Henry James’s classic tale of horror and possession, The Turn of the Screw, is about the telling of a ghost story as much as it is about ghosts.
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.
The story has the quality of an incantation, holding listeners spellbound as long as it lasts. Such is its power that when it ends no ordinary conversation is possible for a while. Winter claws at the edges of this enchanted circle, warded off for a while by the pool of light cast by the Christmas fire.
Winters in Victorian England tended to be a nature red in tooth and claw sort of business - snowy and cold and no central heating. As chilly Victorians huddled close around the fire on Christmas, they told themselves tales of the uncanny and the supernatural, of beings who may well have been birthed by the howling winter world.
Telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve is believed to be a tradition that goes back several hundred years. But it seems to have been revived by Charles Dickens and The Christmas Carol, published in 1843, when the Victorian age was still young. “There is probably a smell of roasted chesnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories,” writes Dickens in Telling Winter Stories.
But there may nothing good or comfortable about this winter ritual, which takes listeners to lands untouched by Christmas cheer. These stories dwell in churchyards and old manor houses and cliffs battered by a noiseless sea. The ritual touches on something ancient, something primeval at the heart of the Christmas mystery. It recalls the “yuletide” that is “older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind,” as HP Lovecraft put it.
Now the Christmas fires are dying out. Certainly, those celebrating in India will not light them. But there is no reason the stories should be forgotten. Here are five that you could curl up with this Christmas Eve:
The Mezzotint (1904): Perhaps it is right to start with MR James, master of the Victorian ghost story and a medieval scholar with an interest in antiquaries. Very often in his tales, ancient objects glower with unknown secrets and properties, which must be unlocked by the wandering historian or some other species of scholar.
In this story, an art collector for a museum buys a bland mezzotint of a manor house for a song. Only to find that the picture may contain more than meets the eye.
Man-Sized in Marble (1893): Did you think of E Nesbit as a writer of sweet stories for children, spinner of yarns about love and courage triumphing poverty? Think again.
When a writer begins with “Although every word of this story is as true as despair,” you know things cannot end well.
A newly married couple settle down in a charming cottage in a little village on a hill. Only trouble is, the cottage is very the village church. And in the church there are “two bodies, drawed out man-size in marble”.
Smee by AM Burrage (1931): Not quite Victorian but in the firmly in tradition of telling a story to go with the egg-nog. Beware what games you play on Christmas Eve. For you could end up playing “Smee”.
One person hides and others look for them in the dark. When you find the hider, they say “it’s me”, shortened to “smee”, a word that sounds like the beginning of a scream. What if there are more players than you know in this game?
The Face (1928): EF Benson brings you face to face with horror. Not for him the power of suggestion, the terror of what lurks in the shadows. In sinuous, visual prose, he will paint the moment of confrontation for you.
In “The Face”, a woman keeps dreaming of walking on a cliff edge next to a church. The landscape evolves as she ages. The waters eat away at the cliff edge, until they tear at the church. And the walker draws closer to someone waiting at the end of her journey.
The Festival (1925): With HP Lovecraft, we may be straining at the bounds of the traditional Christmas ghost story. But don’t worry, nobody dies, we think.
Lovecraft loved Benson. And he loved snarling, tentacled, ebullient horror. In this story he explores that yuletide which is older than Babylon and Bethlehem. It is Christmas and a traveller arrives at the old fishing town where his ancestors once lived. As darkness falls, the inhabitants of this village celebrate a festival. But it is not the one where you deck the halls with boughs of holly.