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Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings book review

Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings is a marvellous collection of Christmas ghost stories by 19th century and early 20th century writers, some of whom you will expect to see in a collection such as this (M.R. James, for example) but some you might be nescient of. Whilst I am publishing this review after Christmas, these are stories I would urge you to read whatever the time of year (but are especially haunting in these dark, winter months).

This is the first book I have covered in the Tales of the Weird collection, which publishes stories across horror, gothic, and weird fiction, reviving “long-lost material from the Library’s vaults”. Much should be said about how fantastic this collection is and there are a number of other books I shall be writing about in the coming months.

People forget that, traditionally, Christmas was the time of year for telling ghost stories. As the book’s editor Tanya Kirk, a Lead Curator at the British Library, mentions in her introduction, the association between Christmas and ghosts probably dates back to “early Christian beliefs that the anniversary of the birth of Christ had a calming effect on the souls who were stuck in purgatory, and that therefore the day before, on Christmas Eve, they were at their most active.” Ghost stories really became popular in the 19th century, moving from an oral tradition to the printed word first in 1820 when American author Washinton Irving “published a tale that referred to people gathering to tell ghost stories at Christmas.”

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Most of the stories in Spirits of the Season first appeared in periodicals around Christmas and offer a range in style and tone. Some are more traditional ghost stories, offering uncanny apparitions and visits beyond the grave, whilst others provide a quite different kind of horror. I’ll give you a quick overview of each story in this collection – I’m sure some of them will be quite new to you.

The Four-Fifteen Express (1867) by Amelia B. Edwards – Edwards, according to her introduction in the book, is most remembered for her contributions to archaeology, not writing; as a polymath, she contributed to many fields. The Four-Fifteen Express is, in many ways, a rather mundane ghost story despite it turning up frequently in anthologies, but as the oldest story in this collection, I think it serves to show us how the ghost story has evolved over time.

The Curse of the Catafalques (1882) by F. Anstey – “F. Anstey” was the pseudonym of Thomas Anstey Guthrie, a name he chose due to a typesetting error in the publication of his first short story (in his autobiography he remarked that he had never bothered to decide what the F stood for). His first stories were comedies and this is reflected in The Curse of the Catafalques, a delightful gothic parody of the ghost stories of his day with a great vibrancy – and humour – in tone.

Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk (1889) by Frank Cowper – Cowper was a yachtsman who wrote a number of fiction and non-fiction books about sailing; unsurprisingly, his ghost story is set largely on a boat, a derelict vessel stranded in the marshes. As an unlikely contributor to the ghost story tradition, this story is quite unique in its tone and subject manner, perhaps influenced by his own isolated experiences whilst out at sea.

The Christmas Shadrach (1891) by Frank R. Stockton – Not quite a haunted object story – that classic trope of ghost story fiction – this sci-fi flavoured tale by American Frank Stockton is about a lump of iron with supernatural properties pokes fun at the notion of the proper young gentleman, the iron no doubt hinting at the age of industrialisation which produced many rich young men in America.

Number Ninety (1895) by B. M. Croker – This haunted house story is by the unfairly overlooked Irish writer of Colonial Gothic, Bithia Mary Croker, many of whose stories (barring this one) were set in colonial India, using locations such as Indian palaces for her hauntings. Number Ninety is set in London about a haunted house that will not be sold.

The Shadow (1905) by E. Nesbit – One of the highlights of this collection, The Shadow is a story of a young couple haunted by a shadow (perhaps the narrator herself?) by the much-loved (predominantly) children’s book writer Edith Nesbit, whose horror fiction seems to especially focus on the dark side of love and relationships.

The Kit-Bag (1908) by Algernon Blackwood – The man with a name made for writing horror stories hardly needs an introduction to fans of the genre – H. P. Lovecraft considered Blackwood a master of horror and said, “Aside from Poe, I think Algernon Blackwood touches me most closely.” The Kit-Bag is a story of a man who, having finished attending the trial of a murderer, is haunted by his memories of the case and it shows us the ghosts that objects can carry.

The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance (1913) by M. R. James – M. R. James is considered the master of the ghost story and reading this, to some considered his best, it’s easy to see why. It’s the only one of his stories where some of the events take place on Christmas Day though he was famous for entertaining friends with ghost stories at Christmastime. Although this is one of James’ lesser-known stories, it holds some significance to him; the story features a Punch and Judy show and, in an essay of 1931, James marked the start of his interest in ghosts to a Punch and Judy set he saw as a child: “One of these [figures] was The Ghost. It was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage. Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.”

Boxing Night (1923) by. E. F. Benson – The introduction to Benson in this collection says of him “critics have often inferred from his writings that he was something of a misogynist.” I know little about Benson other than the works he is famous for and therefore know little of him as a person, but I wonder whether Tanya Kirk chose Boxing Night for this reason? In this story, two unmarried sisters live on a farm together and make a happy and successful life for themselves, but they both dream that they will be burgled by an unnamed male soldier who will make off with their money. It seems to me to be a thoughtful story that says something about female independence, under threat from men and, perhaps, family expectations.

The Prescription (1929) by Marjorie Bowen – Majorie Bowen is the pseudonym under which Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long wrote most of her supernatural stories, amongst an oeuvre of over 150 novels. The Prescription is a story about a ghost-sceptic doctor who writes a prescription to an uncanny nocturnal visitor, a story of science clashing with a belief in the supernatural.

The Snow (1929) by Hugh Walpole – Hugh was related to the Walpole, Horace, of  The Castle of Otranto fame (generally considered the first gothic novel). Hugh Walpole had a somewhat tarnished reputation, with The Times writing in his obituary in 1941, “He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English.” But he was well admired by his literary chums, amongst which J. B. Priestley was a member, and The Snow is a great short story of psychological horror.

Smee (1929) by A. M. Burrage – M. R. James spoke favourably of Alfred McLelland Burrage, who is best remembered for his ghost stories. Smee is a fun story about a child’s game turned sinister.

The Demon King (1931) by J. B. Priestley – What a superb story – anyone put off Priestley from school days spent studying An Inspector Calls should read this. The Demon King is about an actor who fails to turn up to his leading role and is instead replaced by a magnificent and demonic understudy who fools everyone, producing a performance that shocks and delights. Priestley was obviously very familiar with the theatre and this story seems to be about temperamental actors with a habit of “lifting the elbow” too much and yet still managed to deliver outstanding performances.

Lucky’s Grove (1940) by H. Russell Wakefield – The final story in this collection is a fantastic tale of folk horror. Wakefield seemed to divide opinion: John Betjeman called Wakefield an equal second to M. R. James in the writing of ghost stories, whilst James himself called Wakefield’s collection They Return at Evening “a mixed bag”. This story is unique in the anthology for being about nature; the environment holding on to memories and possessing a power far beyond our own.

This collection reminds us that when the cold and dark days are drawing in, there are few better pleasures to be had than telling and receiving stories to frighten us when wrapped up warm in comfort of our homes. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “it is pleasant to be afraid when we are conscious that we are in no kind of danger.”

Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings (Tales of the Weird) edited by Tanya Kirk is published by the British Library. Buy this book on Amazon.

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