There’s a nearly-lost tradition of Christmas ghost stories. The most famous, of course, is Darles Chickens’ A Christmas Carol, where 3 spirits +1 troll a mean old man mercilessly until he becomes a better person. All joking aside, it’s a magnificent tale– one that Dickens himself considered relatively unimportant, but a story most of us know better than The Pickwick Papers or The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This is partially because it’s short– novella length, and Dickens is well known for being paid by the word for his serials. It’s also because it’s a great story. Not only is A Christmas Carol creepy, well-written, and strange, it takes an unlikable protagonist– the miser, Ebenezer McDuck– and by telling his story it humanizes him. It even humanizes him to himself, lets him forgive himself, and start giving himself to the world again. Plus, you know, Muppets.
When he wrote this story, Christmas was very nearly dead in England. Oliver Cromwell, the late Lord Protector of England, had hated fun and religious fun with no scriptural basic most of all. He had declared an actual war of Christmas… which, you know, one step lower than the actual murderwar he declared on everyone he disagreed with, but it was still really bad. This combined with the Industrial Revolution’s busier pace meant that, by Dickens’ day, fewer people could take the day off to celebrate Christmas.
The curious thing is that, in spite of all of the above, Dickens had experienced enough of the holiday to mourn its loss in prose. He didn’t anticipate the story’s incredible success– he ended up doing numerous live readings, touring not only England but also the United States, and made a huge amount of money in the process. Almost as an accident, he rekindled an interest in the holiday, both in England and on this side of the Atlantic; without this story it wouldn’t be celebrated in (largely non-Christian) Japan as the equivalent of Valentine’s Day.
And without the tradition of Christmas ghosts it wouldn’t have been written.
Christmas-themed horror movies are totally a thing and in fact 1974’s Black Christmas predated Friday the 13th (1980) and Halloween (1978) and basically invented the slasher genre. It’s also an actual good movie– not great, but good– if you’re in the market for such things. And I think we can all agree that there’s something sinister about the identical Santas that line our malls and streetcorners and those unblinking angels that sit in judgement from the tops of Christmas trees. And nothing could be scarier than the Elf on the Shelf.
With that in mind, here are some ghoulish Christmas stories, stories of ghosts, old school Irish Faeries, and other dangers to life and sanity.
Richard Chase’s Grandfather Tales is where I first encountered both the idea of Old Christmas (aka Twelfth Night– it’s off topic so Google it) and the idea that wonderful/terrible things might occur. The story “Old Christmas Eve” only ends up listing a handful of creepy stories in the margins, but I do love it and the affection the book has for these traditions.
M.R. James was perhaps the greatest ghost story writer of his era, and he made sure he had a fresh ghost story every Christmas. Either check them out here at thin-ghost.org or, if you’re feeling adventurous, trying looking up the 5 James-based stories from the BBC’s “A Ghost Story for Christmas.” My personal favorite James stories include “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” and “Lost Hearts.” “There Was a Man Dwelt By a Churchyard” is the one that’s most obviously a Christmas ghost story; it completes the never completed tale in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” is a nicely creepy Yuletide story. It’s Lovecraft, so it’s all Necronomicon this and “madness from beyond the stars” that, but I like it.
E.F. Benson’s– yes, scary writers love their initials, don’t they?– “Between the Lights” is a story of croquet and Christmas ghouls, as delicious as any goose dinner.
Algergnon Blackwood has by far the most satisfying name for any horror writer ever. “The Kit-Bag” is his story of holiday travels and misplaced luggage turned murderous.
Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is the most famous of the ones I’ve opted to list here. Honestly, it gives the tradition a better known writer to attach it to, beyond Dickens and Shakespeare and Marlowe… oh wait? Are those the greatest names in English literature? Boopsie!
Finally, W.B. Yeats’ “The Twisting of the Rope” is a short, sharp shock that should remind readers that faeries aren’t all sweetness and butterfly wings, regardless of what pop culture has managed to turn them into. No one knew this better than Yeats, who loved stories of Irish magic and horror.
And of course I do love scary movies, so here’s Robert Zemeckis’ delightful short from 1989’s Tales from the Crypt. Much better and than the series– and the series episode of the same name. Enjoy!
Read and drink deep this holiday season, friends. I’ll have a seasonal tale of my own to share soon enough.