24 December 2018

The Christmas Spirit

by Steve Liskow    



"Brown Eyes Crying in the Rain," my take on the Ghostly Hitchhiker legends, appears in the upcoming issue of Occult Detective Quarterly. It didn't occur to me until a few days ago how appropriate that is. Tomorrow is, of course, Christmas Day.


The British have told ghost stories as part of the holiday celebration for centuries, apparently because the winter solstice is only a few days earlier and the Christians co-opted December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and overshadow the Pagan Saturnalia. Ghosts presumably walk more freely on the longest night of the year, which celebrates the death and re-birth of the sun.

Oliver Cromwell, never the life of the party, didn't want Christmas celebrated as a holiday. He wanted the workers to labor for another long and underpaid shift. During his tenure as ruler of the Commonwealth, he even banned Christmas carols. Barrel of laughs, that Ollie.

But the ghost story is still alive and well (Is that an oxymoron?), and it may have reached its peak of popularity in the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens published short novels for the season, many of them ghostly tales. His most famous is A Christmas Carol. Does anyone even know how many films and theatrical adaptations of that one work exist? My wife and I attended a stage version at the Hartford Stage Company this year, where it has been an annual event for twenty years. It still sells out the thirty performances.

Other British writers have offered ghost stories, too. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1611), Prince Mamillius says, "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/ Of sprites and goblins." We never hear the tale because Mamillius dies before intermission. Mary Shelly Wrote Frankenstein when Byron challenged her and others to write a ghost story, and she dated the beginning of the book in mid-December. Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell revived the faltering tradition along with Dickens. Algernon Blackwood, Conan Doyle and M. R. James carried it on.

I don't remember Poe setting any of his stories at Christmas (I can't find my copy of "The Devil in the Belfry" on my shelf. Is that set at yuletide?), but Henry James sets the telling of The Turn of the Screw around the fire during a Christmas celebration.

Remember the popular (Well, in my day...) Andy Williams song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?" The third verse ends with "...There'll be scary ghost stories/ And tales of the glories..."

I seldom set stories around a holiday, the only exception being "Santa and the Shortstop," which appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine a few years ago.

But who knows? A little more eggnog and maybe I'll be in the spirit to write another ghost story for next year...

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fright.

5 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Just looked through Poe's "The Devil in the Belfry" on Gutenberg Project. No mention of Christmas.

Steve Liskow said...

Yeah, I didn't think so. Thanks anyway.
Isn't it especially terrifying when Edgar Allan Poe attempts to be funny?

Robert Lopresti said...

Congrats on the publication. I had never heard of the magazine; must look into it.

I did NOT remember that Turn of the Screw was set at Christmas.

Have you read Jerome K. Jerome's TOLD AFTER SUPPER? https://raincoaster.com/2016/11/28/christmas-ghost-stories-told-after-supper-by-jerome-k-jerome/ It is a short Citorian book that mocks half a dozen styles of the genre. One of my favorite paragraphs tells of a man who went to Australia to seek his fortune:

"But Australia was not then what it became later on. Travellers through the bush were few and far between in those early days; and,even when one was caught, the portable property found upon the body was often of hardly sufficiently negotiable value to pay the simple funeral expenses rendered necessary."

In my book of short stories, SHANKS ON CRIME, you will find "Shanks' Ghost Story," in which a group of authors, spending a week together in late December in the countryside, swap spooky tales. My cyncial hero tells a story about a GHOST writer, or is it?

Eve Fisher said...

Love the post - would have posted earlier, but we went to dinner and a movie, "Welcome to Marwen", which is very good and very appropriate to the theme (except it's not set at Christmas). Check it out!
BTW, Dickens wrote a lot of other ghost stories, set on the holidays. All worth reading.

Steve Liskow said...

Rob, the magazine is going through serious growing pains. I had a story in it last year, and they were great to work with and the graphics were terrific. Now they have changed publishers and a lot of things may be dropping through the cracks. The last issue of this quarterly appeared in May. There are other problems that I hope they resolve because it really is an attractive package.

Eve, I have a collection of Dickens's Christmas novellas, and keep telling myself I'm going to re-read some of the lesser-known ones, like The Haunted Man and The Chimes.