Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as "The Year Without a Summer" – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron's child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world's first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori's novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: "It was on a dreary night of November…" When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story's opening to "December 11th, 17--." Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with "stiff gales" and "floating sheets of ice", and ends with Frankenstein's monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter's tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins." But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre's popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a "vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails". The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" mentions "scary ghost stories" right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story's seasonal ubiquity. It's not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life's story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
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