Friday, December 20, 2019

A Ghost Story for Christmas

Photo by myself.
Christmas is rapidly approaching and the nights are drawing in. Combined with the winter weather, often rain and occasionally snow, it's a very gloomy time of year indeed. We brighten our homes with a multitude decorations, Christmas trees go up and towns are festooned with glittering lights of every colour. The tradition of Christmas decorations is used not only to celebrate but to drive back the darkness. But celebrating Christmas by drawing light and warmth into our homes hasn't always been our only festive tradition, another used to be the telling of ghost stories. It's possible that this particular tradition started way back before Christmas as we know it, back when people were predominantly Pagan and this time of the year was a time when spirits could draw closer. A time of year when both light and dark, death and rebirth were honoured. Huddling by the fire with their families, telling stories to scare each other was the perfect way to while away the dark nights. While this tradition carried on through the decades, it is the Victorians that created the Christmas Ghost Stories that we are most familiar with and wrote so many great stories that it has been hard to choose only five. Sadly, at some point this tradition went out of fashion and the Christmas Ghost Story became almost as decrepit and abandoned as the houses they were often based in. It's thanks to various incarnations of Charles Dickens Christmas Carol (which will not be on this list.), television programs such as A Ghost Story for Christmas, as well as the love of a good ghost story that this tradition didn't die out completely. More recently there have been various calls for this tradition to make a come back and I don't believe it will be long before it does. Not everyone wants a saccharine sweet Christmas, after all. Some of us like a bit of sour with our sweet.
So, grab a hot drink, a warm blanket and turn those lights down low as I present to you my top five ghost stories for Christmas.

The Shadow, by E. Nesbit
Out of all the stories on this list, The Shadow feels almost like a true story. Although just a work of fiction, it reads like something you'd find on a paranormal forum or hear on a true ghost stories Youtube video. And while it might surprise you to know that E. Nesbit is best known for The Railway Children, this short story is drastically different. If read late at night you may well find yourself jumping at every shadow on your way to bed. First published in 1905, under the name of The Portent of the Shadow, the style in which it is written only adds a sence of realism to the story.
Our narrator is at a house party with her friends. Things are winding down and those who are staying the night are starting to find rooms for themselves. Well, almost everybody, as we are informed that a few of the boys have bedded down on the dinning room table for the night. The narrator and a few of her friends have set themselves up in a room connected to another, in which a girl who fainted at the party is now sleeping and is being kept watch over by our little group. Not yet ready for sleep, the girls have chosen to start telling ghost stories. Although they all claim to not believe in ghosts, they have successfully spooked themselves. Soon they are interrupted by the housekeeper, who has come to check on they girl who fainted. Bribed with the promise of a warm fire, good company and hot chocolate, the house keeper tells the girls a ghost story of her own. The tale is that of something the housekeeper experienced herself. But to both her and her listeners horror, they discover the story has yet to reach its horrific and tragic end.

A Warning to the Curious, by M. R. James

This was a difficult one to choose, as I was torn between this story and Lost Hearts. When it comes to choosing any of James' tales for a top five list, it's not an easy task as they are all wonderful. This one is based in the fictional seaside town of Seaburgh, which itself is based on the real life town of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. First published in 1925, this a beautifully dark and bleak ghost story. M. R. James' well rounded, descriptive writing builds up the unsettling atmosphere and the growing sense of danger, as our narrator realises just how much peril his new friend is in.
Taking place during what is meant to be a relaxing holiday, our narrator and his companion make the acquaintance of a man by the name of Paxton, who is staying at the same hotel as they are. Their new companion is a gloomy and nervous fellow, one who has a terrifying secret. You see, he is an amateur treasure hunter and he has managed to find a hidden anglo-saxon crown. This treasure is one of three such crowns hidden along the English coast and the only one not yet lost. A wonderful treasure indeed, for it has been long sought-after. But it's discovery comes with a terrible price, as it's protected by a shadowy, supernatural keeper. The ominous presence of this ever following sentinel is turning poor Paxton into a nervous wreak and, if his new friends at first doubt his claims, they soon come to see that he speaks the truth.

The Signalman, by Charles Dickens

I know I said the A Christmas Carol wouldn't be on this list, but I couldn't ignore Dicken's completely. Not when he's responsible for this chilling gem of a tale. On the 9th of June, 1865, Charles Dickens was involved in a terrible train accident. The train partially derailed and most of the carriages fell from the viaduct they were traveling across and into the river below, with their passengers trapped inside. Dickens carriage was one of the only ones not to fall and he stayed at the scene, helping his fellow passengers, both alive and otherwise. While he survived, the sights he saw there left him scarred by the event. It's believed that this tragedy influenced the creation of The Signalman. This story revolves lonely signalman at a remote signal box, who is befriended by the narrator when he comes upon the location completely by chance and spots the Signalman as he goes about his duties. The Narrator enjoys the company of his slightly gloomy new friend, visiting him often, but notes he seems haunted by something and tries to get the man to open up to about his worries. And open up he does, eventually revealing that he is haunted by a sinister spirit, one who's appearance heralds disaster but gives no clues as to what it might be. Worse yet, he has seen the spirit again, several times that very week. The narrator believes his companion is suffering from hallucinations, but his comforting presence doesn't stop the supernatural happenings, which continue even though he cannot see them himself. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, claustrophobic even, growing more and more tense as the story leads to it's inevitable and horrifying end.

The Old Nurse's Story, by Elizabeth Gaskell.

The Old Nurses Story brings to mind the image of an old Victorian parlor, lit only by a roaring fire, with the old nurse surrounded by a new generation of charges, all eager for just one more story before they go to bed. Both cosy and chilling, it's a shame there have been (to my knowledge) no TV adaptations of this tale, as it would make an amazing TV show. Imagine The Haunting of Hill House, but more claustrophobic and urgent. Charles Dickens very much admired this tale, even offering constructive advice on how Gaskell should write the ending. While she paid attention to some of that advice, she didn't end the story entirely the way Dickens suggested, resulting in this beautiful short story.
Following a young child Rosamond and our Narrator, her nurse Hesther, the story begins when the young mistress is orphaned and the two girls are sent to live with the Aunt of a Cousin at a large and crumbling old house in Northumberland. This sinister abode comes with a tragic secret that seems determined not to remain buried, and our narrator soon realises that getting to the bottom of that secret is a matter of life and death, as history is seeking to repeat itself. With the situation growing more tense by the page and time running out, this story will leave you wondering how it will end.

The Captain of the Pole-Star, by Arthur Conan Doyle

While he is most famous for his stories about Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle is also known for his tales of horror and the supernatural. Many excellent ghost stories came from the mind of this author and out of all of those tales, this one is probably helped along by Doyles own adventures. If the descriptions of the Arctic in this story seem particularly realistic and haunting to you, that would be because Arthur Conan Doyle, who studied medicine from 1876 to 1881, served as a surgeon on a whaling boat by the name of Hope during 1880. Who better to write about the Arctic than a man who, by all accounts, fell into the sea there more than once and nearly froze to death. Thankfully he did not, and we have this wonderful ghost story. First published in 1890, this is the tale of a young doctor working aboard a whaling ship. For a short story the atmosphere builds slowly. Certainly the ships captain seems a bit eccentric at first, but when the ship gets frozen in the ice he only seems to grow more unpredictable. Soon the rest of the crew are claiming to both hear and see a pale specter stalking them on the ice and at sea. But are they really seeing a spirit or is the isolation and bleakness of the environment just driving everyone insane? Will they be trapped in the ice forever with no escape? And if there is a spirit haunting the ship then what, or who, does it want?

I hope you enjoy these stories, they're all guaranteed to send a chill down your spine. Read them before? Know any good Christmas ghost stories you want to share? Let me know in the comments sections below or tag me in a Twitter post!



  1. The Signalman is the only one of these I've read, but this is the best Christmas reading list I've seen. I will be looking for the other stories listed. Thank you.

  2. This is very interesting. Who doesn't love ghost stories? I personally love to read, or watch them. Thanks for your suggestions. I am very intrigued and will try to find them.