Ghost Stories and Christmas.
It's a dark and chilly December evening, fog rolls down the road and through the alleys; the coals in the grate are glowing red and there's hot mulled wine to be sipped; maybe there's even bread to toast before the fire on toasting forks. Before long -- and it feels so natural in the living room's gold-rimmed darkness -- someone mentions the spooky incident that happened to them, oh... sometime back, and before you know it everyone has got a tale to tell. The sound that had no discernible source, the feeling of a long-lost loved one at your elbow, the shape that flitted past the door when you were alone in the house. Ghosts always come when we least expect them and afterwards we are left to wonder if it really happened at all. Was it just a dream, or a figment of the imagination? Dickens did not start the ghost story tradition -- ghost stories have been around for as long as people have been telling stories -- but he probably created the best, A Christmas Carol, although in truth there's only one real ghost in it: Jacob Marley. All at once the comforting and the unnerving are mashed together and served with a sprig of holly on top of the figgy pudding of ghouls. The ghost of Christmas Past is a big, jolly man (a prototype Pagan Santa) who offers plenty, but he's loud and scary, and underneath his robe, well... Comfort and jollity always come at a price. Later Dickens would write a completely different ghost story, The Signalman, maybe influenced by the train crash at Staplehurst that he was unfortunately involved in. Like The Christmas Carol the ghosts are spirits out of time, but unlike in CC, they are there only to foretell doom. There is no redemption to be found here.
M.R. James was a ghost story writer of an entirely different sort. The figures that haunt his tales are more often demons and devils than ghosts, but the shiver you get is undeniable. He wrote his short stories to be read out loud, so light a candle and give it a go. Then there's Sheridan J Fanu, whose ghosts resides in cups of green tea, as well as a vampiress who sucked the blood of maids long before Dracula donned his cape and stalked the streets of London. There are others, too many to list here, but finding the one that chills the blood and makes one glance over one's shoulder is a chillingly pleasant task. How about the classic, The Monkey's Paw? Many of these tales can be found online.
Do I believe in ghosts? No. And although I have had my fare share of spooky occurrences I always put them down to a rational explanation. But even the very rational start to doubt what their eyes see and what their ears hear when the night is dark, the wind sighs under the door and through the keyhole and nocturnal creatures rustle in the undergrowth. Real ghost stories are not about (as Hollywood would have you believe) phantoms with shaking heads and gnashing teeth, or suddenly rush upon you with burning eyes, but about sighs and whispers and shadows that aren't really shadows. The less you see the bigger the chill.
So, read a ghost story this Christmas, or even better, tell your own true ghost story to your friends and family, and feel that pleasant shiver of fear that comes from the human condition: of not knowing anything.
Here's wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and remember, if you've been a grumpy old sod all 2013, don't blame me if you get visited by three spirits this Christmas Eve!
Remember to read my Christmas ghost story, Memories of the Black Cell. You can find it on my Blog page, or on Wattpad.