“It was Christmas Eve,” Jerome K Jerome begins, before making clear he understands just how superfluous that information is: “The experienced reader knows it is Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.” That perhaps does not quite hold true in editor Tanya Kirk’s selections for the British Library’s most recent Tales of the Weird collection, Chill Tidings, but subtitled Dark Tales of the Christmas Season they are certainly all within the month of December.
Continuing the theme of her previous anthology Spirits of the Season, in her introduction Kirk considers the reasons for ghosts and Christmas to have become synonymous, the presumption that “souls in purgatory were most active the day before a holy day,” and that Christmas Eve is the longest such night in the calendar yet encourages staying up late with friends and family, an act which lends itself to storytelling.
First published in 1868, a brother and sister inherit an estate from a distant relative previously known to them only by ill reputation who vanished without trace; an effective distillation of the genre by Charlotte Riddell which opens the collection, the siblings find themselves in “a dreary, desolate old country mansion, filled with the most unaccountable sounds,” and on a moonlit Christmas Eve in the Red Bedroom find themselves witness to A Strange Christmas Game.
Following this, an artist buys second hand frames and paints them with whatever images they suggest to him over the existing canvas, but washing one particular item in preparation reveals a caricature, then beneath that another work, The Old Portrait, a mysterious woman, pale and bloodless, in Hume Nisbet’s short tale from 1896.
Electing to remain in Northumberland while his family winter in Cannes, Will Musgrave, a believer in the supernatural, invites his friends to visit; Armitage is a sceptic (“In this latter part of the nineteenth century, when gas and electric light have turned night into day, you have destroyed the very conditions that produced the ghost.”) while Lawley is open to evidence on either side, but at “the solemn rising of the moon in the depth of a winter night” it is Armitage who witnesses an apparition in The Real and the Fake, written by Louisa Baldwin in 1895.
A change of tone is brought by Frank R Stockton’s 1900 comedy as a young woman lodging with an elderly relative is visited by her late great grandfather, Old Applejoy’s Ghost, bearing the message that “It is wicked not to celebrate Christmas, especially when one is able to do so in the most hospitable and generous way,” and setting his descendants up for deserved happiness long denied.
With a twist obvious to modern readers, Algernon Blackwood’s Transition was likely surprising when first read in 1913, a Christmas Eve of family anticipation and reunion with friends, kindly, reassuring and sentimental rather than sinister, while from 1915 five friends take a holiday cottage to aid the recovery of one of their number from illness but find themselves subjected to an atypical haunting, A M Burrage consciously breaking The Fourth Wall as he metaphorically places his characters as unwitting performers on a cursed stage.
As might be expected of H P Lovecraft, the 1925 celebration of The Festival takes place in a crooked coastal township beset by a dark history and stormy seas beneath a celestial backdrop of deep time; descriptive rather than narrative, it is a procession to underground caverns of black waters, luminous fungus and mutated shapes which shuffle, crawl and fly, an invitation to madness from the hidden dwellers of a town which should not be.
The niggle of the Crown Derby Plate missing from a china dinner service purchased years before pushes an antique dealer to revisit the home from which it was purchased, Marjorie Bowen’s story from 1933 perhaps more compelling read alone but somewhat clumsy and wanting when presented alongside these companions.
Elizabeth Bowen’s Green Holly of 1944 is more complex in its setting, characters and narrative, but told from the perspective of a trio of researchers engaged in a secret but unspecified military project and the deceased who has visited one of their number, regrettably the ambition is not matched by the execution.
Is 1947’s Christmas Re-Union a ghost story? One of the characters suggests so, for lack of other explanations with which to support his proposed interpretation of events when evidence comes to light regarding the questionable inheritance of a disliked dinner guest; more to the point, as admitted by author Andrew Caldecott, it is an attempt simply to shoehorn in a plot mechanism proposed but never used by M R James of a cryptic message found in a Christmas cracker, and here it sits awkwardly.
An uncanny tale of linked destinies, swift and to the point, in 1952 Rosemary Timperley wrote of A Christmas Meeting between a young poet and a middle-aged women, both of them alone at Christmas, while in 1955 L P Hartley glimpsed Someone in the Lift, a horror story of a family away from home in a hotel whose joyous seasonal decoration cannot diminish an impending childhood trauma to rival Phoebe Cates’ monologue in Gremlins.
Fittingly placed, a resume of the styles and common threads and incidents of the English ghost story written with cynical wit, Chill Tidings is brought to a close by the anecdotes of Jerome K Jerome Told After Supper in his 1891 novella, culminating in the narrator’s own account of the aftermath of that evening of stories as he, as the guest, claimed his right to sleep in the allegedly haunted Blue Chamber despite the protestations of his hosts, examining as he does so the rules and expectations of spectral visitations.