We Wish You a Scary Christmas

Six Christmas Ghost Stories (Not Written by Charles Dickens)

Ian Olson / 12.22.22

Recently, my family was hanging out in the living room with Christmas music on the radio when my second oldest interrupted “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with a sarcastic, “There won’t be scary ghost stories, it isn’t Halloween!” It was then that I realized I had failed him. I had formed my kids to love Halloween but had not taught them the old tradition of Yuletide horror.

You’ve probably wondered about it, too — where do ghost stories fit into Christmas? It’s a tradition with quite a pedigree, actually. Charles Dickens didn’t write “A Christmas Carol” in a vacuum; the practice of scary stories on winter nights began long before its publication. We in our era associate spooks and chills most closely with Halloween, but for our ancestors the ending of summer signified the onset of the truly frightening time: winter. The nights grew longer and colder and refuge had to be sought earlier from those unnameable things that stalked in the dark. The nocturnal season was passed with stories by fires, told for both entertainment and to form listeners into survivors, properly informed of the terrors to which they could succumb. 

In the Victorian era the practice took on fresh life as periodicals with wide distributions marketed ghost story-packed Christmas issues. Whatever vices they may have possessed, they at least had a better handle on the darker valence of Christmas than contemporary American culture, which makes everything schmaltzy and commodified. Christmas in America is not so much hope in the face of shadow and gloom as it is their denial. 

And yet the child born in the manger was already haunted by the death he was destined to die. As with so many things in the life of Jesus, the myrrh gifted by the Magi bore a double significance, as it was valuable in its own right, but also pointed towards his execution and burial. Christmas always draws its full meaning from death and spiritual beings, arriving in the midst of darkness to promise light and life through its endurance.

Given all of this, Blake Collier and I have been assigned with commending our favorite Christmas or otherwise wintry spooky stories for your enjoyment and edification. So warm up some hot chocolate, turn down the lights, and cross yourselves, because the stories are coming from inside the house!

“The Festival,” by H.P. Lovecraft

This is one of Lovecraft’s earlier short stories and the first to “quote” from The Necronomicon, the forbidden book in the background of his Cthulhu Mythos. In it, the narrator is compelled by some atavistic impulse to return to his ancestral home in Kingsport to participate in a festival held every hundred years to preserve a connection to older, stranger ways. 

“It was the Yuletide that men call Christmas,” the narrator says, “though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.” Christianity is a religion rooted in history, and as such it has a beginning in history. There are, then, beliefs and practices which predate it, and “The Festival” alludes to such things with just the right narrative distance to keep them cloaked in shadow and utterly alien and frightening.

Christmas in our time neatly conceals from our consciousness just how removed our celebrations and priorities are from Israel’s consolation. It is fitting, then, that the denizens of Kingsport mirror our misplaced zeal by assembling for the eponymous festival within the secret, subterranean depths church’s crypt, in which the narrator nearly goes mad from what he witnesses. Though there is little action, Lovecraft evokes the inhuman dread of strange things that should not be witnessed by human eyes being seen and worse, inviting the witness to participate in. 

“The Shadow,” by Edith Nesbit

This short tale captures the strange contingency of truly paranormal events at the very same time it demonstrates how retroactive purpose is discernible within the weird. “This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story and nothing is explained in it,” Nesbit begins, “and there seems to be no reason why any of it should have happened. But that is no reason why it should not be told. You must have noticed that all the real ghost stories you ever come close to are like this in these respects: no explanation, no logical coherence.” This is the resonant frequency of all spectral encounters.

Here, a trio of friends at a Christmas dance settle into a room for the night and share ghost stories. They are joined by an older woman, Ms. Eastwich, who seems eager for company. She offers one story that she claims is true and relates how she was once called to the home of her two best friends who had married each other. The wife is pregnant and bedridden and Ms. Eastwich is tasked with helping her husband who, the story never explicitly states but nevertheless intimates, she is in love with. Nesbit defies Gothic conventions by situating the spectral shadow that torments Ms. Eastwich and her married friend in a new home. But while it may not have been the site of horrible happenings in the distant past, it is stained by something unconfessed which unleashed a dreadful curse: an eerie shadow which portends death and, ominously, congeals into the shadow of Ms. Eastwich herself.

“How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery,” by E.F. Benson

This classic story concerns the Peveril family whose home is so loaded with ghosts that it has become quite unremarkable to them. “[T]o the Peverils the appearance of a ghost is a matter of hardly greater significance than is the appearance of the post to those who live in more ordinary houses,” Benson writes in the opening before relaying the bored detachment with which the mother tells someone to remove a dog from a room where “the Blue Lady” just entered so as not to be disturbed.

“But there is one ghost at Church-Peveril at which the family never laugh,” Benson notes, “in which they feel no friendly and amused interest, and of which they only speak just as much as is necessary for the safety of their guests.” The specters of two small children who appear in the house’s long gallery always bring about the awful deaths of those who witness them. After conveying the history of the home and its hauntings, Benson introduces us to Madge Dalrymple who is staying at the home for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Madge accidentally ignores the Peverils’ rules and stays in the long gallery after dark. What happens is frightening, but also redemptive in the proper sense: there is mercy, compassion, and restoration which comes about through the night’s terrors. There is heroism in this story that resonates with a theology of the cross, as it is those who accept their doom who find a way to salvation. 

Repossession,” by Lionel Shriver

Anyone who has read or seen the film adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin will know the extent to which Shriver can dive into the areas of suburban abstraction and evil. In this Christmas ghost story written for The Guardian’s series of stories back in 2013, we find a young woman who works as a tax accountant in London purchasing a semi-detached house. Her first house. A house that doesn’t want her. And will do whatever it can to drive her away … or suck her in.

The trick Shriver does here is clever in that he is utilizing the middle and upper class mentality of individualism and testing it within a pressure cooker of the supernatural. Our protagonist complains of the prior owner’s inability to keep up with the payments on the house leaving it to end up being taken from her. She views this as a character flaw in the prior owner, that no externality could have played a part–over and against the stories her neighbor tells her–in the loss of the residence. Yet our protagonist holds fast to her middle class ideology and she pays for it. 

The title of the story doubles as a critique, because in our world it’s just a matter of time until all material ascends to the rich and the powerful. This story shows that sometimes justice must come from the other side of the veil. This justice subverts our most closely held ideologies. The poor will inherit the earth after all. It might just be the case that that inheritance will take the form of their repossession of it from the other side. 

If you like your Christmas ghost stories to have a little social bite to them, then this story is for you.

Horror: A True Tale,” by John Berwick Harwood

Look, I will admit to threatening Ian within an inch of his life if he included “The Christmas Carol” by Dickens or “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M.R. James. (Ian: No, really — he isn’t kidding.) Those two stories are at the top of just about every Christmas ghost story list. And for good reason. However, I wanted our list to champion the unsought-after tales. The ones that our audience may never have heard of. Dickens and James need no help in visibility. They don’t need any help at all at this point. 

This got me digging into Gothic Christmas tales. This may be an unpopular opinion, but, with the exception of Poe, Gothic horror is all style and very little narrative satisfaction. The descriptions of locales, houses, states of mind, ghouls and ghosties are usually superb in Gothic literature. However, it is very seldom that their narrative conclusions work for me. And this tale by the unsung English author John Berwick Harwood is ultimately no different in my critique of it. 

Yet, it takes place on Christmas Eve and the description of the central terror is gloriously affecting and, simultaneously, elusive. What exactly is it that is “haunting” our narrator? What is it that crawls into her bed, growling and moaning, and holding onto her cloak while its chains rattle? 

The story, by the end, will leave a little left to be desired. It feels like it ends a bit too abruptly and with little internal logic to specify the reasons for why our narrator is left the way she is, but the building tension, the false flags, and the final fright make for a fun Christmas read nonetheless.

The Ghost’s Summons,” by Ada Buisson

The idea of a death vigil is by its very nature a bit terrifying. The fact that a person is required to keep watch over a dying or dead body overnight seems like a fraught act when it comes to testing our wills against the night. In English author Ada Buisson’s tale, we find a poor doctor (imagine that!) who is summoned by a wealthy man to keep vigil over his dead body. You heard that right. He is not dead, but he will be dead soon enough and the doctor is asked to witness it for 1,000 pounds. Being as how his practice was in the midst of scarcity, it was a deal he could not turn down.

The vision which the doctor sees at the strike of the clock is not terribly frightful and if the tale had been left to that alone, then it would have failed as a compelling story. Yet, this brief tale pulls the rug out from under the reader. Is this ghostly visitor all it’s cracked up to be? Or is something else amiss? This tale beckons us to ponder what exactly are we seeing at that intimate moment of death. 

What I appreciate about Buisson’s tale, and others like it, is how it can raise tension, release it, then give a final stab of illumination all within a small word count. It takes a wordsmith to pull such a task off and Ms. Buisson was obviously up to the task. If the making of merry and festivities run a little long this year, then this is a short, simple tale to send guests and children off into that darkening night.

There you have it, fiends: six scary stories to jingle your bells and shock your stockings. Scary Christmas to all, and to all a good fright!

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