In Praise of the Christmas Ghost story

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is ghost stories. A Christmas Carol comes to mind first, of course. It has its own delights, to be sure — especially in reading, as opposed to the many dramatic renditions which have rendered it more toothless and hackneyed than it deserves. The story still has some spook and humor left in it, thanks to Dickens' steady lyrical hand. Look how he described just how despicable Scrooge is:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Dickens, of course, was drawing on an older tradition of ghost stories for Christmas. It is quaintly Victorian, when spinning scary yarns in the parlor was a way to pass the time. This seems strange, in this age when storytelling in the popular mediums is left to the professionals, but at one time having your group of friends all spin a tale would have been as common as having them accompany you to see a movie.

These stories usually have little to do with Christian morals, and often had little to do even with the spirit of the season. They use the holidays as a circumstance in which to have people gather, and more than this, gather indoors. Rarely is there a true lesson to be imparted, although I certainly wouldn't begrudge you one if one appeared.

About a year ago, Colin Fleming covered the genre for the Paris Review.

The first key to a Christmas ghost story is a convivial atmosphere. People in these stories are well fed, they’re often hanging out in groups, you feel like you’re hanging out with them, and you do not wish to leave any more than they do. It is cold outside but warm in here, and it’s time to rediscover that sense of play that so many of us adults lose over the years, and which, when we are fortunate, we remember to rediscover at Christmas.

He listed five of his favorites, all readable online, and worth some time exploring. You may, or may not, find true fright, but sometimes luxuriating in laborious meandering prose of old-timey writing is balm to the modernist.

Of all the Christmas ghost stories, my personal favorite is Frederick Forsyth's "The Shepherd." A gripping mid-century airplane yarn made famous in Canada by the radio show As it Happens which broadcasts it every Christmas Eve (and which is where I first heard it). You can hear it here, and that reading is truly a classic telling of a remarkable story. We listen each Christmas, while driving to see family, a tradition I hold somewhat sacred in my little family. How strange it is to read or hear a story told again and again. Like a favorite song, parts stand out, and just when you think you're tired of it, you find it anew.

Ahead of me, as I waited for the voice of the controller to come through the headphones, was the runway itself, a slick black ribbon of tarmac, flanked by twin rows of bright-burning lights, illuminating the solid path cut earlier by the snowplows. Behind the lights were the humped banks of the morning's snow, frozen hard once again where the snowplow blades had pushed them. Far away to my right, the airfield tower stood up like a single glowing candle amid the brilliant hangars where the muffled aircraftmen were even now closing down the station for the night.

Perhaps there is no better way to honor the tradition of Christmas ghost stories than to write one yourself. The rules are as you want them to be — Victorian parlor games, or RAF pilots trying like the dickens to make it home in time for Christmas morning. Just remember the set pieces that all ghost stories need: a dead person, and an alive person who encounters them in an eerie setting. Whether the ghost is benevolent or not is up to the writer. Whether the outcome is good or not is as well, although, usually, at least one character needs to be left standing to tell the tale.

If tomorrow, during the quiet in the day (and we hope you have some), you find yourself thinking about Christmas ghost stories, we invite you to come back and pay our site a visit. We're not saying we'll have anything for you, but this season does offer strange hope; even when it brushes up against unsettling horror.