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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Vampyr

A few weeks ago, I discovered a vampire film from the 1930s that I had never encountered before. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the movie Vampyr was filmed about the same time as Universal’s Dracula but was released about a year later. The film features an original script with elements inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s stories “Carmilla” and “The Room in the Dragon Volant” which appeared in the collection In a Glass Darkly.

Unlike other vampire films of the period, this doesn’t involve sinister castles in Eastern Europe. Instead, at its heart, the film feels a lot like some of Hammer Studio’s better vampire films from the 1960s. We meet a fellow named Allan Gray, ostensibly on a fishing trip in the French countryside, who stops at an inn. We learn at the beginning that Gray is interested in the occult and soon strange things happen. A man visits his room on his first night and leaves him a package, with the instructions that the package should not be opened unless the man dies. Gray then takes the package and follows ghostly shadows to a neighboring mill. A shadow of a rifleman seems to guide him to a point where the shadow then joins the corporeal rifleman who has been sitting in one place the whole time.

Gray ultimately leaves the mill and goes to a nearby manor house. Right as he arrives, the Lord of the manner drops over, as though dead. It appears that he’s killed by a gunshot from the shadowy rifleman, but that’s not all clear. He may easily have had a heart attack or a stroke or been harmed by some other supernatural force. At this point, the film takes on a more familiar vampire narrative flow, at least for a while. We learn that the lord’s older daughter, Léon has been preyed upon by a local vampire and she cannot be allowed to die, or she will turn into a vampire too. The lord’s younger daughter, Gisèle is also under threat of becoming a vampire. When the lord does succumb to the gunshot, or other injury, Gray discovers that his parcel is a book about vampires and how to deal with them. He teams up with the servants of the house to hunt the vampire.

Like Dracula, Vampyr is an early sound picture. The movie works to keep dialogue at a minimum and gives us a lot of information on narrative intertitle cards and on the pages of the vampire book. The movie also relies a lot on visual imagery to tell the story. I’ve already mentioned a little about shadows that become detached from their owners, but there are other odd elements, such as skulls that turn to face the room’s occupants and hints that we’re seeing what characters perceive rather than what they literally see. At one point, Allan himself seems to split into two spiritual forms. One form is left behind. The other form returns to the mill and finds both where the younger daughter is locked up and his own dead body in a coffin. He then becomes the dead body who is transported from the mill to the graveyard whereupon his spiritual selves reunite.

As a fan of vampire literature, one thing I love about this film is how it associates the vampires with ghosts and phantoms. The only other film I’ve seen that used is Nosferatu and even there, it’s only hinted at. I also liked the fact that the film’s “Master Vampire” appeared as an elderly woman who has men in her thrall. One of those men may also be a vampire, though it’s never entirely clear. I also love the experimental nature of this film. On Monday, I talked a little about “superhero fatigue” and really that’s a subset of seeing the same things over and over again in film. It’s nice to see a film dare to experiment with images and trust the audience to interpret what it’s seeing. And that’s what makes this film special. I’ve given it an interpretation, but you may see some elements differently depending on whether you take them literally or symbolically.

If you’re a vampire fan, it’s definitely worth checking out Vampyr. Of course, you can check out my vampire fiction by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order