Ghosts of Christmas Past – A Review of a Collection of Christmas Haunted House Stories

Ghosts-of-Christmas-Past-1163062Stop 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.

Christmas, Ghosts, and Haunted Houses – Links to My Articles and Reviews

“Tis the time of Christmas  season , FA LA LA LA LA…. and stuff

Deck the page with lovely reruns FA LA LA LA LA…. that’s  enough.”

 

Yes, this piece  will be another one of those posts littered with links to some of my past articles and reviews concerning Christmas and Spooky Stuff.  Forgive me, but keep in mind, so many established  entertainment  entities do this. Take SNL, they have their “Christmas  Special” where they regurgitate clips from past episodes. So..that’s what this article  is – it’s special! As Radiohead  so eloquently  phrases  it, “so fucking special!!”

The truth of the matter is that I’ve been busy, and I’ve faced certain  obstacles that have prevented  me from writing. I went travelling for a few days, so there’s that. Then there is the holiday season, which always works against ones normal, everyday  schedule. And then my computer went on the fritz. It took some time to get things up and working  again. But I’m here now, and Christmas  is several  days away , so here comes a Christmas – themed  post for ya-  An index of articles and reviews  that I have written pertaining  to haunted houses and the holidays. Enjoy!


 

christmas-ghost-story-3First on the list is this article – Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses.  I trace the history  of the Christmas  ghost story. By the article’s end, I  make the case for the Christmas  haunted  house, a unique  set up  where such a house can be distinguished  from other haunted  houses in literature.

 


 

Next, a review of A Strange Christmas Game by J H Riddell. This is a story  about ghosts strangechristmasgame2that recreate the events of a deadly game that occurred on a Christmas  Eve in the past.

 


 

smee-coverNext, there is story called Smee.  This is a review of a a very popular  Christmas  ghost (and haunted  house) story, at least according  to the number of hits this post receives all year long. Written by A. M Burrage, it is a story of a game of hide and seek in a big old house. A ghost joins in the game.

 


 

Finally, A Christmas haunted house story written by yours truly (hint: that’s me!). A greenghostchristmasfrightened  old man helplessly  tries to ward of all the ghosts that haunt his house  on Christmas  Eve. Please read my story –  Spirits in the Night, Exchanging Chances

Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses

christmas-ghost-story-3December is no time to give up the ghost! Quite the contrary! Rather, it is time to embrace the Christmas “spirit.”  This would be not the spirit of peace and good will toward men (although that spirit is kind of sweet, you have to admit!). Instead, I’m referring to you average, run of the mill specter that haunts the Christmas ghost story. Yes there are such ghostly tales. Surely you’ve heard the Christmas song sung by Andy Williams, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?”  Well check out this verse:

There’ll be parties for hosting Marshmallows for toasting And caroling out in the snow There’ll be scary ghost stories And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.

Yes, Christmas is the season for ghost stories. At least it was back in them olden days. Colin Fleming in his article Ghosts on the Nog  goes so far as to call such a tale “The classic English Christmas ghost story”. Perhaps the most famous of them all is Charles Dickens’ 1943 classic novella A Christmas Carol, with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

Well, now that I’ve established that the Christmas ghost not only exists but is also, in fact traditional, I’m going to go a step further. I’m going to make a case for the literary existence of “The Christmas Haunted House”.  I have not yet seen that term coined in any articles or literature, but I argue that certain traditions and ghost story telling rituals have given way to such a concept.  What is a Christmas haunted house?  I’ll try to answer that question. To do so, I must first delve into an historical analysis of ghosts, stories, Christmases and dark winters. So a delving I will go, laughing all the way, HA HA HA HA!

In the article Ghost Stories for Christmas at hypnogoira.com, Jim Moon reminds us of the various rituals that took place during the Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia festivals, and how some of the rituals of the ancient winter solstice later became associated with Christmas celebrations. There were fires and festivals to commemorate the shortest day of the year. Shortest day = darkest day.   Dark day? Hmm. Maybe “commemorate” is not the most appropriate word to use in this context.  Perhaps “offset” it a better choice. Yes.  The idea was to combat the darkness with lights. They would even go so far as to bring trees inside their homes and light them up. (Later to be known as the Christmas/Holiday Tree).  Although there is no evidence for the postulates put forth in the upcoming quote from the article, Moon presents the idea that winter stories of the supernatural originated during these ancient winter holidays.

Now it is assumed that during such ancient festivities, stories were told of gods and monsters which explained why the days would grow so dark, and our telling of ghost stories is an echo of these spiritual and religious recitations and rituals

Think about this. In the days before electricity, in the days of agrarian homesteads, resources aimed at warding off the cold and darkness were limited (at least when compared to today’s standards). Thus, “the dark” and “the cold” were pretty ominous things. Even during the festive solstice celebrations, the lingering darkness and the bitter cold continued to exert their powers.  These forces surrounded their fragile, festival fires, where the celebrants sought warmth and light.

Soon the fires would be extinguished. But the darkness and the cold temperatures would remain. (These are my words. Remember them – for I will come back to them later when I discuss The Christmas Haunted House.)

 

Thus, it seems only natural that these environmental conditions would extract some scary stories from the imaginations of the people of that day. Hence we have the term “winter’s tale.”

Keith Lee Moris mentions Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” in his 2014 article from the Independent.  Written in 1611, one of Shakespeare’s characters says, “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” Also of note is the book Saducismus Triumphatus . Referring back to Moon’s article, this book, written in 1681,  argues that  witches and spirits do in fact exist. That’s nice and stuff, but the reason I bring it up has to do with a fitting quote from the book. The quote is also referenced in Moon’s article. “These are not winter’s tales!”

In defending the legitimacy of magical witchcraft, the author uses the term “winter’s tales” to differentiate between fiction and what he proposes to be fact ( the witches). Thus, “winter’s tales” are similar to “Old wives’s tales”, or stories made up to explain a certain set of phenomenon. So what we learn from these two sources is that by the 17th century, the idea of a “Winter’s Tale” was common parlance, and it can be defined as a made-up story about dark, dismal and horrific topics.

By the Victorian Era, The ancient Yule traditions had merged with the Christian holiday customs, and “winter’s tales” evolved into Christmas ghost stories. Whereas societies of the 19th century were in a better position than ancient pagan societies to alleviate some of the harshness of dark winters, Victorian winters were still problematic. Moris mentions in his article that winter was the season that claimed the most lives. Antibiotics were not yet available and winters were very deadly.  Counteracting this wintertime misfortune was the joyous celebrations of Christmas. Gifts, dinners, drinks, games and….ghost stories!

Returning to the Ghosts on the Nog article, Fleming implies that author M. R James is the christmas-ghost-story-6-m-r-jamesmaster of the Christmas Ghost story. His ghost stories were published in the early to mid 1900s.  Though the stories were not about Christmas, they were written to be read on Christmas Eve. In fact, James read these stories to his colleagues and favored students by candlelight on the eve of Christmas. He even went so far as to describe the proper Christmas Eve ghost story-telling environment.  Guests should be well fed, full of eggnog, perhaps a little drunk.  It will be cold outside, but it will be warm beside the fireplace. Participants should be releasing their inner child. They should be ready to have fun and dispense with disbelief. They should try to scare one another with their ghost stories.

Let’s throw another “James” into the Frey. A few months ago, I reviewed Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  This is actually a story within a story. It begins in a setting similar to what M.R James described. (It’s tough “keeping up with the Jameses”) Friends are partying on Christmas Eve. They settle down, and one of the partiers begins the ghost story. The story is The “Turn of the Screw”.

Moris has an interesting observation in his article. He states:

“Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful elements”

christmas-ghost-story4He goes on to cite examples, such as being “curled up” on a soft chair, besides a fire, all warm and cozy, while reading a ghost story. This protective environment is much like the setting of the Christmas Eve party that offers the activity of telling ghost stories. I’ll even go further and say this example applies to the pagan days of yore with their fireside tales.

BUT, (now this is a “big but” here) can you recall what I had asked for you to remember, further back in the article? In case you have forgotten, here it is again:

Soon the fires would be extinguished. But the darkness and the cold temperatures would remain.

I disagree slightly with Moris’s winter tale observation, and this disagreement is reflected in those sentences I had asked you to commit to memory. I might change Moris’s wording a bit. Here I go.

“Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest slightly removed from its more harmful elements.”

I believe that winter’s effect on our imaginations is enhanced when its harmful elements are still near us. Imagine reading a scary book or hearing a ghost story while the dark night can be seen just outside the window, or the howling winds are to be heard underneath the crackle of the fire. Nature’s brutal elements are right there on the other side of the house’s walls. So close!  That, for me, makes for a creatively frightful situation. The recipients of the ghost story are safe – temporarily.  The fact that winter’s mighty roar is happening just outside adds to the “fun” tension. Perhaps the term “warmly vulnerable” is appropriate. The darkness and the cold temperatures are always there, just like they had remained with our pagan friends from a long time ago, with or without the fire.

One can expand on this situation and make it all the scarier. I shall be “the one” and expand I will! Let’s say, perhaps, that our frolicking friends are feeling “warmly vulnerable” during a ghost story session at a Christmas Eve gathering. Let’s remove the last visages of safety and allow winter’s symbolic doom to come inside. It’s warm. Festive. Have a drink. Merry Christmas! Fires. Games. Ghost stories. And then – real ghosts haunt the house. Frightful! This is what I would call A Christmas Haunted House.

Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven hints at this. Though not a Christmas tale, the events of the poem occur on a dreary December evening. The protagonist is safe inside his chamber, except…(he asks) “Who’s that knocking at my chamber door?”  Death is wanting in!

Before this season is over, I will be reviewing two Christmas ghost stories that may contain these house haunting story elements, both of which are listed in Fleming’s article. The first is J. H. Riddell’s story “A Strange Christmas Game” – 1863. From the article:

 “…we have that idea of play again, only now it is the ghosts who are trying their hands at sport. Cards, as it were. A brother and sister have recently taken possession of a house willed to them, and the demise of their benefactor plays out like some horrible, woebegone mummer’s act.”

The second is “Smee” by A.M. Burrage – 1931. Again, from the article:

At this party, we’re playing a form of hide-and-seek in which the seeker advances upon the hider and says, “It’s me,” which, uttered quickly and breathlessly enough, becomes smee. It’s Christmas Eve, this is a big old rambling house, but one tiny problem: there’s an extra player who does not number among the guests.

 Finally, I will be offering a Christmas Eve ghost story of my own. I believe it meets my critera for a Chistmas Haunted House tale. It surely contains a threat from the outside that wants in. However, there will be a twist. I will post this story here at the blog.

Well, Happy Holiday’s everyone! As you prepare your homes for Christmas, don’t forget to invite the ghosts inside. They are definitely part of the Christmas tradition, and your homes will be ever so delightfully haunted during this “most wonderful time of the year.”