RESURRECTING THE CHRISTMAS GHOST STORY
Gather ‘round the fireplace and lend me your ears. The creak in the attic is only the wind. Inhale the scent of the fir tree and drink your mulled wine, that face at the window is no more than snow. The shadows are only shadows and basement murmurs are the work of your imagination. There’s nothing that can harm you here.
It’s Christmas, after all.
We’re traveling back through time to another Christmas Eve in Victorian England to share in a wonderful tradition.
The Christmas ghost story.
We’re resuming the tradition of M.R. James, who wrote ghost stories and read them aloud to his friends on Christmas Eve. The trend was so popular in England that magazines of the era printed ghost stories particularly for the season. Outside it’s dark and the air is cold, the days are short and the night is long. Inside it’s warm and we delight in tales that chill the spirit and not our bones.
James, a definitive writer of the classic ghost story, is where I began my own tradition of Christmas reading, whether it was curled up alone on a cold winter night or reading aloud in good company. In seeking out similar stories I moved on to Algernon Blackwood, Edith Wharton and others of a bygone day. The style is stately, elegant and was well suited to reading aloud in an era before televisions.
It’s high time we brought it back.
Horror has grown more diverse since Victorian times, moving beyond ghosts into serial killers, demonology, the undead, cosmic entities and all manner of things that go bump in the night, so there’s no reason to restrict yourself to ghosts and haunts. Still, I look for a specific kind of story for Christmas reading, to separate the season from the rest of the year. The first and most obvious characteristic I look for is an embrace of the season itself. A story that revolves around Christmas or takes place on Christmas. The second, and in my mind more important characteristic, is to find a story that reflects the classic style, even if the terrors are new and the writer modern.
The ten stories I’ve selected below embrace one or both of these characteristics and should provide you with a good starting place to seek out your own Christmas favorites. It’s an eclectic list, deliberately so, and I hope a few of the short stories and novels suggested will surprise you.
Crown released this standalone short story in 2014 at the height of Gillian Flynn’s notoriety. Penned by the author of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, “The Grownup” follows a canny young woman who survives by perpetuating mostly harmless frauds. While pretending to read auras, she comes across a client that challenges her disbelief in the supernatural.
While browsing through a bookstore in Concord, Massachusetts, I came across a limited series of small books containing a single story each, specifically printed as Ghost Stories for Christmas by Biblioasis. My favorite, by one of my favorite writers, is about a man who discovers and ancient bit of fabric in an old diary and the dread that follows. For those unused to reading aloud, this makes an excellent starting place. “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” and many other stories by James can also be found for free online with a simple search.
This enormously imaginative tale will carry you through the dark days of December and features a villain so horrifying, he actually kidnaps children and hauls them back to Christmasland. A trickier tale to read aloud because of the style, but worth a try because of the subject matter. Paperback by William Morrow.
4. THE TWELVE TERRORS OF CHRISTMAS by John Updike & Edward Gorey
This is an odd one that you must-must-must read aloud, it contains 12 Christmas themed drawings by Edward Gorey, each accompanied by a clever bit of text by John Updike. I set this out on the coffee table every December 1st and find myself thumbing through it over and over throughout December. Published by Pomegranate.
This special holiday issue from Shock Totem magazine is still available on Amazon and includes an eclectic mix of holiday-inspired horror. These stories don’t necessarily possess the stately quality I mentioned earlier, but I’ve included this as the “wild pitch” entry on my list and as a “welcome back” to the magazine, which is returning in 2019.
6. GHOST STORY by Peter Straub
The second novel to make the list, Straub’s Ghost Story is a book about a group of old men who gather to tell each other scary stories and can serve your holiday reading needs in one of two ways. First, it’s a brilliant novel to read beside the fire on long, lonely nights. Second, there are sections and stories told by the characters that could easily be broken out to read aloud to your friends and family. Of note is the Hawthornesque story about a young teacher shared by the character of Sears early in the book. Published by Berkley.
7. THE WOMAN IN BLACK by Susan Hill
Published by Vintage Books, the Woman in Black begins and ends with a Christmas celebration, which was left out of the screen adaptation. This atmospheric tale extends the classic English ghost story to novel length with spectacular results. Perfect for a seasonal reading alone with sections that could easily be read aloud.
8. AFTERWARD by Edith Wharton
This is the second small book I picked up in Concord, Massachusetts, also by Biblioasis. In it, a shady business transaction leads to a ghostly visitation. While many of us will be familiar with Wharton from school, I, for one, was surprised and delighted to discover she was not only a literary giant, but a masterful writer of ghost stories. Like the James story above, this practically begs to be read aloud. Also like the James story, it’s easy to find online with a simple search, including audio versions.
9. NIGHT-SIDE by Joyce Carol Oates (Currently out of print (OOP))
Joyce Carol Oates has a diverse oeuvre of fiction, but in “Night-Side” she hews more closely to a classic style in the manner of Edith Wharton and addresses the occult head on. Everyone should read Joyce Carol Oates.
10. SNOW by Ronald Malfi (Currently OOP)
The fourth novel to make the list, it’s another great book to pick up at the beginning of December to get yourself into the holiday spirit. Published by Leisure Books, Snow tells the story of a stranded traveler desperate to get home to his son on Christmas Eve through storm and snow phantoms and other terrors. Bonus: if you want a rationalization for not going home for Christmas, this book will provide it.
While I have selected these stories as a starting point, I’d encourage everyone to do a simple search on You Tube for classic actors like Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee reading ghost stories. Lee does a rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” that will chill you to the marrow. The stories are free, easy to find and perfect for an evening at home alone.
PURCHASE A COPY OF JOHN C FOSTER’S THE ISLE (Synopsis and cover below)
The Isle by John C. Foster:
EXPOSE THE DARKEST OF SECRETS AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
A deadly menace threatens a remote island community and every man, woman and child is in peril. Sent to the isle to collect the remains of a dead fugitive, US Marshal Virgil Bone is trapped by torrential storms.
As the body count rises the community unravels, and Bone is thrust into the role of investigator. Aided by a local woman and the town pariah, he uncovers the island’s macabre past and its horrifying connection to the killings.
Some curses are best believed.
Sometimes the past is best left buried.
And some will kill to keep it so.
Praise for The Isle
“With The Isle, John Foster makes a twenty-first century contribution to the tradition of the New England Gothic, taking his lawman protagonist off the coast of the mainland United States to visit a small island in the North Atlantic whose inhabitants might have settled there from one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan fantasies. Himself riven by guilt over past misdeeds, U.S. Marshall Bone encounters a community on whom the sins of their ancestors continue to exert a very terrible and a very real force. Fast-moving, gripping, it’s a tale straight from Old Man Atlantic’s barnacled treasure chest.” — John Langan, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Fisherman
“Brooding and claustrophobic, one hell of a scary ride. You won’t soon forget your visit to The Isle.” — Tom Deady, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Haven
“Dripping with claustrophobic malice, crawling with dread and otherness, The Isle is a journey into places best left alone. A chilling, disturbing, compelling tale.” — Alan Baxter, award-winning author of Devouring Dark and Manifest Recall
“John Foster masterfully weaves New England folk horror into a hard-boiled murder mystery to form a wholly original and gripping novel that will keep you guessing as the dread builds like a tide rolling over the rocky shore. Strange rituals, hidden histories, and dangerous paranoia intersect on The Isle in ways that turn northeastern peculiarity into something uniquely horrific and thoroughly engrossing to read.” — Ed Kurtz, author of The Rib from Which I Remake the World and Nausea
“If you’re the kind of person who seeks out hidden places with awful histories, then this book is for you. You’ll feel the damp and the chill, you’ll hear the shrieks and the inhuman mutter, you’ll see those children and their awful games. Read it in a safe place.” — Karen Heuler, author of The Inner City
John C. Foster is the author of The Isle from Grey Matter Press. For more information on his work, please visit www.johnfosterfiction.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @johnfosterfic.