“There is probably a smell of roasted chesnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire.”
– Charles Dickens, Telling Winter Stories, 1859
Every year at about this time, I tend to turn my reading to ghost stories. Okay, who am I kidding? I read ghost stories all year round. But there’s something particularly nostalgic for me personally in sitting by the side of a log fire, glass of single malt in hand, reading a spooky old tale, particularly those set at Christmas.
The Christmas ghost story is something of a great British tradition, of course. Like most things related to Christmas traditions, they were really proliferated in the Victorian era – that Dickens fellow has a lot to answer for. After the success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens took to publishing festive ghost stories annually in the periodical All the Year Round, in which he included tales from contributors such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. In 1898, American anglophile Henry James (whose less famous brother turns up in The Lazarus Gate, you may recall) wrote The Turn of the Screw – his own take on the Christmas Ghost Story, inspired in no small part by Dickens and Collins.
That doesn’t mean all the stories we equate with being good Christmas spook-fests are Victorian in origin though – many of my favourites were written in the Edwardian or even post-war periods. M R James – my favourite teller of ghostly tales – was a particular proponent of the Christmas ghosts tradition. He would write a new story each year, and read it to a select group of peers and students at King College, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve.
Anyhow, enough history. Over the last few years I’ve been collecting festive ghost and mystery stories to read over the Yuletide period. Here’s my pick of the bunch so far: