The Ghosts of Christmas Present

The Twelve Apostles on Ilkley Moor

As we enter another festive season here in the UK, typically characterised by darkness, rain, drizzle and a general sogginess that extends beyond the obligatory serving of overcooked sprouts, our thoughts often turn to visions of a land mantled in crisp snow held in the grip of a harsh frost. Sprouts, for some reason, seldom feature in this wintry idyll, possibly because Dickens thought it too cruel to inflict the windy pleasures of this diminutive brassica upon even so poor a family as the Cratchets. It is therefore to fiction that we habitually turn to seek the ‘true’ atmosphere of Christmas that the British climate so obdurately denies us. More often than not, the sought-after shivers are thus supplied not by the weather, but by means of the ghost story which, unlike in America, is more closely associated with yuletide than with Halloween. It would seem to be Dickens himself who is to a considerable extent responsible for this association, for A Christmas Carol is by far the most well-known and popular Christmas story if we discount the Nativity itself, and perhaps manages to encapsulate the essence of the Christian message more effectively than the four Gospels combined.  

The BBC has over the years helped to popularise the association of the ghost story with Christmas, adapting a number of the masterful works of M.R. James for the small screen, as well as Dickens’s The Signalman which remains one of my favourite adaptations to this day. As for the James stories, the two screen versions that I find most satisfying would probably be A Warning to the Curious and The Stalls of Barchester. When I first saw these, at rather a tender age, they made quite an impression on me, and have remained lodged in the darkened recesses of my imagination ever since. There they lurked for the span of four decades, quietly fermenting and bubbling away, providing part of that creative mulch that would prompt me to try my hand at penning a few ghost stories of my own which, so it happened, have often clustered around this darkest time of the year.

Lionel Smallwood, the snobbish and dismissive theatre critic who encounters his nemesis in the Minster of Grimstone Peverell, would not have been out of place amongst the members of the Critics’ Circle who meet their cruel and bloody fates at the hands of a vengeful Edward Lionheart, played by Vincent Price in his magnificently over-the-top comedy horror Theatre of Blood released in 1973. That said, it is not some aggrieved actor who proves to be Smallwood’s nemesis, but a mysterious guide named Agnes, who seems to be something of a fixture whenever the Christmas market returns to her small Dorset town, and the scent of mulled wine wafts about the market square.

A pair of Gothic tales, that in part seek to channel the spirit of Wilkie Collins, also possess key scenes that unfold over the Christmas period. The first of these linked stories – At Fall of Night – happens to open at the close of 1843, the same year in which A Christmas Carol was published, but unlike Dickens’s tale fails to provide any message of hopeful redemption. It will have the ladies gasping for breath, unfastening their corsets, and reaching for the smelling salts. Its follow-up – Epona – possesses a climactic scene involving the wild riot of the chase in a Boxing Day hunt, at which the eponymous spirit makes a dramatic appearance in a moment of vengeful triumph.

The next brace of related stories – Old Crotchet and its sequel Old Crotchet’s Return – possesses as its supernatural setting a venerable and yet modest country pile in the county of Somerset during the 1920s. The focus of the events that unfold is the now largely forgotten highpoint of the Christmas season: Twelfth Night, or more specifically Old Twelfth Night. Although the tone here encountered is much lighter than that found in some of my other pieces, there are chills to be had courtesy of a couple of spirits, both residents of Hinton St Cuthbert Manor these last few centuries past. At least two female guests have found a certain bedchamber more rewarding than they could possibly have expected, whereas the other spirit, who views the house very much as her own, takes a distinct dislike to any young lady who might cross the threshold of her domain.

I shall now close by wishing you the most merry of Christmases, and a happy New Year. If you should be in the mood to read a tale or two from amongst those mentioned above, I hope that they should afford you a few shivers, as well as a few laughs along the way in many cases.

Cheers!

H.E. Bulstrode

Agnes of Grimstone Peverell and Old Crotchet are included in the collection Anthology: Wry Out West, available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.  

At Fall of Night and Epona are included in the collection Uncanny Tales from the English Shires, available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.  

Old Crotchet’s Return is available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.

Review of The Lost Village by Neil Spring

In this book, Neil Spring succeeds in creating moments of genuine horror that will make the reader flinch, but there were occasions, I’m afraid, when I flinched in horror for very different reasons altogether. It is a book that purports to have at its heart a supernatural mystery, specifically the haunting of the abandoned village of Imber, so I must make it clear that I have no problem with suspending disbelief in such phenomena for a story of this nature, but there were elements of this novel that simply stretched credulity beyond breaking point. From his description of Imber, for example, gripped by frost and covered in snow, you would think that he had set this tale in the middle of a harsh English winter, but the action unfolds at the end of October. Such weather at this time of year is atypical even for the lofty heights of the Cairngorm Mountains, let alone for Salisbury Plain. He even refers to it being ‘winter’ at one point, even though it is spelt out that the action is taking place around Halloween. Earlier in the story he describes the art deco fixtures of a cinema as being ‘old’, even though the character making this observation is reflecting on their ‘oldness’ in 1932, when Art Deco was the style of the moment.  

With respect to this self-same cinema, he makes mention of his characters hearing the wind whistling around outside whilst they are stood in its auditorium. Can anyone hear the wind when standing in the auditorium unless it should be issuing from the cinema’s speakers? No. To think that this could be the case is ‘a big ask’ on the part of the author, who places this anachronistic ‘big ask’ phrase into the mouth of his twenty-something heroine in the autumn of 1932. I can recall the jarring effect of hearing someone speak this phrase for the first time a few years ago, and concluded that it must have been a recent Transatlantic borrowing smuggled into English to displace the more restrained native ‘it’s a bit much’. Other Americanisms cropped up in the prose of this Welsh writer, slipped into the speech of his 1930s English characters, presumably to appeal to a contemporary American readership. The result left his prose bobbing about in the turbulent and choppy waters of the mid-Atlantic, but appearing far more artificial than the once well-known drawl of Masterchef and Through the Keyhole presenter Lloyd Grossman.  

I found that I warmed neither to his protagonist – Sarah Grey, anachronistically placing career before family – and her erstwhile employer/foil, the ghost hunter Harry Price, who came across as some sort of American gumshoe detective. On the plus side, the story did deliver an interesting twist at the end, but the central premise of the book simply didn’t ring true to me, as the author seemed to be projecting contemporary social norms regarding inheritance law into the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The gentry could, and would, pass on the bulk of their estate to their eldest son, even if he did have older sisters; the existence of such sisters would not hinder this practice, and thus the central motivation for the frankly deranged and utterly unbelievable actions of the novel’s antagonist are removed at a stroke.  

Having said all of this, I might be seeming a little harsh, but my remarks and quibbles are intended to highlight how this could have been a better book. Many readers will find it to their taste and like it just as it is, but for me, it could have benefited from the attentions of a more competent copy editor, and a sharper and more-focused plot. It read more like a storyboard for a Hollywood movie than a novel, and I can imagine it making for a diverting enough 90 minutes or so on ‘film’. Don’t be surprised if reading this book summons up the unnerving spectres of Scooby and Shaggy: ‘If it weren’t for those pesky kids!’

The Ghost Hunter by Neil Spring may be purchased here.