Too early for Christmas, I hear you say?

Well, maybe. But there’s no escaping it – supermarkets’ seasonal aisles have sprung up before we’ve even thought of storing our summer clothes, and social media’s awash with panic-inducing adverts for Christmas Day dinner (“If you don’t book now, you’ll be eating beans on toast!”). We have two options – embrace it or ignore it, but reading material, I argue, is a different matter.

My to-be-read pile seems to magically grow overnight (I blame the superb Sublime Horror reading lists; who can resist?), and there’s something about festive or winter-themed books that I can’t get enough of. Heaven for some may be bobbing on a yacht in the sunny Mediterranean. I dream of cold days and dark nights, Alaska and Iceland, the Northern Lights, and yes, dare I say it even though it’s “trendy”, hygge. You get my drift. While that pile will continue to get larger as more books are released (and old favourites rediscovered), I need a head start. So, tucking into The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas by Syd Moore while the sun shone down on a glorious September afternoon was no challenge for this winter-loving reader: I simply drew the curtains, switched on the desk lamp and ta-da! – I’m in the moment.

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Moore’s offering is the latest in the Essex Witch Museums Mysteries series. We begin, in “Septimus and the Shaman”, as traditional yuletide stories tend to do; by a crackling hearth and a tumbler in hand, as Septimus, in M. R. James style, recounts his time in occupied Iceland. A manifesting medium is predicting fatalities with alarming precision, and it is Septimus’s job to investigate. His enquiry leads him to unexpected places, and so we are gently guided into Moore’s weird world, where witchcraft, ghosts, revenge and more meet in a melting pot of wickedly humorous and genuinely lovely prose.

We meet widowed Norah and her tribe of cats, social workers Janet and Matt who are unwillingly called out on Boxing Day and househusband Cliff, whose domestic domain is blissfully quiet following the death of his mother-in-law… or so he thinks. There’s Rita, on an extreme quest for physical perfection, police officer Stacey who faces death in the eye each day, a recently divorced lecturer on holiday in Spain, and Avice, searching for her lost children.

You’ll see, then, that this is an enjoyable mix of traditional and modern, old and new. “The House on Savage Lane” is interesting because it’s told through dialogue only, while my favourite is “She Saw Three Ships”. Here we join Ethel-Rose Strange on Michaelmas Eve, who witnesses an atrocity through the Jamesian trope of binoculars.

Moore’s previous books, I gather, focus more on Rosie Strange and her partner in all things weird, Sam Stone. Sometimes, coming to a series book part-way through can be disorientating – not here. The author has managed to balance on that fine line, curating short stories which can be (mostly) read without the need of prior knowledge. While Rosie and Sam are present – especially in the delightfully comic “Christmas Eve In The Witch Museum” – and indeed, some of the stories are linked through time and character, only once or twice did my new-to-the-series status jar.

It’s a slim volume; easily read in an afternoon or evening’s sitting, if you’re so minded. Moore’s prose carries you along with ease; no surprise that her previous book’s been shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger 2019. We end with her version of the erstwhile festive favourite by Dickens. Miserly pub landlady Carole Christmas faces some home truths as the clock chimes midnight on Christmas Eve. No spoilers here – this tale is as well-worn as the M1 and, as Carole herself says: “I know the score. I’ve seen The Muppet Christmas Carol.” She’s told there’s a special place in hell reserved for her if she doesn’t mend her ways. “You and several Conservative politicians, as it turns out. And I wouldn’t wish Jacob Rees-Mogg on anyone,” says our Marley.

Christmas is a time to enjoy storytelling, and this little book has it in spades. Its modernity may not be for everyone – for those who expect their ghostly and weirdly thrills in more commonplace ways. Instead, Moore has brought the traditional festive ghost story up-to-date, much in the way Mark Gatiss has for television. This is a gentle, easy read in which Moore calls on us to turn our backs on the clamour of the modern world and become sensitive to a more natural one, where not everything can be explained – and why would we want it to be? Dark winter days spent celebrating a festival of pagan origins are meant for mystery. As we are told by Septimus Strange: “There are some things you have to find out for yourself. Or else what’s the point of the journey?”

The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas by Syd Moore is published by Oneworld Publications. Buy the book.

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