The Literary Pilgrim .
Christmas is the time for ghost stories. As the evenings draw in and the shadows lengthen, we turn to tales of phantoms. As Charles Dickens wrote in his essay Christmas Ghosts: “We are telling winter stories — ghost stories — round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.”
After nearly 50 years of reading and enjoying ghost stories, I would like to recommend several that I hope will scare Evergreen readers pleasantly.
Charles Dickens himself wrote a number of short stories on a supernatural theme. In “The Signalman” a phantom appears to a signalman just before accidents are due to occur on a remote railway line. “The Signalman” first appeared in the Christmas 1866 issue of Dickens’s own journal All The Year Round. Since then it has appeared in many anthologies of ghost stories. Dickens probably based his story in part on the Clayton Tunnel rail crash. This occurred in 1861 at Clayton in West Sussex when three locomotives collided with each other, resulting in 23 fatalities and 176 people with injuries. The subsequent inquiry led to improvements in the safety regulations on Britain’s railways.
Other authors who were invited to write for All The Year Round included Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Amelia B. Edwards, a novelist, journalist and noted Egyptologist, who also wrote a number of ghost stories. The best known of these is “The Phantom Coach”, which was
first published in the Christmas 1864 issue of All The Year Round. It tells of a traveller who becomes lost on a moor in the north of England, just as dusk is falling. Desperate for shelter, he stumbles across a remote house whose occupant directs him to a crossroads where he can catch the mail coach. However, he inadvertently boards the phantom coach and encounters its terrifying passengers.
Another notable female author of the genre was Edith Nesbit. Though better known for her children’s books, Edith Nesbit also wrote four collections of supernatural stories. The first of these, entitled Grim Tales, was published in 1893 and included two marvellous spine- chillers — “John Charrington’s Wedding” and “Man- Size in Marble”.
The latter concerns a young couple who move to the country, where they hear of a legend about the effigies of two knights in the local church, who are “drawed out man- size in marble”. The knights are said to return to the former house, where the couple are living, on All Souls’ Eve. The final sentence of “Man- Size in Marble” is truly chilling and the story deserves its status as a classic of the genre.
The author Bram Stoker was for many years the business manager and secretary to the actor- manager Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Although famous for his vampire novel Dracula, Stoker also wrote some shorter gems of the macabre. These were published under the title Dracula’s Guest in 1914.
In “The Judge’s House”, a young student named Malcolm Malcolmson, seeking solitude for his studies, rents a house that once belonged to a notorious hanging judge. Malcolmson is soon plagued by the rats that inhabit the old house, including one particularly malevolent specimen:
“He made a motion to it as though to hunt it away, but it did not stir. Then he made a motion of throwing something. Still it did not stir, but showed its great white teeth angrily, and its cruel eyes shone in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.”
“The Judge’s House” is a highly atmospheric ghost story with a twist at the end that stays long in the mind of the reader.
No mention of ghost stories would be complete without reference to M. R. James. Montague Rhodes James had a distinguished career as an academic, a scholar and a medievalist. In 1913 he became ViceChancellor of Cambridge University and five years later he was appointed as Provost of Eton, a post he held until his death in 1936.
The ghost stories of M. R. James were written as a diversion, a way to pass his leisure hours. Each Christmas Eve it was his custom to read aloud his latest tale to invited students at King’s College, Cambridge. Among the stories were “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”, “Lost Hearts”, and his most famous story, “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. In this, Professor Parkins unearths an old whistle which he proceeds to blow upon and so inadvertently summons up supernatural forces:
“Rapidly growing larger, it too, declared itself a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill- defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.”
M. R. James drew on his scholastic background to provide authentic details for his stories. His ghosts are also implied rather than made explicit, and are all the more unsettling because of that.
The novelist and critic Sir Hugh Walpole also wrote some excellent ghost stories. His collection All Souls’ Night was published in 1933 and contained such tales as “The Little Ghost”, “The Snow” and “Mrs. Lunt”. The last of these is set in Cornwall during Christmas and features a truly vengeful female ghost.
Other authors who have contributed to this demanding literary genre include Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, L. P. Hartley and, more recently, Susan Hill. Her novel The Woman in Black is a perfect read for this most haunted season of the year.
What then makes a good ghost story? M. R. James himself hoped to make the reader “pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours.” Which, to me, sums it up perfectly.
Amelia B. Edwards ( 1831- 1892).
Clayton Tunnel, near Brighton in Sussex.
Master of the genre: M. R. James ( 18621936).