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.
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.