Saturday, December 21, 2019

Why This is the Best Time for a Ghost Story

Marley appears to Scrooge, original illustration from A Christmas Carol.

The winter solstice, falling on December 22nd this year, is making itself known. For centuries the belief has been that on the shortest day of the year, the veil between the living and the departed is most easily lifted. 

That is why the ghosts appear to Ebeneezer Scrooge just before Christmas. Charles Dickens' writing of A Christmas Carol followed a long tradition of ghosts showing themselves at this time of year. I write about Dickens' motivation in writing the novella here.

The tradition has continued right up to modern times. In the 1963 song "The Right Time of the Year," Andy Williams sings:

There'll be parties for hosting/ Marshmallows for toasting/And caroling out in the snow/There'll be scary ghost stories/And tales of the glories/Of Christmases long, long ago.
When did this begin, the custom of scary tales told just around the time when families traditionally gather to open gifts, admire the Christmas tree, and dive into a big dinner?

It is the solstice rather than the celebration of the birth of Jesus that seems to have launched it. The days were at their shortest, food supplies could be running low--and spring seemed a long way away. Gathering to frighten one another with stories of the supernatural was a way to ward off more prosaic fears. (Not that different than people going to the cinema to watch a horror film today.)

However, there was nothing Andy Williams-ish about the earliest known Christmas ghost stories. They were gruesome medieval stories. Within some stiff competition, the Icelandic tales were particularly terrifying.

In The Saga of the People of Floi, dated to the 11th century, a group gathers for feasting on Christmas Day, finally falling asleep, exhausted. That night, a knock is heard on the door. One of the revelers rouses himself to answer it, steps outside and disappears. One by one, some half a dozen men are picked off, for it turns out that specters wait outside to drive them insane and to their deaths.

"Once Christmas is over, the dead return in force: not only are the rowdy Jostein’s crew brought back as Revenants, but so are a number of dead locals," writes Jon Kaneko-James in the article Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England"Finally Thorgils, captain of the crew who slept early, takes all of the dead and burns them in a pyre, ensuring that none of the Revenants, one of whom was his wife, would rise to trouble the living again." 

More Icelandic stories unfurl horrors told around the fire in late December, such as certain parts of the sprawling 11th century Eyrbyggja Saga, in which a strange moon foretells the dead seeking to join the living for Christmas--and it's very difficult to get them to leave. The Thorgunna section revolves around a wealthy woman dying and giving specific requests about what should be done with her bedsheets. These requests are not honored. (Are you surprised?)

This story is absurdly chilling! According to Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind:

Now the same night the corpse-bearers came home after Thorgunna had been buried in Skalaholt, as men sat by the meal-fires of Frodriver, all who were in the house saw how a half-moon was shining on the paneling of the house wall--and it went backwards and widdershins round the house, and it did not vanish away while folk sat by the fires. So Thorodd asked Thorir Woodenleg what that might bode. Thorir said it was "the moon of the weird," and "the death of men will follow thereafter."

Note: The excellent podcast Saga Thing tackles Eyrbyggja Saga with insight and humor.

Things go bump in the night in the Thorgunna section of the Icelandic saga

Today Iceland has the tradition of the lovable Yule Lads who show up on December 12th, leaving gifts in the shoes that children left on windowsills.

But the Yule Lads have gone through an astonishing transformation. In What's On, Ragnar Tomas writes:
 "The first mention of the Icelandic Yule Lads is the 17th-century Poem of Grýla, which asserts that they are the sons of Grýla – a flesh-eating hag who cooks children in a cauldron – and Leppalúði, a lazy troglodyte. Needless to say, such people should not reproduce. Ailurophiles ('cat-lovers') might think better of them knowing that they kept a cat. But not so fast. Theirs was not some amiable Maine Coon, who lazed around their apartment and snuggled up to house callers. No, their cat was the 'Christmas Cat,' who prowled the snowy countryside and devoured children who had not been given new clothes to wear before Christmas (admittedly, an oddly specific culinary preference)."
Medieval England offers up its goodly portion of Yuletime chills too. One example: A tailor named Snawball who encounters the spirit of a dead man in the form of a crow wreathed in fire.

One of my favorites is from the Tudor period, taking place on the Orkneys. A woman named Katharine Fordyce dies in childbirth but appears in a dream to tell a woman who was her neighbor that she must name her next daughter after Katharine. As long as that girl lives in the home, the family will be safe.

When the girl grows up and marries, preparing to leave home, Katharine Fordyce has her vengeance. On the wedding night a "fearful storm" arrives that "the like had no' been minded in the time o' anybody alive," according to Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning the Orkney & Shetland Islands

The sheep belonging to the bride's father were swept off the land and into the sea.
Some folk did say that old men with long white beards were seen stretching their pale hands out of the surf and taking hold of the creatures.

More and more such stories found themselves into print. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Mamillius says, "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one. Of sprites and goblins." It hardly needs to be pointed out that the Bard loved a ghost!
Still, it's the Victorian age, with its whiff of the occult, when telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve or another night close to Christmas firmly established itself. Groups gathered, usually around the fireplace, to share tales of ghouls and specters, trying to outdo one another.

Of course no discussion of ghost stories is complete without M. R. James, who lived from 1862 to 1936. A medieval scholar and provost of King's College, Cambridge, he published collections of ghost stories that have exerted enormous influence. As The New Yorker wrote in a story on James, "At Eton and at Cambridge, he liked telling his scary stories to boys and undergraduates around the fire in a dimly lit room, and presenting a new story to friends at Christmas."

It's hard to choose among H. R. James' gems, but the one that seems to linger with me the longest is "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." A professor finds a whistle in a ruin bearing two Latin inscriptions. One he can translate; the other he can't. Not knowing it's a warning, he blows the whistle...

"Whistle and I'll Come to You"

From 1971 to 1978, the BBC ran A Ghost Story for Christmas, adapting for television five stories from M. R. James, among other works. They were "The Stalls of Barchester," "A Warning to the Curious," "Lost Hearts," "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," and "The Ash Tree."

Americans are no slouches in the telling of ghost stories, nor in connecting them to the tradition of Christmas time. Henry James begins his 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw like this:

The tale had held us, round the fireplace, sufficiently breathless, however except the obvious remark that it changed into gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an antique residence, a weird tale need to basically be, I remember no commentary uttered until someone to mention that it become the satisfactory case he had met wherein the sort of visitation had fallen on an infant.

The other American ghost story closest to my heart is Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Oh what happens to the nervous, withdrawn Eleanor when she accepts an invitation to look for ghosts at a house in which no one could bear living. 

The novel begins:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.   
Ghost stories are very subjective--of course--and forgive me if I've left out anyone's favorites!

I paid tribute to the wonderful tradition of the ghost story in my novella, The Ghost of Madison Avenue. The veil between living and dead is drawn aside in the weeks leading up to Christmas in my story, taking place in New York in 1912 and revolving around the private library of J. P. Morgan. 

Click here to learn more about my book and read the reviews.

Finally, here's a photo I took of the book "out in the wild." I think this has a certain "Haunting of Hill House" vibe, don't you?

Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor and novelist. She published a trilogy set in the 16th century--The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry--with Simon & Schuster. Her standalone novel The Blue is an art espionage story set in the rivalrous porcelain factories of 18th century Europe. In December 2019 she published The Ghost of Madison Avenue, a mystery set in the private library of J.P. Morgan.

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