Sunless Solstice – Lucy Evans and Tanya Kirk, Editors

The shortest day arriving as the year crawls towards its weary end before the long road back to the warmth of summer begins, the traditions of Christmas and all its associated celebrations a beacon of light and hope in those cold months for communities to gather to survive the Sunless Solstice, memories captured in the latest in the British Libraries Tales of the Weird, a dozen “Strange Christmas Tales for the Longest Nights” gathered by Lucy Evans and Tanya Kirk.

Arranged chronologically, The Ghost at the Cross-Roads as told by Frederick Manley in 1893 is subtitled An Irish Christmas Night Story, a version of a tale common across cultures and generations with the editors expending no futile effort to place it in the genealogy of such things as a man lost in a storm is guided to a crossroads by a stranger who asks him to play cards, the rapid losses he accrues obliging him to offer an alternative source of remuneration to clear the debt.

Despite efforts to lay it to rest, to dissuade the staff from discussing it, The Blue Room had a reputation regrettably enforced when circumstance required it to be occupied to accommodate numbers at a Christmas gathering; fifty years after the tragedy, a witness present that night attends as the room is occupied again, but Lettice Galbraith’s characters are canny and not easily dissuaded from their endeavour nor their subsequent investigation into the cause of the phenomena experienced.

A lone skater On the Northern Ice and his ethereal companion, as described by Elia Wilkinson Peattie, is evocative, beautiful and tragic yet uplifting in its acceptance of its fate and the cost of deliverance, while moving into the 20th century W J Wintle’s offering is insubstantial, the season connection tangential, though it has moments which will be familiar to anyone who has unexpectedly encountered The Black Cat in the darkness.

Written by E Temple Thurston in 1926, a tale told at a Christmas party recounting events of the same season the previous year of a sighting of a woman believed to be either a ghost or the doppelgänger of Ganthony’s Wife (deceased), the story has no conclusion but he chooses to make it a curiosity, a mystery which defies explanation to the onlooker.

A chance encounter on the icy streets of London, a compulsion to bring a stranger home to stay a few days with the normally reserved family, the entertaining wit of Mr Huffam upturns the household and charms both Lord and Lady Winsloe and those serving understairs in Hugh Walpole’s delightful tale of benevolent visitations.

With a lengthy preamble introducing superfluous characters attending the Christmas gathering of Colonel and Lady Garrison at which the famous medium Madame Esperanza performed a séance, thus invoking The Man Who Came Back, Margery Lawrence squanders the potential of her atmosphere with poor development and a rushed conclusion.

“The rope makes the fate of one the fate of all” is the warming from 1950 as two experienced mountaineers, one recently widowed and having lost his nerve, embark on an expedition through ice and snow, the leader feeling another presence tugging behind him, but The Third Shadow would be better left hanging mysteriously than with the background melodrama which H Russell Wakefield feels is necessary to justify events.

Among the longest of the stories presented, The Apple Tree blossomed to give bitter fruit in 1952, viewed by a widower from his bathroom window as he reflects unsympathetically on his late wife whom he regarded as a martyr and treated almost as a servant as he attended business meetings in London and behaved selfishly, the seasons of a man grieving coldly in a tale modern both in the post-war setting and the great Daphne du Maurier’s insightful and unflinching vivisection of the unrepentant man’s quest to erase the reminder of his unfortunate wife.

A shorter encounter is with The Leaf-Sweeper, a tragic commentary of the futility of Christmas indulgence and the fate of a man who tried to demonstrate its ongoing folly, incarcerated in an asylum and cursed, his broken spirit split in two in Muriel Spark’s odd but haunting tale.

Arabella Rokeby is The Visiting Star enticed from the London stage to the provinces where the past holds sway in a small mining town, an old-fashioned story of fog and fish and chips incongruously published in 1966, the triumph and tragedy of a Christmas Eve performance of As You Like It in Robert Aickman’s unusual story which avoids the standard conventions of the genre and leaves much unanswered.

Concluding the anthology, though it was first published in 1974 the childhood recollection of A Fall of Snow of James Turner is set in bygone 1922, aware of the artifice of Christmas as presented in the falsely cheery greetings cards of the season yet going on to craft one of the most joyful depictions in the collection, making the sudden collision with horror all the more shocking, a final gust of chill wind in the dark night of the Sunless Solstice.

Sunless Solstice is available now from the British Library



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