Up until the early spring of this year, I considered myself an absolute Christmas fiend. Not in the Grinch sense of breaking out the Boris Karloff accent and green grease paint and plotting how I might swipe presents, but rather trying to figure out, as early as possible, how best to immerse myself in a holiday that I loved like no other, in a typically over-the-top fashion. You know that person you read about, who bops his head along to Christmas songs on the oldies station—yes, Brenda Lee, you rock around that tree indeed!—the day after Thanksgiving, who insists on seeing Rudolph “live,” every year, because it’s just more real on TV than Blu-ray? I was that guy. Before I had occasion to become a different guy. And before I decided to spend this holiday season with M. R. James.
Christmas has always been a bit dark. Sure, we’re all accustomed to bromides about how the holidays can be hard and what not, but when life goes belly up, as mine did, you find that you become—to steal an idea from Rudolph—a Christmas orphan of a sort. The latest airing of whatever movie version of A Christmas Carol is not going to do it for you. Not that first orphaned Christmas, anyway. You start to pick up on things you had never picked up on before. Like, man, It’s a Wonderful Life is super dark—Jimmy Stewart really wants to off himself bad. And what on earth is the Devil doing in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen?” True, the Heat Miser from Year without a Santa Claus was pretty devil-y, but when you really poke around, you can see that Christmas, or Christmas in its old-time artistic trappings, can get a bit, well, grim.
Enter then my man M. R. James. If you know M. R. James, you probably know him because of his ghost stories. Still, he doesn’t have the notoriety of H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, or even Algernon Blackwood, although I think in the case of the latter, the name itself goes a long way in establishing macabre cred. But I’d argue that none of them can creep you out with a proper ghost story better than Montague Rhodes James, whose penchant was doing so, interestingly enough, at Christmas. A scholar and antiquarian at King’s College and later Eton, in the first third of the twentieth century, James, at the urging of his friends, would pen one of his patented bleak narratives, and then bid you to his room, where you’d gather, as everyone else went a-wassailing or whatever, to listen to him read and scare the piss out of you.
The stories endured—in Britain, anyway—and even came to factor into the mores of the season, quite beyond the walls of James’s room, and long after the man himself passed away in 1936. The best of the stories, like “Casting the Runes” (which was worked into the ’57 Jaques Tourneur classic, Curse of the Demon). “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” “The Mezzotint,” and “Number 13” featured a standard Jamesian set-up: someone, usually a professor, leaves the city behind for a stay by some weald or copse—the type of place you’d imagine John Keats strolling about, composing rustic verse in his head—and discovers a book, or a snatch of paper, or musty relic that brings the supernatural, and various hellish things, into his life. These stories often feature an inn of the type that you would like to spend a week at yourself, with firelight, port, and normally a personable companion or two who becomes a fast friend. And just when you’re thinking, hmmm, this is nice, I wish I lived back then, James positively has at you, and it is difficult not to at least entertain the notion that just as man has a dual nature, so too does Christmas, something I suspect someone like Linus—going by that blanket-in-hand speech of his—knew all along, but which dear old Monte positively rams home. Christmas done got the blues in the world of M. R. James. Fiery blues, though. Which has the weird effect of making these ostensibly glum stories galvanizing in a way, with this feeling that though they’re sort of on your side, your mates, when you’re down, you’d like to read them when they’re more up, if only to be more scared and less immersed. But that’s James’s big writerly talent: he makes terror an enticing companion, something you move toward, rather than away from.
Someone at the BBC had the idea of making short film versions of a handful of James’s ghost stories and airing them at Christmastime, starting with The Stalls of Barchester, in 1971. The British Film Institute has recently issued a box set of these offerings, along with choice nuggets like a production of Dickens’s “The Signal-Man,” from the series that was appropriately titled A Ghost Story for Christmas. The box includes a 1968 mounting of “Whistle,” and if you’ve had enough of Scrooge and redemption, try this one on sometime as you’re sipping your mulled cider. For sheer TV horror gravitas, I’d put it a peg ahead of that wonderful version of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (Ambrose Bierce strikes me as a guy who would enjoy an M. R. Jamesian Christmas) that aired during the last season of The Twilight Zone.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, from ’74, is nearly as good, with its stained-glass window ciphers and one menacing culvert, and you have to wonder about the nature of the fellowship between James and his in-person audience on those December nights. By rights, those gatherings should have been woozily eldritch, and then some, and yet, by all accounts, they were not. Personally, I picture a kind of lonely hearts club of the season, where terror serves to bond, rather than fracture. That’s exactly what it does in the sublime BBC production of Dickens’s “The Signalman,” where the title character is comforted by a wandering tourist in his cabin in some desolate railway cutting. The best scenes, the scenes so suggestive of Christmas, both as it is and as we would like it to be, feature our duo hearthside talking through problems. Granted, said problems center on apparitions, but it is not difficult to shift the paradigm, somewhat, and allow that apparitions take all forms, both in terms of the world of the living, and the world of the dead. There’s something very human about being haunted. And if Christmas is, by some standard, the most human and humane of seasons, I suppose it would also have to be the season of ghosts and M. R. James, with a dash of Dickens. As for you, Frosty, and you, Charlie Brown: I shall endeavor to see both of you next year.
Colin Fleming’s first book, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories, is forthcoming spring 2013 (Texas Review Press), with his second, Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep, to follow from Outpost19. He writes for The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and ESPN The Magazine.