The Spirits of Christmas

What is it about Christmas – traditionally the haven of goodwill, togetherness, charity and abundance – that makes us turn to the supernatural? Is it because the shortest day has passed, and in the Christian calendar the bitter penitence of Advent has turned to joyous celebration? T. S. Eliot touched obliquely on this complexity in his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’, where a witness to the birth of Jesus Christ, in a symbolic foretelling of the Crucifixion to come, soberly likens the whole event to a kind of death.

Illustration by Abigail Rorer, from 'Dracula'

The Winter Solstice, or Yule, which falls this year on 22 December, is one of the oldest winter celebrations, and is a hinge of the year, between this and other worlds. So it is appropriate that as the days grow increasingly shorter, the season is ripe for horror tales. In a paradoxical way we ward off the darkness by scaring ourselves silly.

The Victorians were especially good at this setup, having practically invented the kind of Christmas we know today, complete with fir tree, log fire, plum pudding and party games. Charles Dickens, who, with A Christmas Carol, penned perhaps the most famous Christmas ghost story ever, liked nothing better than to organise huge convivial gatherings laced with spooky tales. Here at the Folio Society we’ve been exploring this theme for several years.

M. R. James, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, is now far better known for his ghost stories than for his academic work, a writer who put unease into everyday occurrences; Bram Stoker’s Dracula is highly melodramatic, violent and lustful as well as heart-poundingly, intricately plotted.

Illustration by Finn Campbell-Notman, from 'In a Glass Darkly'

His fellow Dubliner, Sheridan Le Fanu, preceded Stoker’s better-known vampire tale with his own, the languid ‘Carmilla’, written some twenty years before Dracula – a story which appears in In A Glass Darkly, this year’s terror offering from Folio.

The blandness of the Twilight brand aside, it seems we can’t get enough of vampire tales, and for Christmas 2012, Folio will be publishing the first ‘proper’ vampire story ever written, together with some masterpieces of Gothic short fiction. But my preferred spine-chiller for any Christmas past, present and future, best taken with a snifter of port and lemon, is Henry James’s psychological novella The Turn of the Screw, in which the ambiguous narrator, a young, isolated governess, is, according to interpretation, either subject to hallucinations or is herself possessed. A work that shows the late Victorians’ deep interest in psychical research and, to quote James himself, communicates his idea of a ghost story as ‘the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy’. Its cool menace lingers disturbingly in the mind – whatever time of year you happen to read it.

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