H.E. Bulstrode

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The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton.

In this charmingly whimsical tale, published as part of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers in its December 1836 instalment, we encounter what would appear to be the creative starting point for A Christmas Carol, which would not be published until some seven years later. Like the novel from which it is taken, it is a light-hearted piece, and recounts the story of a certain Gabriel Grub. In a number of respects Grub is a proto-Scrooge: a veritable misanthrope; a solitary individual with an aversion to children who has come to finish digging a grave at Christmastide. His grimly sardonic attitude is summed up in the rhyme that he recites to himself whilst he looks down upon the grave that is the fruit of his night’s labours:

Brave lodgings for one, brave lodgings for one,

A few feet of cold earth, when life is done;

A stone at the head, a stone at the feet,

A rich, juicy meal for the worms to eat;

Rank grass overhead, and damp clay around,

Brave lodgings for one, these, in holy ground!

His satisfaction is, however, to prove short-lived. Perhaps somewhat the worse for wear for having imbibed an immodest quantity of ‘Hollands’, which may have been gulped down as much to keep out the cold as to lift his own miserable spirits, he finds himself at the mercy of a malign troupe of goblins. They appear to be impervious to the cold and discomfort of a nipping frost and the snow, gambolling and capering about the churchyard with merry abandon. It is here amidst the tombstones, and the dead, that Grub is subjected to his transformative supernatural ordeal, emerging on Christmas morning a changed and a better man. The story’s characterisation, festive setting, and redemptive structure, thus clearly prefigure Dickens’s later and more famous tale, and must have been uppermost in the author’s mind when he wrote what would arguably become his best remembered, and most-loved, work.   

Tomorrow we’ll consider another supernatural tale, but if you’re looking for a new collection of ghost stories for Christmas written in the classic vein, then you might enjoy this.

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