Ghosts on the Nog


Arts & Culture

The great English tradition of Christmas ghost stories.

One of John Leech’s illustrations for A Christmas Carol, 1842.

I’ve long thought of Christmastime as a season of mostly pleasant intrusions: thirty or so days of remembering to tend, checklist style, to the latest pressing bit of Yuletide business that comes racing back to you. The well wishes. The trip to the Home Depot. The seasonal ales.

This is the Fezziwig side of Christmas, that portion that makes you look up the word wassail when you encounter it and think, Ah, that would be fun. But what of the darker elements of Christmas—and what of Christmas for those people who enjoy making merry most years but may have hit upon a bit of a tricky patch? What succor of the season might they find at the proverbial inn?

Having experienced both sides of Christmas, there is but one constant I am aware of that serves you well both in the merriest of times and in the darkest: the classic English Christmas ghost story. You’d think Halloween would be the holiday that elicits the best macabre stories, but you’re going to want to check that opinion and get more on the Snow Miser side of the equation. Time was the English loved to scare you out of your mind come December, but in a fun way that resulted in stories well afield of your typical ghost story outing.

If you’re into ghost stories, you probably know that M. R. James is held as the master by most. His thing was to write a tale for Christmas, invite some of his fellow Eton dons and favored students into his rooms, and read it over candlelight after everyone had been plied with eggnog. Readings for the season—but not really of the season. There’s not a lot of actual Christmas in James’s stories.

Writers of ghost stories, James included, love to make authoritative lists about what makes such stories work. They offer spectral prescriptions that, as you might gather, rarely hit upon the same guidelines, and then they tend to violate these notions within their own work. But I like the spirit of that endeavor—a naughty/nice list for the spooky crowd—and as someone who devours Christmas ghost stories in the happiest of years and who turns to them, too, at those Christmases when the glimpsed mistletoe kisses of new lovers are akin to sprigs of holly jabbed through the temple, I have some ideas on what you want when it’s time to settle in with your eggnog, dim the lights, and turn some pages.

The first key to a Christmas ghost story is a convivial atmosphere. People in these stories are well fed, they’re often hanging out in groups, you feel like you’re hanging out with them, and you do not wish to leave any more than they do. It is cold outside but warm in here, and it’s time to rediscover that sense of play that so many of us adults lose over the years, and which, when we are fortunate, we remember to rediscover at Christmas.

Next, a game might be proposed, say, a game of telling stories. Then comes the terror. The status quo is infused with a sensation of something being a touch off, chuckles give way to shared, uneasy glances that maybe this isn’t all merrymaking. But this isn’t the terror of Lovecraft or of impending doom or the horror that indicts our fundamentally base natures. It’s a rather more pleasing terror—the ghosts, even when they mean to avenge themselves upon us, also seem to have dipped into the nog a time or two, with their own playfulness in evidence. Sure, they can kill you, but they do so with a joke or two at the ready. These are the short days of the year, and a weird admixture of pagan habits and grand religiosity obtains. There is also booze. People didn’t have TVs: people drank, people got to telling tales, someone told a tale and someone tried to tell a bigger one, and then, lo, we got a whole ghost story Christmas tradition.

But even if you’re into this stuff, there’s a decent chance you’ve not read any of these oft-overlooked Christmas baubles, stories which have always made me grateful for their company, blending themselves to my mood and needs and wishes in ways that nothing else quite has. They’re also dead good fun. So ladle out some perry or mead—or just grab a Bud Light—and allow me to recommend these ghostly tidings.


Between the Lights,” by E. F. Benson (1912)

This tale is set on Christmas Eve and looks back on the one the year before, when our host had a vision of primal, shack-entombed beasts advancing upon him as he sat out on the lawn and watched his wife and a good friend play croquet. The creatures advance, paralysis has set in, and it is by a Christmas mercy that the hold is relinquished. Daytime haunts can seem even less natural than the midnight variety, and this one proves portentous when the vision is actualized, after a fashion, before we all collectively shudder and call for more mulled cider, the tale complete.

The Kit-Bag,” by Algernon Blackwood (1908)

We’ve all been in the position of racing off for the Christmas holiday, fretting that we’ve forgotten to pack something. In this story, a law clerk—whose boss just cleared a murderer—is packing what he believes to be the travel bag said employer has lent him. But the holidays can be misleading, and one man’s Tumi luggage can be another’s sack to lug around a severed head in. Again, there’s that notion of warmth, of looking forward to things—our man wishes to chat up the ladies back in the lodge on his ski holiday—and affability. You want this guy to be okay. Alas, he’s ripped open from stem to stern and bleeds out as the clock chimes in Christmas. Only kidding, dear reader. A very good thing about a great Christmas ghost story is that you will be frightened, but the new people you have come to care about tend to live to see another Christmas.

A Strange Christmas Game,” by J. H. Riddell (1863)

Even spook-story enthusiasts tend not to know that a goodly amount of Victorian ghost fiction was written by women. Maybe the majority of it. Mrs. J. H. Riddell was one of the best ghost story writers of her time—period—and in “A Strange Christmas Game” we have that idea of play again, only now it is the ghosts who are trying their hands at sport. Cards, as it were. A brother and sister have recently taken possession of a house willed to them, and the demise of their benefactor plays out like some horrible, woebegone mummer’s act.

Christmas Re-union,” by Sir Andrew Caldecott (1912)

This one comes from a volume called Not Exactly Ghosts, an apt summation of Caldecott’s approach—the things in his story could kind of happen on their own. Again, we begin at a family holiday party, but there’s a guest who’s a prick. Everyone is pleased when he leaves, and wouldn’t you know it? He heads out at the same time as Santa Claus, or rather, the Santa the family thinks it hired to put on an act for the kiddies. The prickish guest, we learn, did his uncle a bad turn once upon a time, and this Father Christmas knows about it—worse still, he’s an avenging Father Christmas. Santa is the ghost in this story, maybe, or not. Because Santa could just be pissed-off kin. You get to riddle it out for yourself.

Smee,” by A. M. Burrage (1931)

My personal favorite. At this party, we’re playing a form of hide-and-seek in which the seeker advances upon the hider and says, “It’s me,” which, uttered quickly and breathlessly enough, becomes smee. It’s Christmas Eve, this is a big old rambling house, but one tiny problem: there’s an extra player who does not number among the guests. A sort of moral: downing the nog and playing hide-and-seek can make you want to pull a Scrooge. Reading this story—like drinking too much nog—would be enough to have you cancel Christmas next year. If only it wasn’t so much fun to get messed up on the stuff.

Colin Fleming writes for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and the Boston Globe. He is a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition and Newstalk Ireland’s The Tom Dunne Show. He is working on a memoir, I Am Not Like You: A Broken Man’s Attempt to Write His Way Out of Hell One Story, Book, Deadline, and Note-to-Self at a Time, and a Beatles book, Same Band You’ve Never Known. His next book, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, comes out in August.