Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, a day that is celebrated for its spiritual significance around the world. For me, though, when the nights are longest, there is nothing better than a good old fashioned ghost story. Christmas ghost stories have been a tradition for a very long time, but with so much great TV on at Christmas, is there still a place for a spooky tale late at night? I think so, even if most of us don’t have a fireplace to sit around and Christmas snow is rare – so pull up an armchair, curl up in your onesie, and read a tale by the glow of the fairy lights…
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Find it in: A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens (BOOK ZONE 823.8)
By far the most famous Christmas story, A Christmas Carol tells the tale of a miser called Ebenezer Scrooge who is haunted by three ghosts who show him the error of his ways. We have seen so many different versions of this tale (I personally recommend A Muppet Christmas Carol) that it can be easy to forget how very spooky it is. Dickens was excellent at building atmosphere, and his characters stick with us because they are eccentric and brilliant, as recognisable as characters in a pantomime. Check out our review of the story and the Muppet film here! Thanks to the New York Public Library Podcast, you can listen to author Neil Gaiman read A Christmas Carol from Dickens’ original prompt script for free here.
‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ by M. R. James
Find it in: The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories, edited by Peter Haining (EXPRESS FICTION 823.91)
The late, great Christopher Lee (who died earlier this year) was the perfect Montague Rhodes James for me, and it was through his dramatized readings of four of M.R. James’ stories that I first fell in love with these chilling tales. While few of James’ stories are themed around the holidays, they are traditionally told at Christmas because James wrote them for his students while working at Cambridge and invited them to come and have a drink in his study on Christmas Eve as he read his latest work. ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad’ is one of James’ most famous tales, set in East Anglia. It tells the story of an academic who discovers a whistle with an inscription and blows it, only to find that he is pursued by a ghostly figure. Anyone who loves horror or a spooky story should read this, as very few people can weave a terrifying atmosphere like James. This isn’t quite my favourite James tale (I would highly recommend reading ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘Lost Hearts’) but it is absolutely brilliant.
‘The Listeners’ by Walter de la Mare
Find it in: The Vintage Book of Ghosts, edited by Jenny Uglow (BOOK ZONE 808.80375)
In a different take on the ghost story, this is a haunting poem about an unnamed traveller who comes to a house in a forest with a mysterious purpose. Like all the best horror writers, De La Mare doesn’t bother to explain what’s really going on, why the traveller came to the house or who ‘The Listeners’ are, leaving it all to the reader’s imagination. I’ve read this poem so many times I know bits of it off by heart. Creepy and beautifully-written, this is a great example of how poetry can tell a story in a fraction of the words short fiction uses. It doesn’t take long to read, but it might stay with you for a lifetime.
Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier
Find it in: Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier (BOOK ZONE 823.91)
Don’t Look Now is perhaps more famous for the film adaptation from 1973, but this unnerving story is just as good in the original short story. A couple lose their young daughter in a tragic accident and holiday in Venice to try and repair their marriage, but they keep seeing a girl who looks like their daughter in the distance. Du Maurier is a master at building up an oppressive atmosphere, with the crumbling buildings and grim canals of Venice providing a backdrop for this weird tale. It isn’t really a ghost story in the technical sense, but it shows that people are often haunted by far more than spirits.
‘The Cathedral Crypt’ by John Wyndham
Find it in: The Young Oxford Book of Nasty Endings, edited by Dennis Pepper (QUICK READS 823.91)
This anthology was one of my favourite books growing up, and while there are many brilliant stories in it, ‘The Cathedral Crypt’ was the one that stuck with me. John Wyndham is better known for his science fiction novels such as The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, but here he puts his considerable storytelling skill to show how close the past can be…and how dangerous its horrors are when ghosts walk. A couple visit a cathedral in Spain and find that its bloody history is far from over. In the same anthology, try ‘Call First’ by Ramsey Campbell, which starts in a public library, and ‘Such a Sweet Little Girl’ by Lance Salway.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
The Woman in Black can be found in the BOOK ZONE and NORFOLK HOUSE at 823.91.
We’ve talked about The Woman in Black before, but no list of ghost stories would be complete without it. Hill has talked about how much she admires the ghost stories of M.R. James and Henry James, and she created a novella that combines the English ghost story tradition with the Gothic genre, when people thought those genres were well and truly over. Hill has written a number of very good ghost stories (my favourite is The Man in the Picture), but The Woman in Black is utterly brilliant and well worth a read. A young solicitor travels to Eel Marsh House to deal with the will of a woman who died there alone, and finds that it’s possible she never left. Check out the film adaptation with Daniel Radcliffe (DVD LOBBY 823.91) and the famous play adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt (BOOK ZONE 822.91).
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ by Edgar Allan Poe
Find it in: The Complete Stories by Edgar Allan Poe (BOOK ZONE 823.91)
Again, not technically a ghost story, but this is one of my favourite of Edgar Allan Poe’s weird tales. A young man visits his friend Roderick Usher’s ancestral home and learns that the house, and Roderick’s sanity, are rapidly deteriorating as his sister dies of a wasting disease. ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is short and brilliant, one of Poe’s best, and there is something beautiful as well as horrible about the slow destruction of all who come close to this degenerate family. This, as well as several others on this list, was clearly a big inspiration for Guillermo Del Toro’s recent Gothic film Crimson Peak, another story about a house haunted as much by the cruelty of the people within it as by the ghosts of the dead. Check out the (very different, but still amusing) film adaptation with Vincent Price of the same name (DVD LOBBY 791.43).
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Turn of the Screw can be found in the BOOK ZONE and NORFOLK HOUSE at 823.91.
This, like The Woman in Black, is more of a novella than a short story, but I couldn’t leave it off the list. This was one of the most famous examples of the unreliable narrator, who may be seeing ghosts or may be imagining them due to a delusional mental state. James embeds the reader in the point of view of a governess who travels to a mansion in the countryside to look after two young children and quickly comes to believe they are being haunted and influenced by two cruel ghosts. We see so completely from her point of view that we can never be sure what is real and what is not – are the children lying because the ghosts have told them to, or is she imagining the whole thing? James brings subtle creepiness into everyday goings-on rather than having some of the more obvious ghostly tropes, and it somehow makes the whole thing even scarier.
You will find plenty more spooky tales in the anthologies above, so we highly recommend snuggling up with some hot chocolate, opening a book and enjoying the spooky thrill of a Christmas ghost story. Happy holidays!