In the Bleak Mid-Winter: Must-Read Ghost Stories for Christmas

Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian, Edendale Branch Library,
ceramic ghost on a book shelf

'Tis the season for ghost stories! And hark, Robert Anderson from the Literature & Fiction Department and I are here to herald some of our favorite ones for your reading pleasure.

Winter was a haunted time in ancient European cultures, when the door to the supernatural creaked open. As the cold and dark gathered and the old year drew to a close, ghosts were likely to pay a visit, bringing unfinished business and warnings to the living. Through the centuries in England, Germany and Scandinavia, households would gather around the crackling fire on a snowy night to share bracing drinks and blood-curdling tales, especially at midwinter, the longest night of the year. Ghostly traditions receded as Christian customs arose, but still found a way to coexist: in her introduction to Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings, Tanya Kirk reminds us of the medieval belief that troubled souls in purgatory are especially restless on the eve of feast days like Christmas, just before the soothing effect of the sacred day. (This was also the basis for the holiday of Hallowe'en, as ghosts were thought to abound on the eve of All Hallows' or All Souls' Day.)

In the 19th century and the early 20th, the short story was elevated to a high literary art, and the ghost story with it. The Victorians had a fervid interest in ghosts and seances, partly stemming from the rise of science and technology, which for some heightened the fear of the still-unknown and for others was a spur to try to resolve spectral appearances as some kind of physical or psychological phenomena. Many brilliant writers rode the publishing boom in magazines and serials, and especially the 'Christmas numbers,' filling them with ghost stories that range from grisly shockers to finely wrought narratives. Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, in particular fused Christmas cheer and ghostly visitations into blockbuster entertainments that still chill and thrill today.

Horror traditions keep abreast of the times; nowadays for a shiver, many turn to movies about bloodthirsty revenants in hockey masks or cursed internet memes. But there's something incomparably spooky about the old stories, full of snowy churchyards, candlelit halls, and echoing footsteps, and the bygone mastery of evoking dread with a few well-wrought lines. So turn back the clock and enjoy some quintessential winter tales with these recommendations.

Robert: "Smee" by A. M. Burrage (1929)

A Christmas house party at a British manor seems like an ideal place to share ghost stories. In this classic creepy tale, A.M. Burrage takes the concept a step further: a ghost story told at a Christmas house party about events at a previous Christmas house party. Burrage (1889-1956), whose full name was Alfred McLelland Burrage, was born in London, the son, and nephew of men who wrote stories for boys' magazines. Alfred's father died when he was seventeen, and to help support his family, he began what turned out to be a lengthy career writing for British pulp magazines. He was very popular in his day for his boys' stories and also wrote many tales of romance and adventure, but today he is remembered primarily for his ghost stories, fourteen of which were collected in Someone in the Room. "Smee" was first published in the December 1929 issue of Nash's Pall Mall Magazine. At the house party in the framing story, the group of fourteen has just decided on an after-dinner game of hide-and-seek, but one of the guests, Jackson, says he will not participate, though he suggests the other guests try a variant version called Smee. He explains that the word "Smee" is a contraction of "it's me." The players all draw lots, and one is randomly chosen (unbeknownst to the others) as Smee. The lights are turned off, Smee hides somewhere, and the others go in search. When two players meet, one says "Smee?" and the other answers "Smee"—unless the second person is the actual Smee, who remains silent. As the players discover Smee one by one, they remain together in a row, and the last person to join the group receives a forfeit, after which the game starts over. When pressed for his reasons for not joining in the game, Jackson tells the others about another Christmas house party five years previous, where he was one of twelve guests who played Smee. The players started their game in high spirits, but in each round, something strange and rather ominous occurred, and it seemed that a thirteenth player may have joined the game…

Daniel: "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James (1898)

"The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child." So begins Henry James' masterpiece of atmospheric horror. Though known for his subtle novels of character, which plumb depths of psychological ambiguity in impressionistic traceries of prose, James had a childhood love of the ghost stories of Hawthorne, Poe, and Le Fanu, and returned to the somber form in the 1890s after a lull in his literary fortunes and the deaths of several close friends. In relating the vivid experiences of a young governess who is hired to care for two orphaned children in a cavernous manor house and comes to believe that they are under the malign influence of her spectral predecessors, James fully updates the ghostly tale into a profoundly modernist creation, beautifully subjective and leaving just the right questions unanswered. "The Turn of the Screw" may be his most famous (and terrifying), but all of the 18 stories that Leon Edel collected into The Ghostly Tales of Henry James are imbued with otherworldly frights.

Robert: "Afterward" by Edith Wharton (1910)

Like her good friend Henry James, Edith Wharton had a strong interest in ghosts and the supernatural; her fiction in this genre can be found in The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. Wharton, who was born Edith Jones, came from an extremely wealthy New York family with rigid expectations about how she should live her life, and in attempting to please her family, she made an unhappy marriage to Edward "Teddy' Wharton, who was one of the "right people" but shared none of her intellectual or literary interests. "Afterward" appeared in The Century Magazine in January of 1910, around the time that Wharton's marriage was falling apart following her discovery that Teddy had embezzled a large sum from her trust fund to support his mistress, and it's probably not a coincidence that this ghostly tale features a wife who gradually comes to realize that her husband is hiding important information from her. Mary and Ned Boyne are Americans who have recently come into some money through investing in a mine; they decide to move to England and fulfill their long-cherished dream of living in a country house—preferably one with a ghost. Lyng, the property they buy, seems like the perfect choice, and there is supposedly a ghost—but those who see it don't recognize that it was a ghost until long afterward. One day when Mary and Ned are admiring the view from the roof of their home, they spot a man slowly approaching the house from a distance, and Ned abruptly leaves Mary behind to descend and meet him. When Mary, whose poor eyesight renders the visitor a blur, eventually makes her way downstairs she finds Ned alone, and he claims that the man was one of their servants who disappeared before Ned arrived, but Mary finds his explanation unconvincing. Other odd events occur over the next couple of months until a fateful December day when Mary encounters another surprise visitor (or the same one?) up close.

Daniel: "Horror: A True Tale" by John Berwick Harwood (1861)

If "The Turn of the Screw" is delightfully subtle, "Horror: A True Tale" is delightfully over the top. Harwood hammers away relentlessly at conveying the quavering despair of his heiress narrator, the overload of firelit Christmas cheer at the family's Tudor mansion, and the paralyzing visage of the horrific visitor. Many ghost story writers carefully build up to a single flickering glimpse of terror, leaving the rest to the imagination. But not Harwood, who deluges us with blood-curdling prose from start to finish. Right away, the narrator launches into a lengthy warning of how this night of terror she is about to relate has blighted her days, robbed her of the bloom of youth, whitened her hair, made ashen her countenance, turned her life into a shattered wreck, left her livid, blanched, bloodless, bereft, etc., etc. And once the story gets going, not only does the ghastly apparition forebode to appear in the heiress' chamber and then actually appear, but after that, it refuses to go away, cheerfully sticking around for hours while Harwood describes it in minute detail. "Horror: A True Tale" is generous with the calories, serving up a full meal of gothic carbs. "It was Christmas, the season for such tales… the blood-red glare of the Yule log flashed on the faces of the listeners and narrator, on the portraits, and the holly wreathed round their frames… and threw a shimmering lustre of an ominously ruddy hue upon the oaken panels. No wonder that the blood of the more timid grew chill and curdled, that their flesh crept… they half-fancied they beheld some impish and malignant face gibbering at them from the darkling corners of the old room..." Enjoy this and other seasonal delights in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories.

Robert: "The Old Nurse's Story" by Elizabeth Gaskell (1852)

Stories that feature child ghosts or (as in "The Turn of the Screw") children haunted by ghosts are often among the most disturbing in the genre, since we tend to feel a particular sympathy and protectiveness toward innocents threatened by evil or violence. A good example is this tale by one of England's leading novelists of the mid-Victorian era. Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was the daughter and wife of Unitarian ministers, and her work with her husband's parishioners in Manchester led her into fiction writing to dramatize conditions among local mill workers. Charles Dickens was impressed by her sympathy for the working class, and her novels Cranford and North and South were serialized in his magazine Household Words. Gaskell's feelings about Dickens and his work as an editor were ambivalent; when she told a friend that a certain story of hers was "good enough for Dickens," she was not paying him a compliment. But in spite of this, he brought some of her best work into print, including "The Old Nurse's Story," which appeared in the special Christmas 1852 issue of Household Words. The issue was called "A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire" and featured ten tales in all, including two by Dickens himself. Hester, the narrator, is just a schoolgirl when she is asked to go to work as a nursemaid for a young couple expecting their first child. After five happy years, the husband and wife both die within a couple of weeks, and little Rosamond is left an orphan. Rosamond's mother came from an aristocratic family, and her cousins decide that the girl, along with Hester, who is devoted to her, will live at the family's country estate, Furnivall Hall. Hester envisions a happy family environment for the child, but it turns out that the family all abandoned the manor house decades ago, with the exception of an elderly great-aunt and her companion. Hester tries to create a cheery environment for Rosamond, but as winter approaches, strange things start to happen, including occasional music from a broken pipe organ in the great hall. When Rosamond disappears one day during a snowstorm, a frantic Hester finds her lying unconscious out in the snow some distance from the house. Rosamond recovers and tells Hester that she saw another little girl through the window who beckoned her to come outside... If you find ghosts of the Victorian era particularly appealing, you can find this story and other classics in The Phantom Coach: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Ghost Stories.

Daniel: “The Curse of the Catafalques” by F. Anstey (1882)

I have a special fondness for humorous Christmas ghost stories, and this one is both scary and a laugh riot to the end. Our narrator meets a man on his passage to London who has been unhappily betrothed via distant relations to a lass with the plausibly Victorian name of Chlorine and stands to inherit a fortune if he can overcome some kind of family curse to which it is attached. The narrator hears only the fortune part and ignores the rest, and contrives to switch places with his fellow passenger. He shows up at the gloomy old house and blithely passes for Chlorine's suitor, eventually realizing that he is expected to confront and dispel the family curse at midnight on Christmas Eve. They leave him alone with mounting emanations of infernal evil from the Grey Chamber, and the rest I will not spoil. A catafalque, incidentally, is a bier or platform used to display a coffin at a funeral. This and other holiday yarns can be found in the anthology Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings.

Robert: "The Crown Derby Plate" by Marjorie Bowen (1931)

Many ghost stories begin with someone smilingly saying that they'd like to see a ghost; the wish usually comes true in the course of the story, but the experience is seldom as amusing as the wisher anticipates. This eerie tale by Marjorie Bowen (the pseudonym of Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long, who lived from 1885-1952) follows that classic pattern. Bowen was an extraordinarily prolific writer, producing at least 150 books ranging from crime dramas and historical romances to children's stories and biographies of famous historical figures under several pseudonyms, both female and male. She grew up in poverty and suffered a great deal of tragedy in her personal life, but she eventually made enough money through her writing to live comfortably. Her books and stories vary considerably in quality, as might be expected of someone who wrote so fast, but she is still read, and a new compilation of her stories and essays (including "The Crown Derby Plate") was published just last year, with the title The Grey Chamber. The would-be ghost stalker in this story is Martha Pym, who owns and manages a London antique shop. During a Christmas visit to her two cousins in the country, the conversation turns to ghosts, and the cousins wonder how their acquaintance Miss Lefain is getting on at Hartleys, a house some distance away that is reputedly haunted. Martha recalls that she visited Hartleys thirty years ago for an estate sale where she bought a wonderful collection of Crown Derby china that is still one of her most prized possessions. One plate in the set was missing at the time, and Martha's cousin suggests that she might want to visit Miss Lefain at Hartleys to see if she ever came across the lost plate. Intrigued to find the plate and possibly encounter a ghost, Martha eventually finds the house, which seems to be in quite good condition for its age. But Miss Lefain is even more eccentric than she anticipated…and what is that awful smell?

Daniel: "The Ghost and the Bone-Setter" by J.S. Le Fanu (1838)

One of the most influential ghost story writers, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin and best known in his lifetime for novels of mysterious foreboding like Uncle Silas. His classic ghost stories are unforgettably creepy, as attested by his many admirers from M.R. James to Stephen King. Le Fanu has a special knack for articulating an uncanny scene, slipping into it from ordinary reality like a cloud passing overhead. "The Ghost and the Bone-Setter," however, is more of a comic romp, although there are glimpses of his gift for evoking a supernatural experience. It takes place on a stormy night when the Irish dialect-slinging narrator is compelled to house-sit at the drafty old manor of his landlord. Sure enough, the eyes of the haunted portrait of the old squire start following him around the great hall. What happens next is based on the Irish superstition that "the corpse last buried is obliged, during the juniority of his interment, to supply his brother tenants of the churchyard in which he lies, with fresh water to allay the burning thirst of purgatory." This story can be found in a number of anthologies, including Gothic Tales of Terror: Classic Horror Stories from Great Britain, Europe, and the United States, 1765-1840.

Robert: "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall": by John Kendrick Bangs (1891).

Not all ghost stories are scary or sad; in fact, humorous tales make up a substantial portion of the genre, and a prime example is "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall." John Kendrick Bangs (1862-1922) was one of the leading American humorists of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. The son and younger brother of prominent lawyers, he attended Columbia Law School for a year before deciding that he wanted to make people laugh for a living. His output included novels, stories, poetry, plays, and books for children, and he spent time editing the humor content of several important magazines of the era, including Life, Harper's , and Puck, and touring on the lecture circuit. His humor was nearly always of the gentle, genial variety, as compared with more cynical predecessors like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall" first appeared in the June 27, 1891 issue of Harper's Weekly – odd timing for such a cold, wintry story, but Bangs may have felt his readers needed some relief from the summer heat. The titular water ghost is a woman who haunts a stately home and its owners and guests for an hour every Christmas eve starting at midnight, giving the residents and their belongings a terrible drenching. Bangs's chronicle of the ingenious schemes of the various owners of Harrowby to rid themselves of this drippy pest over the years arouses both sympathy and hilarity in the reader. The story appears in many ghostly anthologies, including the excellent compilation Christmas Ghosts.

Daniel: "How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery" by E.F. Benson (1912)

The Peverils' old house is haunted by so many harmless spooks that living and dead have settled into a friendly coexistence. The Blue Lady plays nicely with their dachshund Flo, the reckless Master Antony rides his mare up the main staircase at night, and the guest bedroom is often visited by the shade of notorious great-great-grandmamma Bridget. But there are some ghosts with whom the Peverils are not on polite terms; those that haunt the Long Gallery. Anyone unlucky enough to enter the gallery after dark is likely to see two glowing spectral toddlers and soon thereafter come to a horrible end. One snowy Christmas holiday, a pretty young Peveril relation curls up to read her book in the Long Gallery and falls asleep, waking up just as the sun is setting…E.F. Benson is best known for his lightly comic novels of Sussex society, but he also wrote scores of wonderful tales of ghosts and the supernatural which can be found in The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson. He lived part of the year in the tiny, ancient town of Rye, to which he was introduced in 1900 on a visit to Henry James, who was living there at the time; Benson later occupied the same home for many years. "How Fear Departed" is thoroughly charming and, as you might guess from the title, holds out hope for a happy Christmas ending.

—Co-written by Robert Anderson

Reading Reccomendations

Book cover for Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings
Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings

Book cover for Someone in the Room
Someone in the Room
Burrage, Alfred McLelland

Book cover for The Ghostly Tales of Henry James
The Ghostly Tales of Henry James
James, Henry

Book cover for The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton
The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton
Wharton, Edith

Book cover for The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories
The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories
Moore, Tara

Book cover for The Phantom Coach: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Ghost Stories
The Phantom Coach: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Ghost Stories

Book cover for The Grey Chamber: Stories and Essays
The Grey Chamber: Stories and Essays
Bowen, Marjorie

Book cover for Gothic Tales of Terror
Gothic Tales of Terror
Haining, Peter

Book cover for Christmas Ghosts: An Anthology
Christmas Ghosts: An Anthology

Book cover for The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson
The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson
Benson, E. F.