Stop the holiday press! (Is there such a thing?) Put those ornaments back on the tree right now. Return those vines of ivy to the banister. Rehang those stockings and regurgitate some of those “Ho Ho Ho”’s you swallowed on the 25th, cause I got one more Christmas-themed post for you! It is a book of Christmas ghost stories – Ghosts of Christmas Past – A chilling collection of modern and classic Christmas ghost stories.
Published in 2017 in Great Britain, the stories within are from various years. Some date back to the 1800s. The book includes a story from M.R. James, whose name is synonymous with “The Christmas ghost story.” His stories were published in the early part of the 20th Century. Other stories in this collection are as recent as 2014. It is refreshing to see that the traditional Christmas ghost story lives on. I thought it was a thing of the past, as the book’s title suggests. (Not really!)
Telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve – I didn’t know there was such a tradition until 2015 when I saw an article floating around on Facebook (floating like a ghost – Booooooo!) A year later I wrote my own article on the subject. Now in 2018, I see the subject of “The Christmas ghost story” all over social media. Yay Internet! Still, I didn’t know there were modern stories; I thought that “Christmas ghosts” were phantoms of a bygone era. I’m glad that I was wrong.
In my 2016 article Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses I briefly describe the evolution of the Christmas ghost story, then go on to make a case for “The Christmas Haunted House”. A Christmas haunted house is usually haunted on Christmas Eve. It is the setting of festivities; friends and family gather there. The haunting takes place after the feasting and frolicking, or in some cases, it interrupts these activities. The haunting is symbolic of the cold and dreary winter that exists outside the window. If it is not symbolic of the cold and darkness, it is at least a reminder of these conditions. End of the year holidays, with all the lights and cheer, are there to counteract the harshness and darkness of winter. This was most certainly true in the ancient yuletide tradition of winter solstice. Winters were harsher, darker, and more deadly. When the lights go out, when the festivities come to an end, the darkness remains. Scary “winter’s tales” emerged from this, and the telling of such tales evolved into the telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Safe inside a house, beside a warm and blazing fireplace, the ghost stories are fun….but…even today, darkness is right outside. So close….so….what if a real ghost joins the party, escaping from its prison inside these fanciful tales?
Much of the literature revolving around Christmas ghosts are stories within stories. A group gathers in a house on Christmas Eve to tell fanciful ghost stories to pass the time on such a cold winter night. Often one of the storytellers relays a “true” ghost story. Fantasy becomes reality. And “reality” has always been there, lurking outside of their protective indoor setting. Now it is inside.
For the record, not all Christmas ghost stories involve haunted houses. But many do and I love it, because if you haven’t noticed , I’m a haunted house kind of guy! Are there any Christmas haunted house stories in the book that is up for review, Ghosts of Christmas Past? Answer: Of course! What a silly question, for this is a haunted house kinda blog! And it is these stories that I will single out , not that they are better than the “houseless” stories but because they fit the theme of this blog. However , do they conform to my criteria of what makes a “Christmas haunted house” story? Sometimes they do.
To my dismay, authors both past and present never said, “Hey, there is or will be this Daniel Cheely guy, and he says Christmas haunted houses have to be written such-and- such a way, and I must write my story accordingly.” In other words, the specific details of my “Christmas haunted house” criteria will not always play out in every story. I know, awww! But I will say this; most of the haunted house stories in this book that I am about describe feature a noticeable dichotomy: the happenings inside the house vs. the happenings outside the house. To go from one to another, from out to in or in to out, is to transcend into the supernatural in someway. Things outside peer in, spirits in the home vanish when exiting the house. To some extent, these observations reflect the themes of 1) warm/cozy inside – 2) cold, dark and scary outside, and the convergence of these two states. Don’t you agree? Maybe you will be able to answer this question when I go into more details about the stories. And I will do that. Right now!
Warning! There will be spoilers!
Dinner for One – by Jenn Ashworth – first published 2014
This story is told from the ghost’s perspective. The ghost haunts his/her wife/partner on Christmas. The gender of the ghost is not revealed and the official status of the relationship is unclear, although it is assumed these two were once lovers, back when the ghost inhabited a living body.
The ghost rearranges things in the house, sets the table for dinner, and gets irate when the former lover fails to acknowledge the ghost’s efforts. The angry spirit throws the plates/glasses on the floor. See, the ghost doesn’t realize that it is dead. The doings of the ghost – this troubles the lady of the house, understandably so.
Meanwhile, the surviving lover spends much time outside the house. She stands over a bed of rocks. It will be revealed that the body of her former partner lies there. She had killed him. Poor ghost, it’s body thrown out of the house, buried under the earth. Poor former person – tossed out of the world of the living. All it wants is to live, to spend Christmas with its former lover. And so, it returns to the house and, unknowingly, haunts it.
The Shadow – by E Nesbit – first published in 1905
Ah, a classic Christmas ghost story! It fits the classic is formula. A group of a young girls, on Christmas Eve, gather in a sleeping chamber in a house they occupy to share fanciful ghost stories. They invite one of the household maids into the room and ask her to tell a ghost story. She is shy, somewhat reluctant to share her story. But she gives in.
The maid’s tale is a true one. She once visited the house of two friends, a married couple. The wife is sick in bed, so she spends most of her time in the company of the male friend. All the while both are haunted by a presence, a shadow. This shadow is symbolic of…something. Something that hides underneath. Underneath what? Just underneath.
By the time the maid finishes the story, the presence is inside the chamber. A tragedy occurs, a tragedy that ties one of the girls to the accounts described by the maid.
In their protective environment on Christmas Eve, the girls had shared made-up stories. Then a horrid, truthful tale penetrates their security. The safe house has been haunted.
This Beautiful House – by Louis De Bernieres – first published 2004
A man returns to his childhood home every Christmas Eve. He always stands on the grounds, observing the outdoor setting, reflecting, taking in the serenity. He likes to remember the past Christmases that took place inside the house and relive all the cherished memories he had with his family. Often, the man can see them in the house, through the windows, he witnesses activity inside.
One by one, various family members come out to greet him. Mother and father, sisters or brothers, uncles. They plead with him, but whether their pleas are for him to come inside or for him to just go away, it is not clear. But the man never enters the house and he doesn’t go away until he is ready.
A tragedy caused all these family members to perish inside the house many years ago on Christmas Eve. Even so, the man knows where to find them, every year on the anniversary of their deaths, he sees their ghosts. Is he a ghost as well? A ghost that is unwilling to join his family in death where he belongs? Is he reluctant to attend an eternal Christmas party inside the house?
Inside. Outside. The meeting of these two sides and what happens or doesn’t happen on the crossroads. This is what this story is about.
The Ghost in the Blue Chamber – by Jerome K. Jerome – first published in 1891
Another classic story adhering to the classic formula. This is somewhat of a humorous tale. A man tells a ghost story to a group of people that are gathered at his house on Christmas Eve night. It is a true story. He claims the blue chamber of his house is haunted by a murderer and his victims. When he was alive, the murderer had a pastime of killing musicians (See, I told you this was humorous . Laugh! Ha ha ha!). He tells the group the details of all the murders.
After the telling, the man’s nephew insists in sleeping in the blue chamber. That night, the ghost of the murderer visits the nephew. Both men, nephew and ghost, pass the night with chitchat and pipe smoking. Soon it is time for the ghost to leave. All ghosts must return to the cosmos before dawn, after all. The nephew walks the ghost out the door and down the sidewalk. Soon he confronts two truths: 1)the ghost is no longer by his side 2) The nephew forgot to put on his pants before going outside.
There is not much more to this story. I can’t find any symbolism within. So, how about my whole “inside/outside” dynamic? Does it play out in this story? Well, the ghost is there in the house. When he leaves the house , when he goes outside , he disappears. So there’s that. And…that’s all I got.
The Lady and the Fox – by Kelly Link – First published in 2014
This is my favorite of the bunch. It is more a story of fantasy and wonder, though it is a little creepy and somewhat ghostly. It is a modern fairy tale. Young Miranda, a little girl, enjoys spending Christmases with The Honeywell family. Elspeth Honeywell is her godmother. Her son Daniel is like a step-brother to Miranda. Over the years he will become more than that, off and on.
Miranda lives with an aunt. Her mother is in prison and probably will be for life. It seems as though the Honeywells have custody of her only at Christmas time. One Christmas Eve, while a large gathering of Honeywells party it up at the house, Miranda sees a strange man peering into the windows from outside. She goes out to meet him. She discovers he is a Honeywell…from a different time period. He dresses in 17th century outfits. No, he is not a ghost, he insists. His name is Fenny, an no, he can’t go inside the house. This isn’t allowed. He wishes the little girl would just go away and leave him alone.
Year after year, Miranda meets Fenny outside the house on Christmas Eve. He eventually warms up to her. He comes with the snow. She ages, he does not. Never does he come inside.
Miranda is a young woman now. She grows to love him. To want him. And he her. She will literally hang on to him to prevent him from disappearing.
Who is Fenny if he’s not a ghost? He is, after all, solid. I failed to mention that before. I am mentioning it now. Perhaps Miranda craves that which is “solid”, a solid relationship , a solid understanding of how she fits into the Honeywell family. Her relationship with her mother is far from solid. The prison system does not allow her to see her. Her relationship with Daniel is confusing. She feels more at home with the Honeywells than she does at her aunt’s place. Is Fenny the physical incarnation of Miranda ’ s desire to belong? And will Fenny ever come inside? Will Miranda ever rid herself of the feeling that she is always on the outside, looking in? Outside. Inside.
Outside the Christmas house. Inside the Christmas house. The places in between the inside and outside, the places that fuel the supernatural. These are the themes I have noticed in these stories. These themes relate to my observations concerning Christmas haunted houses in literature – fragile safety zones that are in no way impermeable to the dark forces that lurk outside in the darkened night of winter.
As a reminder, these are not the only stories in the book. I have covered less than half. But these are the Christmas haunted house stories. I recommend buying the book and reading all the stories. Some are better than others, but this is always the case with anthologies.
Thank you for reading this article about Ghosts of Christmas Past, especially since Christmas has passed (See what I did there?). I wish you a happy post-Christmas. May your home receive the leftovers of the Christmas ghost. May they haunt your house – inside and out.