Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The great English tradition of Christmas ghost stories.

I’ve long thought of Christmastime as a season of mostly pleasant intrusions: thirty or so days of remembering to tend, checklist style, to the latest pressing bit of Yuletide business that comes racing back to you. The well wishes. The trip to the Home Depot. The seasonal ales.

By Colin Fleming at The Paris Review

This is the Fezziwig side of Christmas, that portion that makes you look up the word wassail when you encounter it and think, Ah, that would be fun. But what of the darker elements of Christmas—and what of Christmas for those people who enjoy making merry most years but may have hit upon a bit of a tricky patch? What succor of the season might they find at the proverbial inn?

Having experienced both sides of Christmas, there is but one constant I am aware of that serves you well both in the merriest of times and in the darkest: the classic English Christmas ghost story. You’d think Halloween would be the holiday that elicits the best macabre stories, but you’re going to want to check that opinion and get more on the Snow Miser side of the equation. Time was the English loved to scare you out of your mind come December, but in a fun way that resulted in stories well afield of your typical ghost story outing.

If you’re into ghost stories, you probably know that M. R. James is held as the master by most. His thing was to write a tale for Christmas, invite some of his fellow Eton dons and favored students into his rooms, and read it over candlelight after everyone had been plied with eggnog. Readings for the season—but not really of the season. There’s not a lot of actual Christmas in James’s stories.

Writers of ghost stories, James included, love to make authoritative lists about what makes such stories work. They offer spectral prescriptions that, as you might gather, rarely hit upon the same guidelines, and then they tend to violate these notions within their own work. But I like the spirit of that endeavor—a naughty/nice list for the spooky crowd—and as someone who devours Christmas ghost stories in the happiest of years and who turns to them, too, at those Christmases when the glimpsed mistletoe kisses of new lovers are akin to sprigs of holly jabbed through the temple, I have some ideas on what you want when it’s time to settle in with your eggnog, dim the lights, and turn some pages.

The first key to a Christmas ghost story is a convivial atmosphere. People in these stories are well fed, they’re often hanging out in groups, you feel like you’re hanging out with them, and you do not wish to leave any more than they do. It is cold outside but warm in here, and it’s time to rediscover that sense of play that so many of us adults lose over the years, and which, when we are fortunate, we remember to rediscover at Christmas.

Next, a game might be proposed, say, a game of telling stories. Then comes the terror. The status quo is infused with a sensation of something being a touch off, chuckles give way to shared, uneasy glances that maybe this isn’t all merrymaking. But this isn’t the terror of Lovecraft or of impending doom or the horror that indicts our fundamentally base natures. It’s a rather more pleasing terror—the ghosts, even when they mean to avenge themselves upon us, also seem to have dipped into the nog a time or two, with their own playfulness in evidence. Sure, they can kill you, but they do so with a joke or two at the ready. These are the short days of the year, and a weird admixture of pagan habits and grand religiosity obtains. There is also booze. People didn’t have TVs: people drank, people got to telling tales, someone told a tale and someone tried to tell a bigger one, and then, lo, we got a whole ghost story Christmas tradition.

But even if you’re into this stuff, there’s a decent chance you’ve not read any of these oft-overlooked Christmas baubles, stories which have always made me grateful for their company, blending themselves to my mood and needs and wishes in ways that nothing else quite has. They’re also dead good fun. So ladle out some perry or mead—or just grab a Bud Light—and allow me to recommend these ghostly tidings.

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