It’s the most wonderful time of the year for ghost story enthusiasts. We are spoiled! Both Halloween and Christmas offer the same spooky potential, not only for new tales to tingle the spine but the reemergence of the old. Rather apt of course, as a major supernatural trope is the past crashing in on the present.
Remember The Dead at Halloween and Christmas, an anthology of previously unreprinted stories, has been carefully collated. Some tales contained here are almost 200 years old, sourced from journals or newspapers. The research must have been painstaking, so thanks very much to editor J. A. Mains for doing all the hard work for us – including discovering a lost ghost story by Edith Nesbit. What a find and what a treat.
We open with an article from the Aberdeen Press and Journal in 1932, eloquently explaining why we mark Halloween. “It was only right that the dead folk should be allowed one night in the year on which to visit their old haunts,” it says, a most felicitous phrase to set us off on our journey of discovery.
The first half of the deliciously chunky tome is preoccupied with Halloween, particularly customs and lore; a fertile ground for the writers here. There’s charm in spades as we follow youthful hi-jinx in “The Sweetest Spell of All” by Ralli West and “The Graveyard” by Alphonse Courlander, my favourite in the entire anthology. The second half of the book begins with a lovely essay on the nature of ghosts at Christmas; “red wine flows freely and often ghosts appear more often. Reader, draw your own conclusions!” it blithely advises. We then journey through the festive season on a supernatural bent with a succession of writers.
There’s the requisite anonymous authors, the obligatory clergyman who has a touch of M. R. James (“I state simply what I heard; that, and no more”, says the narrator), a phantom coach and horses, morality warnings against greed, a dog walker’s time-slip, a rational Major recovering from a war wound at a haunted country house… tropes maybe, but what delicious ones they are.
On a fundamental level, the anthology does its job of being charming and terrifying at the same time. Raise it up a level, and J. A. Mains has rediscovered some hidden gems which, in the humble opinion of this ghost story fan, significantly contributes to the canon. To retain integrity, he has kept in original spellings (ingle neuk, for example) and what appear to us today as grammatical mistakes. I’m in no doubt that his was a painstaking yet loving task.
Some of the authors’ life stories – or, in one case, death – are as intriguing as their fiction. Hugh Miller (the author of “Macculloch’s Courtship”), died on Christmas Eve 1856 after “apparently awakened in the fit of a nightmare” and shot himself in the chest. And take David Lyndsay, actually Mary Diana Dobs, who also masqueraded as a male diplomat and spent time in a debtors’ prison. In his/her “The Three Damsels: A Tale of Halloween” (1827), the spirit of the season is captured perfectly. Happy granddaughters gather at the skirts of their countess grandmother on Halloween, ready for a tale of premonition and romance. “Speak on, then,” urges young Jean, “you have made us listeners already – and hark! wind, rain, and snow – a goodly night for a tale… the fire is bright, the lamp is clear, and we are seated gravely.” What a wonderfully painted scene; I could almost feel the warmth of the hearth as I read on.
And the heritage of the writers too is interesting. James Kirke Paulding was a close friend of Washington Irving, of Sleepy Hollow fame. They say like breeds like, and his story – “The Ghost”, printed in the Maryland Gazette in 1829 – is written with similar verve and wit, and a surprising twist. These autobiographical notes from the editor give useful context to the stories. Intriguingly, he’s been unable to discover details of some of the writers; quite fitting, in a way.
Over the 500-plus pages, we are entertained and spooked in equal measure, and challenged too. Some characters believe while others show scepticism: it is a story book and a meditation on the supernatural. A lament is voiced in “The Ghost Of Stanton Hall” (Anonymous, 1868): “The old family mansions in which this country is so rich – monuments of medieval darkness, and subjects of many a weird legend – are gradually disappearing.” It’s a sentiment I echo in my dismay at the loss of country estates during and after the war; encumbered country piles reduced to rubble by crippling bills and inheritance tax, squandering heirs and fortune-less widows. It’s that sad loss of history and lore and stories I feel so keenly, which perhaps explains why I enjoy tales of an antiquarian bent. The idea of taking up quarters in a comfortable coaching inn in some far-flung place, having been engaged to examine old parchments and records, a letter of introduction firmly in hand… visit a church or two… listen to the particulars of hauntings from the locals… ahh, what bliss – and an academic feast I’ll be unlikely to partake. Fortunately, I have these sorts of books to let me live it. Ghost stories are an institution that thankfully (and ironically) seems alive and well.
In the foreword, our editor urges us to “dive deep into and explore” the gulf of the unknown. For this reason, I too encourage you to take a dip. As we move into the darker depths of winter, shadows shift more eerily and floorboards creak with sinister intent. There’s no better season to visit – safely and at a distance, through the written word – the extraordinary, humorous and spine-chilling accounts included in Remember The Dead at Halloween and Christmas.
Remember The Dead at Halloween and Christmas edited by J.A. Mains is published by Black Shuck Books. Buy the book. Looking for more Christmas ghost stories? Read our review of Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings from the British Library.