this was one of the great ages of mumbo-jumbo. You’ll remember Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s credulous enthusiasm for spiritualism and even fairies; in that, he was far from alone (they loved a good séance, did the Victorians).

These tensions pulse through the ghost stories of that era, most especially those of M.R. James. His preferred leading men were often scholars, like himself – men of learning and sense. And yet they find themselves threatened by ancient things, pagan or even primordial; things quite immune to reason.

Is it reaching too far to see these as the embodiment of something else? Here, after all, is the sort of atavism that this aggressively modern society feared: the dreadful terror that their progress might be brought to a dead halt by something primitive and unbiddable. Looked at from this angle, ghost stories can be seen as a manifestation of Victorian insecurity; an acknowledgement, and expression, of the fears bubbling under the smoothly ordered surface of boom-time Britain.

And Christmas – short days, long shadows – would be the perfect time for such things. No matter how much the Victorians loved Christmas, their lingering puritanism never allowed them to commit to the roistering as fully as they might (look at A Christmas Carol, a reminder of poverty and hardship). We’re often told to ‘Eat, drink and be merry’, but the final part of that quasi-biblical instruction is usually omitted: ‘For tomorrow we die.’ Ghost stories at Christmas serve a similar function, an evocation of the spectre at the feast. A memento mori with a sheet over its head.

There’s been a modest revival in sightings at this time of year, on television and radio especially.

The Christmastime ghost story is no longer as important as once it was, declining in popularity at roughly the same rate that the festival has become more secular (which is to say, commercialised). Materialism is a far better way to scare away ghosts than any exorcism.

Still, ghosts continue to be glimpsed. Indeed, there’s been a modest revival in sightings at this time of year, on television and radio especially. Could there be a correlation to the grim times in which we live? Possibly. But it might just as easily be because there are powerful people in broadcasting who really, really like ghost stories (take a bow, Mark Gatiss, most influential ghosthunter of our age).

Ultimately, we don’t need sociological pontificating to understand the attractions of a good ghost story: whether you believe in spectres and spirits or not, there is pleasure to be had in surrendering to a well told tale. But when the wind howls outside or the stairs start to creak, just keep reminding yourself that it’s only a story…