This is the right time of year for ghost stories, a genre I've always enjoyed. Last year saw the publication of my first ghost story, "No Flowers", and I'm tempted to write another before long. I'm also very much looking forward to seeing a new M.R. James adaptation and documentary, to be screened on the BBC on Christmas.Day. Reviews will be forthcoming! Whilst in the mood for ghosts, I invited AK Benedict, who is not only a fan of the genre but an expert in it, to contribute a post to this blog. Alexandra is one of the most interesting and evocative new writers to have emerged in the last year or two, and her characteristically witty and thoughtful response delighted me. Here it is.
‘Tell me winter's tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night’
It is December 21st, the winter solstice, and I am gathering ghost stories like logs in a forest that will blaze in the telling and see me through the longest night.
Ghost stories don’t sit well with summer: shadows are skimpy, days are long and spectres are rarely seen licking a Mr Whippy but now, in deepest December, when the wind slaps leaves on windows like parking tickets and the sun packs up early and slopes off to the pub, they are perfect.
The dark brings fear and uncertainty – we don’t know what lurks in the shadow in the cupboard at the bottom of the stairs. Ghost stories let fear out of the cupboard and allow it to run around the house before locking it back in again, worn out for now. Much like the crime novel, the spooky story acknowledges and exorcises darkness, if only until the fire dies out.
I’ve loved reading ghost stories in winter since I was a child, from Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ to Lefcadio Hearn’s retelling of the Japanese supernatural tale ‘The Boy who Drew Cats’. The latter’s haunting advice: “at night, when in large spaces, keep to small” once had me sleeping on the floor of my wardrobe for all of Christmas week.
Reading stories of spirits at this time of year is a tradition that goes back to the winter’s tale spoken of by Marlowe and Prince Mamillius in Shakespeare’s own A Winter’s Tale who states that ‘a sad tale’s best for winter: I have one/ of sprites and goblins’. In 1820 Washington Irving wrote of ‘strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends’ told by the fireside on Christmas day; Dickens popularised the ghost story as a yuletide activity in The Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, ‘The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain and other stories and Henry James brilliant ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is presented as a ghost story told at Christmas by the narrator.
Montague Rhodes James, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, read his ghost stories to his friends in the Chitchat Society on Christmas Eve. His stories begin in casual, conversational style with dry humour and a clear sense of place; his protagonists are men (always men!) of reason, curiosity and scholarship who, like in LeFanu and Lovecraft, end up knowing less about the world than when they started. Rationality is powerless when up against ‘a horrible, intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ (‘O Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad’) or ‘pale, dusty skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs longer than ever grew on a human hand’ (‘Canon Alberic’s scrapbook’). M R James was the reason I applied to King’s College and it was only when I got in, and sat in the dining hall beneath the stern gaze of his portrait, that I found out that he had obstructed degrees for women. Sometimes, what you most fear comes to pass, and no ghost story will stop them.
I will be inside on Christmas Eve, wine mulling, chestnuts burning, candles shivering, and reading from my pile of M R James, Sheridan La Fanu, E F Benson, Ambrose Pierce, E Nesbit, May Sinclair, Charles Dickens and Henry James. I will probably eat my body weight in mince pies at the same time, knowing that the sun will come back from the bar soon with a packet of nuts and a tale to tell. Meanwhile, sitting in a shadow-licked room, reading ghosts stories out loud, is a way of knowing that I’m not dead. Yet."