This month, I had the honour of being published in BFS Horizons– and my thrill was doubled by the atmosphere of festive cheer into which my copy arrived in the letterbox.
Once I ripped off the packaging, and smelt that new-book smell, it immediately felt right: I was holding in my hands my very first published ghost story, while outside the window lay the bleakness of winter. The long nights, the cold and the rain, and what Kate Mosse calls the “fun of the shudder”, have always belonged together, and as we gather round Christmas trees, safe and cosy with family members and fireplaces, I’ve often found it fun to remind myself of the demons and spirits that could be haunting my doorstep.
Christmas and the ghost story have always walked hand-in-phantom-hand. Even back in 1642, in the first year of the English Civil War, there were stories of shepherds looking up to the sky on Christmas Eve and seeing ghostly soldiers doing battle among the stars. For centuries, ghost stories were told around the family hearth the day before festivities began: before radio and television, it was a genre that was tailor-made to please all, with enough ghoulishness for youths and enough sophistication for adults.
The modern conception of the Christmas ghost story is in part formed by Charles Dickens. With tales such as A Christmas Carol and The Chimes: A Goblin Story, the festive period has forever become linked with morality tales of paranormal spookiness. Many have commented on the fact that Dickens’ depictions of Christmas, despite containing messages of social responsibility, aren’t particularly religious- and it is perhaps this that helps keep the Christmas ghost tradition alive: stories of spirits predate any of the Abrahamic religions, and now endure despite our differing ways of celebrating the winter festivities and a growing agnosticism towards Christmas’ religious roots.
Here, then, is my attempt at explaining some of the appeal of the Ghost Story, and to humbly suggest that over the next few days, when you are curled up on your sofas and bloated with turkey, you might want to turn to something altogether more ghoulish than Christmas TV…
The Ghost doesn’t outstay its welcome
It could be argued that the format of the short story is perfect for horror. Often, the build-up to the reveal of a ghostly presence is so much more satisfying than the pay-off. In longer horror narratives, and in films in particular, there needs to be a string of victims who fall prey to attacks while you learn more and more about the villain. By the time of the climax, you have spent hours in the company of the monster, and are comfortable in its presence.
In short stories, however, there is generally only one victim- the hero of the story. Once the ghost reveals itself to him, the story then ends. The paranormal figure keeps its sense of mystery and menace because of our limited understanding of it, and the rules of the haunting have no chance to become overcomplicated.
My Christmas ghost reading this year was Susan Hill’s novel The Mist in the Mirror. It was an effective chiller, and nestled deep into my subconscious- but ultimately I felt dissatisfied. This was because I was not given enough information concerning the mystery of the hauntings, even though I had invested time in the narrative. It put into sharp contrast what the strength of the short story is: many of the creepiest ghost stories don’t need to have explanations or rules for us to understand, and are all the better for it.
Ghosts, after all, work best when they feel like they are beyond our ken. The short story gives us just a hint of what they can do, and leave us to imagine the rest.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Part of what I enjoy so much about Ghost stories is how they can transport us to another time. The classics of the genre are an entertaining portal to a different age, immersing you in Victoriana. And- let’s face it- it makes a great setting for horror.
Firstly, the character of the Victorian Gentleman of ghost stories is a perfect fit for the genre. The stiff-upper-lip, unfazed-by-nonsense (but, if you’re lucky, still of a nervous disposition) character is so much more endearing than the teenage victims of today’s horror narratives. Their matter-of-fact outlook allows us to swallow the paranormal occurrences much easier. Plus, if anything too bad happens in ghost stories, Victorian characters tend to faint- which is a handy narrative trick which cannot be used anymore.
Coupled with the Victorian characters is the word they inhabit- a setting which makes a great playground for ghouls. The overwrought tropes of Gothic fiction in the 18th Century led the Victorians to a more subtle evocation of horror in everyday environments- a beach, a hotel room, a library. The best of Gothic horror- the atmosphere of paranoia and dread- was still present, but anchored in the real world. For us, the Victorian setting is a reality that has full of potential for scares, familiar enough to be relatable while still being recognisably more dangerous and isolated.
These stories also depict a culture on the cusp of change. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the rise of scientific thought in the 19th century led to people embracing mysticism and spiritualism. The world was expanding, and people were traveling further and moving more frequently. With that came a fear of the unknown, of stumbling across something that should not be discovered. When the first underground tunnels were dug for trains below London, some feared that the devil would be disturbed. When radio and phones were being developed, others speculated that it would lead to communicating with the dead. Ghosts were a reminder of more superstitious times, coming to cut down a nation’s sense of progress and self-importance. For modern readers, that reminder is just as satisfying: with all the technology you may be holding in your hands, there’s nothing to tell you what might be lurking under your bed.
Figures of Folklore
Ghost Stories are not just a way to relive the Victorian era- they also give an insight into lesser-known communities everywhere. Christmas will be around for generations to come, but local superstitions and ghost stories, which help to give individual areas their own identity and flavour, are in danger of being forgotten.
Ghost stories often used to be inspired by local incidents, and the tales were a way in which to discuss the events of the past. The spirits were born from history, key components of a folklore in which communities found entertaining ways to tell each other about where they lived. The classic writers of the genre took it upon themselves to celebrate this tradition, drawing from superstitions they came across in their journeys. Indeed, some tales can almost be treated as a fantastical form of travel writing. The stories of MR James, for example, often tell the story of a traveller (almost always a boring academic) who meets a demon that has particular ties to a locality.
Gothic horror, and modern horror, often seems to take place in a world of its own, and could be set anywhere. But the ghost-which is after all a manifestation of the past- is a tool with which we can identify the landscape and culture of a whole host of different areas.
Some of my favourites:
MR James- O Whistle, and I’ll Come to you, My Lad
Tamsin Hopkins- The Table
RL Stevenson- The Body Snatcher
Nikolai Gogol- The Overcoat
Henry James- The Turn of the Screw
Charles Dickens- The Signalman