Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories

There’s something about the long, dark nights just as autumn turns into full-fledged winter that seems especially suited to spooky tales. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Victorians were especially fond of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Of course, one of the most famous ghost stories of Christmas is none other than A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The novel itself does a very good job of making the ghosts frightening and my favorite adaptations are the ones that truly capture the chilling moments. However, A Christmas Carol is not the only Christmas ghost story Dickens told.

Charles Dickens published “The Signal-Man” in the 1866 Christmas edition of his periodical All the Year Round. “The Signal-Man” tells the story of a traveler who comes upon a lonely railroad signal-man who tells him the story of a ghost who appears every time disaster is about to strike the train line. There’s not much Christmas in this tale, but it’s full of atmosphere and foreboding. It struck me that the traveler tries to find rational explanations for the ghost that sound a little like Scrooge dismissing Marley’s ghost as more gravy than grave. It also struck me that the lonely signal-man bore more than a passing resemblance to my spooked telescope operators in The Astronomer’s Crypt. A lonely, isolated setting works well in any ghost tale. “The Signal-Man” is available to read in Charles Dickens’s collection, “Three Ghost Stories” available at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1289/1289-h/1289-h.htm.

Another fascinating winter ghost story is “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. This was first published in the January 1851 edition of the Dublin University Magazine. This is a story about two cousins who take up residence in a haunted mansion in Dublin only to be beset by mysterious thudding footsteps and apparitions of a man with a noose about his neck. Of course, Le Fanu is most famous as the author of the vampire tale “Carmilla” which inspired both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and my story “Fountains of Blood,” which appears in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone. As it turns out, “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” was ultimately collected in the book In a Glass Darkly alongside “Carmilla.” There are several free versions of LeFanu’s haunted house story, but the one I read was at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/aungier/.

Like Dickens, Le Fanu makes an effort to rationalize the ghost before revealing that the haunting is real. It’s fascinating to me to see the tug-of-war between the spiritual and the rational at this time period. To be quite honest, I have felt this tug-of-war myself. I’m a professional scientist who is a trained skeptic. Yet, I’ve had experiences I can’t completely explain. I’ve taken photographs that appear to show ghostly shadows and I’ve seen lights where they shouldn’t be.

When I wrote the first part of The Astronomer’s Crypt, I set it during the long dark of winter on a stormy night. I based it on a real night that I experienced when I was alone, servicing the instrumentation. I had a strong sense of dread and felt certain something was coming to get me. Wind caused the dome to rattle and it whistled like a ghostly wail. Even though I was dressed in a heavy coat, I couldn’t get warm. It was a relief when I finally escaped the observatory for the morning and snuggled into my blankets. If you’re looking for yet another Christmas ghost story, you can read my fictionalized account of that night at http://www.davidleesumers.com/Astronomers-Crypt-Preview.html.

Here’s wishing you many bright lights and clear winter days to dispel the ghosts of the long, dark nights around the solstice.

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The Horror of Christmas

This past week, my regular break from the observatory straddled the Christmas holiday. I spent some of that time celebrating with friends and family. I spent some of that time working on Tales of the Talisman Magazine. I also spent some of that time working on a new horror novel tentatively entitled The Astronomer’s Crypt, which is the story of dark forces being unleashed on an unsuspecting observatory one stormy night. On one hand, it seems a little strange to spend the Christmas holidays writing a scary novel. On the other hand, when one looks at Christmas, there are some pretty scary traditions associated with the darkest nights of the year.

Krampus

This year, Krampus seems to be getting a lot of attention. He’s a goat-like creature from Germanic folklore who travels with St. Nicholas. Whereas St. Nicholas brings presents to good children, Krampus takes evil children directly to Hell. (Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect $200!) Essentially, he’s Santa’s scary enforcer. The traditions say he’s chained. Apparently Santa captured him and controls him. As a writer, I see definite story potential in that idea. In countries such as Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, people dress up as Krampus and rattle chains and bells at children, reminiscent of a Halloween monster in an American haunted house.

As it turns out, you don’t have to go as far as Eastern Europe to find Christmas chills. Just look at one of the novels most associated with Christmas itself, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. To me, Marley’s ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come have always been frightening. Their whole job is to scare Scrooge into being a good man. Even the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is generally friendly and jovial frightens Scrooge by presenting the loathsome children Want and Ignorance.

Marley's Ghost 1843

Even recent popular culture associated with Christmas has some scary elements. I grew up watching Rankin Bass holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with its Abominable Snow Monster of the North and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town with its Winter Warlock. Although these bad guys eventually become good and are relatively tame, I remember them scaring me when I first encountered them.

The joy and light of Christmas are so emphasized that we sometimes forget that they symbolically triumph over darkness and evil. It actually feels right to have a few monsters lurking in the dark corners of the holiday so they can be chased away by good spirits. As we wrap up 2013, I wish you peace and prosperity in the coming year and hope all the dark spirits remain in the shadows.