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December ghost stories

December 20, 2011

There is nothing like the holidays to bring out the ghosts. 

The dominant holiday of the season, Christmas, has all sorts of spooky origins.  It goes back to instructions in 601 from Pope Gregory to have St. Austin to adapt the local winter Druid feast, and the resulting holiday seems to mix features from Saturnalia, Yule (the Saxon feast for the return of the sun, in honor of Thor), the Druid holiday, and Advent.  This weird mixture of religions certainly attracted criticism over the centuries, perhaps reaching it high point under Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, and the Roundhead Parliament succeeded

  • 1642: a law prohibiting the performance of holiday plays
  • July 3, 1647: a law that the nativity feast could not be celebrated with other holy days
  • December 24, 1652: a law that “no observance shall be had of the five and twentieth of December, commonly called Christmas day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof.”

Even after the Restoration, Christmas was in poor standing.  Some claim that it was a ghost story that revived it:  Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol – one of our best-known ghost stories – reportedly created a Christmas-boom that is reverberating today.  (Let me say right here that Christmas Carol is one Dickens best works:  a book of tremendous black humor:

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.  Mind!  I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail.  I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.  But the wisdom of our ancestors [this is a sarcastic barb at Edmund Burke’s pomposity] is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.  You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

You must admit, even if you don’t get the sarcasm of the “wisdom of the ancestors” line, that this is first-rate satire.  I also want to say that in my reading of Dickens, it is also a genuinely terrifying piece of horror, full of spectral images and horrid ghosts.  Funny and frightening.)   Other Christmas stories are equally horrific:  such as E. T. A. Hoffman’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig, with its seven-headed mouse king, the assault and slashing of Marie’s flesh, the infanticide campaign of the mouse king and resulting revenge by the mouse queen, the extortion of Marie – that’s scary stuff.  It, of course, was adapted by Dumas (Marie became Clara), and then again by Tchaikovsky to become the Nutcracker ballet.  (I won’t even get into the practices of the Saturn worshipers, the Thor worshipers, and the Druids).

The bottom line is that Christmas and ghosts just naturally go together.  So allow me to make some book suggestions for the season of horror (limiting myself to a few works in English):

the_annotated_christmas_carolThe Annotated Christmas Carol (annotated by Michael Patrick Hearn).  Hearn’s annotated edition of Dickens’s Christmas-horror novel was originally published in 1976 and then extensively revised in 2004.  It includes a 114 page introduction, hundreds of lengthy annotations, Extensive illustrations are included, all of the original John Leech illustrations (and many dozens more), 8 color plates, and hundred page appendix on Dickens’s public readings of his book.

The John Austen edition of Hamlet.  Of course, no ghost story is English can quite compare with Hamlet.  It starts out with a ghost and reaches a fever pitch of unpredictability that results in a rampage of violence and horror that leaves almost all of the main characters dead.  We can watch this work in the theater, but most textual editions are somewhat cold, filled with Hamlettedious notes pointing out English usage and conveying little of the absolute terror of this tragedy.  The celebrated illustrator John Austen manages to convey the grotesque and frightening parts of his story in his illustrated edition of Hamlet, now reprinted in a deluxe hardcover format by Dover Publication’s up-scale imprint, Calla.  However, the book is still a bargain – currently it is $16.50 at Amazon.  The work has illustrations on every page, but no tedious notes to distract the reader from the action.  Reading this edition is arguably as close as one can get to a performance experience as a reader.  (Yes, I realize the contradiction between my praise for an annotated edition of one book that is usually unannotated (A Christmas Carol) and now my later praise for an unannotated edition of another book that is usually annotated (Hamlet).


doctor faustusDoctor Faustus with the English Faust Book (edited by David Wootton).  This is, of course, mostly a book about Lucifer and Mephistophilis, but it has some ghosts in it!  Plenty of sheer horror, with the added of fun of trying to figure out whether Christopher Marlowe was a Calvinist or not.  This Hackett paperback edition has the A-text together with the English Faust Book, and plenty of commentary.  It is cheap and smart and fun and frightening. 


A Boxful of Ghosts.  For $20 you could certainly do worse than this boxed set of four mass paperback-sized books.  The box is rather nice (with cloth bottom and a padded cloth top, and the individual books each have a cloth ribbon, dust jackets, and gilded edges.  The four individual volumes are

  • 510fyjcNdHL._SL500_AA300_Irish Ghost Stories (edited by David Stuart Davies, 582 pages):  Sheridan Le Fanu: The Room in Le Dragon Volant, Madam Crowl’s Ghost, Squire Toby’s Will, The Child that went with the Faries, An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street, Ghost Stories of Chapelizod, The Vision of Tom Chuff; W. B. Yeats: The Curse, Hanraham’s Vision; Bram Stoker:  The Judge’s House, The Secret of the Growing Gold; Oscar Wilde:  The Canterville Ghost; Fitz James O’Brien: Who was It? The Pot of Tulips; Thomas Crofton Croker:  The Haunted Cellar; Jeremiah Curtin:  St. Martin’s Eve; Daniel Corkery:  The Eyes of the Dead; Rosa Mulholland:  The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly, The Ghost at the Rath.
  • Best Ghost Stories (edited by Marcus Clapham, 380 pages):  Sir Walter Scott: The Tapestried Chamber; Charles Dickens:  The Signalman; M. E. Braddon: The Shadow in the Corner; Sheridan Le Fanu:  Strange Events in the Life of Schalken the Painter; Robert Louis Stevenson:  The Body-Snatcher; Rudyard Kipling: The Phantom Rickshaw; Edith Nesbit: Man-Size in Marble; M. R. James:  Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook; Arthur Conan Doyle:  The Brown Hand; John Buchan: The Watcher by the Threshold; M. R. James: “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”; F. Marion Crawford: The Screaming Skull; Saki: Laura; M. R. James: The Tractate Middoth; Amyas Northcote: Brickett Bottom; E. F. Benson: Naboth’s Vineyard
  • Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens (edited by David Stuart Davies, 384 pages): The Queer Chair, A Madman’s Manuscript, The Goblins who Stole a Sexton, The Ghosts of the Mail, Baron Koëlwethout’s Apparition, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, To be Read at Dusk, The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber, The Haunted House, The Trial for Murder, The Signalman, Christmas Ghosts, The Lawyer and the Ghost, Four Ghost Stories, The Portrait Painter’s Story.
  • Complete Ghost Stories by M. R. James (edited by David Stuart Davies, 592 pages): Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint, The Ash Tree, Number 13, Count Magnus, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, A School Story, The Rose Garden, The Tractate Middoth, Casting the Runes, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, Martin’s Close, Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance, The Residence at Whitminister, The Diary of Mr. Poynter, An Episode of Cathedral History, The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance, Two Doctors, The Haunted Dolls’ House, The Uncommon Prayer-Book, A Neighbour’s Landmark, A View from a Hill, A Warning to the Curious, An Evening’s Entertainment, There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard, Rats, After Dark in the Playing Fields, Wailing Well, The Experiment, The Malice of Inanimate Objects, A Vignette, Stories I have Tried to Write

Everything here is widely available, but it is nice to have these stories wrapped up so neatly and conveniently.  Even with the duplicates (Signalman, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, The Tractate Middoth, and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”) this is still a worthwhile collection.

Happy haunting.  And I hope that Thor sends the sun back.


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