The logs crackle, the flames dance, and we curl up, safe and warm in our cozy armchairs while, outside, the wind howls and sleet slashes against the windows. We drink warming Glühwein or hot punch, spiced with cinnamon and ginger, and revel in our favourite ghost stories. Maybe it’s the Collected Short Stories of M.R. James – that master of the creepy tale. Or maybe a film. A Christmas Carol? The Canterville Ghost? The Uninvited? The Haunting? All excellent choices and there’s room for every one of them. But for sheer British scares that thrill and chill, one series of adaptations has stood the test of time and I’ll certainly be digging out my collection again over the festive season – to watch in the dead of night, when all is quiet and only the ghosts walk…
A Ghost Story for Christmas was a tradition maintained by the BBC for seven years, from 1971-78. It consisted of an adaptation of a classic short story, shown on Christmas Eve. Wonderful chilling tales by M.R. James (The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, The Ash Tree), Charles Dickens (The Signalman), Clive Exton (Stigma) and one of my personal favourites, The Ice House by John Bowen.
M.R. James originally established his own ghostly Christmas traditions by reading his stories to friends and students at that time of the year, and the British tradition of sitting around the fire telling scary stories at Christmas undoubtedly influenced the idea for the series of films. In 1968, a one-off – Whistle and I’ll Come To You, adapted from M.R. James’ short story – set the scene for more to come. There have been some attempts to revive the tradition in recent years and I hope that will persist. Christmas isn’t Christmas without a ghost, is it?
But what of the stories themselves? These are not hardcore horror tales. The creepiness comes from the heavily laden atmosphere suggesting a lingering, looming presence of evil. Shadows move. Something forms under the bedsheet – a monster? We don’t know. We don’t physically see it. We don’t have to.
A lonely and bleak seashore. A solitary figure battling against the elements. A railway official who tells of a ghostly figure that beckons and foretells calamity. A remote country house in the middle of an ancient stone circle, where a dark force hides and waits. A strange flower growing outside an old icehouse. Where has it come from and what secrets does it hold? A lost crown found by an amateur archeologist in a remote seaside town. Perhaps he should have let it lie. A sinister black cat and a hooded figure that haunt a cathedral’s choir stalls.
Just some of the elements of these timeless tales I can watch – and read – time and again.
There is something so much more satisfying about a story that lays all the trails, but allows your own mind take over and fill in the details. It then falls to your own imagination to create the ‘monsters’ and we know what scares u better than any writer could predict. Each of us will put our own interpretation on what exactly was lurking in those shadows. The skill of the writer has been to give us all the clues we need to finish the story our own unique way – and that’s what keeps us listening for any creaks or bumps in the dark after we’ve turned the TV off or put the book down. It’s what makes our hands hover over the bedside lamp. On? Or off? On tonight, I think. Because it’s just possible… well, maybe, we’re not alone. Perhaps that…whatever it was…has followed us up to bed. It’s waiting for us to close our eyes. And then it will pounce. We squeeze our eyes tight shut and wait. The only sound – our own heavy breathing.
Something moving around the room. Clutch the bedcovers. Tight as you can. Mouth dry. Hardly dare breathe. Something still moving. Then a thump.
There’s something on the bed. Oh why did I watch that film tonight? Oh no. It’s moving closer. I can hear it.
A low rumbling sound.
A cold, wet nose.
Do ghosts have cold, wet noses?
Don’t have nightmares, but do have a happy festive season – and may all your ghosts be benevolent spirits.