One tradition I still keep though… There should always be a ghost story for Christmas. Why? I have no idea. Does it hark back to A Christmas Carol, I wonder? Is it another Victorian fancy? But where did they get the idea? Wikipedia simply says there is an ‘oral tradition of telling supernatural tales at Christmas.’ Unhelpful.
‘I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas,’ says James in the preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Equally unhelpful.
Dickens himself, in his story The Christmas Tree (written in 1859) says: ‘There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts 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.’
And what was a Winter Story? Apparently it refers to a fantastical, magical, unearthly story. Of course, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was one such.
‘A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins…’
And in The Jew of Malta, Marlowe has the words:
‘Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.’
So, not Victorian then. An older tradition. It’s tempting to rummage around and imagine they’re connected with the old pagan festival of Yule, of the Winter Solstice, a time when the year hangs precariously in balance once again before slowly (hopefully) swinging back towards the light. Maybe it was a cunning way to keep the family close around the fire, huddling together lest the ghosts and tricksy spirits pluck at the shoulder? It’s interesting, huh? That the telling of ghost stories is associated with the bustling family festival of Christmas rather than the thinning of the veils ancestor festival of Samhain/Hallowe’en.
But anyhow. Needless to say, like many another (I’m so ununusual) I consider M.R. James to be the king of the Christmas ghost story. And 'Whistle and I'll Come' is surely the king of the M.R.James' ghost stories - no? The original 1960s version, please, with Michael Horden please (not the travesty of a remake which doesn't even have a whistle!). Or do you prefer A Warning to the Curious? Or The Ash Tree?
Incidentally, did you know that the title refers to an old Scottish folk tune?
But anyhow. There are loads of others, all gems. And did you know that the classic movie Night of the Demon (one of my all-time faves) came from an M.R.James' story, Casting the Runes? And that Kate Bush included lines from it in her song The Hounds of Love? It's in the trees! It's coming!
Now I love Kate Bush, I really do... but her videos? Sigh.
Anyhow...tonight it's the fire and a well-thumbed book of ghost stories, I feel. How about you?
And your favourite ghost stories?