After a mild Christmas it has turned cold, the snows have arrived, the streets are icy and the winds bitter: all reminding me that it is winter. And reminding me that the chill of a dark windy night and the chill of a fright will make you draw closer to a fire on a cold winter’s eve.
Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth wud tell me winter’s tales,
And speake of spirits and ghosts that glide by nightBarabas – Act IIThe Jew of Malta – 1589Christopher Marlowe
The tradition of a winter’s tale is older than Marlowe’s Barabas: it’s known that bards, elders, seanchaithe and, as the Jew of Malta tells us, old women spoke of spirits and ghosts gliding in the night since the first marking of the winter solstice. Continuing the custom writers from Victorian times to our own have delighted in chilling and thrilling us with ghosts stories to be told in the dark hours of Christmastide.
|Based on a watercolour by John Masey Wright this engraving from 1814 records an unusual Christmas Frolic. A young lad has set the company at a Christmastide dinner affright with his mannequin ghost. Perhaps someone was tell a tale of spirits and ghosts gliding in the night when the apparition appeared?|
Charles Dickens is perhaps the most well-known or oft-read of those who wrote Christmas Ghost stories though he was far from being the only author of the era to pen winter’s tales. Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Nesbitt, Elizabeth Gaskell, Rudyard Kipling and H. G. Wells all wrote ghost stories that were put in the shadows, as it were, by their more famous works. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ most famous ghost story begins with the telling of tales around the fire on Christmas Eve.
In the first half of the twentieth century the acknowledged masters of the genre were E. F. Benson and M. R. James. Benson is best known today for his marvelous Mapp and Lucia books but at the time was high regarded for his atmospheric, oblique, and at times humorous or satirical ghost stories.
James was an academic and served terms as Provost at both King’s College and Eton and was a renowned medieval scholar – a knowledge that he used in his stories. Many of his stories were told in his rooms at King’s and Eton as gatherings around his fireside were popular with students and colleagues alike particularly at Christmastide. He has been recognized as the premiere writer of ghost stories of the time and as possibly the “the best ghost-story writer England has ever produced”. Mystery writer Ruth Randall was an ardent admirer and confessed, “There are some authors one wished one had never read in order to have the joy of reading them for the first time. For me, M. R. James is one of these.”
I can only voice a poor second to Randall’s observation, having only discovered James last year and that by way of one of the films in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series. Of the twelve films in this sadly irregular series nine have been based on stories by James. After last year’s atmospheric and chilling (I looked at it again this week and actually jumped at one point) The Stalls of Barchester which was the first (1971) in the series this year’s tale for a winter night is the most recent (2013) another James story: The Tractate Middoth.
All of James’s stories may be found at Project Gutenburg – they are a great read at Christmas or any other time of the year for that matter. Gutenburg also has links to audio recordings of most of the tales: they are after all meant to be read aloud by the fireside with a candle illuminating the reader and lengthening the shadows in the room as a cold wind whistles through the barren trees.
January 4 – 1958: Sputnik 1 falls to Earth from orbit.