Why do we tell ghost stories at Christmas?

Christmas story reading

 

Christmas has a binding association with ghosts, going back in time just before Christmas 1642, for instance, shepherds were said to have seen ghostly civil war soldiers battling in the skies. Ghosts have long been in people’s minds. In The Egyptian Book of the Dead, departed people are shown to return, not merely looking as they did in life, but dressed in similar garments.

Christmas has different memories for different people. One memory I hold is there was always a “ghost story” on TV as well the fact that Charles Dickens also often featured. It seems a strange combination, “ghost stories” and” Christmas” so where does this union come from?
The answer is commonly assumed would probably be Victorian times. This period which is usually seen as being rather staid, prim and proper, but also was characterized by those who wanted their share of thrills.
Charles Dickens is heralded as perpetuating this desire to be captivated by chilling tales at Christmas. There is little evidence prior to Dickens that authors wrote ghost stories for Christmas in mind, but some have their own points of view.

The writer Peter Haining, in the introduction to his collection of festive chillers Christmas Spirits says about Dickens. “Yet despite the seeming timelessness of this tradition, it has to be admitted that the idea of creating ghosts stories especially for telling at Christmas goes back no further… than the time of Charles Dickens.”

Dig further back into the past quite a while before Dickens and you have a famous bard who might also lay claim to originating this fascination with spine chilling stories. One of William Shakespeare’s most famous works Hamlet can be considered as being a ghost story. He also includes many traits of Ghost Stories with his Winter’s Tale.
The tale which begins ‘There was a man dwelt by a churchyard…which leads us to believe it is going to be a ghost story. Winter tales were similar, if not identical to Christmas ghost stories.

Dickens writes in Telling Winter Stories, from The Christmas Tree in 1859, “There is probably a smell of roasted chesnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire.” Shakespeare used the phrase in A Winter’s Tale, “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one. Of sprites and goblins.” And a hundred years before that in 1589, in the Jew of Malta, Christopher Marlowe writes:
“Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night”

Shakespearian scholar Catherine Belsey writes of Shakespeare.
Among the terms in circulation in the period for far-fetched narratives and improbable fables, one favorite was “a winter’s tale.” In the long, cold evenings, when the soil had been tilled to the extent that climatic conditions permitted, the still predominantly agricultural community of early modern England would sit and while away the hours of darkness with fireside pastimes, among them old wives’ tales designed to enthrall young and old alike.

We can trace the telling of ghost stories as a popular winter craze to the 16th century and that it was an integral part of the Elizabethan Christmas festivities. A ‘winter’s tale’ has become synonymous with weird stories of the fantastic and phantasmagoric, however the tradition most likely goes back at least a century further…

While I used to cower behind the sofa watching a riveting ghost story on TV, prior to television, my ancestors would be gathered around a roaring fire, some might say much more atmospheric.
Inherent in Christmas are many ancient supernatural aspects. I remember while living Austria, being told of the ritual of Krampus, which is still followed in modern times in rural areas. While Saint Nicholas may bestow gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe’s Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways — or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack. I heard stories of people dressed as Krampus running amok in Austrian villages.

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The work of Henry James often features as a TV adaptation. James’s work helped bring back the tradition from obscurity, as the formed the basis of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, which was a yearly Christmas offering dating back to 1971.
M R James is recognized as the undisputed master of the Christmas Ghost story. His stories, were written to be read around Christmas to a select group of friends. His work encompassed the dual nature of the season – the cosiness of sitting round the fire, but at the same time the need to banish the dark.
Can you pass through Christmas without watching Scrooge, the antithesis of the Christmas spirit? Or curling up in front of a roaring fire, with a good ghost story in hand?

This article was part of a Festive blog hop, to read other articles by authors and bloggers, click

 

FOLLOW Francis H Powell, on Twitter

https://twitter.com/Dreamheadz

 

Francis H Powell, author of Flight of Destiny, 22 quirky short stories…

I enjoyed these tales as they gave me a fantastic break from my daily routine and I enjoyed remembering them and day dreaming about them afterwards. They’re a little Ray Bradbury, a little Stephen King, but with Powell’s own unique twists. Very interesting read.

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A short story for Christmas, “Angel Child”

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Angel child
I had been woken up, by the sound of wailing. Such sorrow. emanating from next door. It was my neighbor I presumed. The sound of such melancholy prevailed in my head, relentlessly. I had only seen my neighbor from afar, she was a blurred image of beauty and turbulence. Added to this terrible noise, I began to be aware of smell of burning wafting into my room. I bolted upright. I wrestled with putting on some clothes. I frantically banged on my neighbors door. With all my force I kicked open the door. I was confronted with a thick blanket of smoke. I wrapped my shirt around my face, as a meager form of protection. The sound of hysterical crying was coming from behind another door. I foolishly tried to open this door. I reeled in agony on contact with the door handle, my hand severely burnt. I managed to catch the vague sight of a figure in white, consumed in thick white smoke. The wailing sound was curtailed and tranquility prevailed. Defeated by the smoke, I left the apartment. I took time to compose myself. There was a mounting sorrow welling up, at failing to save this woman, as well as a sense of urgency to alert others of the urgency of the situation. “Fire” I screamed in a hoarse fraught voice. I heard a few doors opening, a few exasperated sighs. An old woman shuffled out of her apartment, looking dazed and confused. As the realization of the situation began to take hold. parents desperately ushered their bleary eyed children towards the stairs. Panic started to grip the building. I grabbed a bag from my apartment.

The stairwell was starting to get clogged up, with families frantically trying to get out of the building. I heard a voice. It might have been telepathic, a voice in my head, it was ticklish and soft, the voice of a child. “Water” the voice said in this temperate tone. I turned round. The child was dressed in blindingly white dress. Her hair was curled and blond, her eyes sparkling blue azure. For a moment the excruciating pain of my hand disappeared. I reached into my bag. I happened to always carry a bottle of water. It was probably a few days old. It didn’t matter, she let out this delicious smile and cupped the bottle in her gentle hands. “Where are your parents”? I demanded. She looked like a child that was on her own, forgotten by the rest of the world, on her own in this time of need. She didn’t answer, her face remained inanimate and serene. Suddenly I was jerked forward. A large man with a ruddy face, snorting, jostling to make it down the steps. “We want to get out of here mister,” he bellowed. His wife nodded in accord, reinforcing his statement. They both looked dehumanized, their faces white and severe, crazed looking. A melee of other people swept me further forward. The child was lost from my vision, but not from my thoughts.

Fire fighters were on the scene. A man with a hose trying to make his way in the opposite direction of the crowd. “Let me through” he shouted in gruff officious voice, to the residents so intent on getting out. I reached outside. The cold night air hit my face. The street was awash with activity, parents huddled closely to their children. I searched intently for the young girl, but she was nowhere to be seen and nobody knew of her whereabouts or indeed who she was. I was shepherded into an ambulance. My time in hospital was long and arduous, my hand injury horrific, my hand now horribly disfigured. The pain was significant, coupled with the fact that in a matter of days I was due to get married. My future wife was away, visiting some relations. She was now due to marry a man with a grotesque looking hand. How she would react? This would surely test our love. My moment of attempted heroics or perhaps folly had meant
my hand would never be fully functional, even withstanding many operations and physiotherapy, the doctor had painted, such a gloomy picture. As I was making my way home, I was fearful and indeed despondent. I had been pumped with drugs to alleviate the pain. I had no inclinations about what I would find when I finally got home. The building seemed to be back to normality. People sleeping soundly, after their broken sleep. I trudged upstairs. My neighbors door had been boarded up. There was a distinct smell of smoke, but the fire had been put out abruptly and proficiently.

I went into my apartment, managed to take off my clothes, with my one able hand, wincing with the occasional shots of pain. I finally put my weary head down. After a short while, I was drifting off asleep. When I woke up, my mind was filled with images of the previous night. It was the face of the young girl, that dominated. My phone rang, it was my fiancé, I had almost obliterated her from my mind, less thoughts of my disfigured hand, and how she would react. She spoke with great enthusiasm, up to the point, she detected, there was a big problem my end. Her voice dropped. “What’s the matter”? she demanded. I had to explain all the events of the previous night. “Oh my God” she spluttered. I explained that my hand was now bandaged up and was not in a good condition. She had cooed at my attempts of rescuing my neighbor, heralding my bravery, but mention of my hand had taken the shine off the conversation. Walking down the aisle, to a man with a bandaged hand, on what was to be the greatest day in her life, had limited appeal. “Won’t it heal” she asked in a displeased voice. “I am afraid not” I said philosophically, with a voice of stark resignation. I put the phone down feeling somewhat let down. The wedding seemed of weightier importance, to the fact that I had a horrifically burnt hand. I called work to say I would not be in, explaining the severity of my injury.

I then drifted in and out of an uneasy sleep. I woke up finally to the sound of muffled voices. As slowly came round, my interest mounted. It was apparent that the conversation was between a fire officer and a policeman. I managed to get some clothes on, withstanding some pain. I opened my door. “I am her neighbor” I said. “Her neighbor” muttered the policeman incredulously, lifting an eyebrow. “The woman who died, I was her neighbor”. “We found no body” said the fire fighter, with a flippant voice. “What are you saying” I demanded, “I saw her in the smoke, I tried to rescue her.” The two men laughed mockingly. “This apartment has been empty and derelict for years, there was a small fire, but nothing too significant, probably some old wiring, our boys had things under control in no time.” I felt indignant , as well as confused. “So you found no body”, I reiterated in desperation. The Policeman, who had a huge snout of a nose, and a derogatory demeanor, ridiculed “what a dark mind you have. sir” He followed his comment with a scornful laugh, which was accompanied by the fire fighter, whose face was lit up with mirth. It was like the two were in collusion, undermining anything I said,

I returned to my apartment, slamming my door with venom. After a while the voices from outside, drifted away. The two men sauntered down the long flight of stairs, still ridiculing, sardonic cackles interspersed. I felt angry. I spent the day recovering and trying to take my mind off the pain of my hand. I asked some of the other residents, if they knew of the young girl. Nobody seemed to know anything, I was met with blank looks. Even though I tried to give as full a description, as I could, I got nowhere. Nobody equally told me anything of the apartment and my “neighbor”. “The apartments been empty for as long as I can remember” said one old lady. “But I saw this woman on a number of occasions, just through the door” I protested, “I saw her last night.”. The old woman moved shakily away, muttering, probably deeming I was insane and deluded. I watched some mindless television, but my mind was too agitated, to digest anything. I tried to sleep, it was impossible. I had curiosity dictating my thoughts, never relinquishing. I got up, almost mechanically, unsure what I was about to do. The answers to this mystery, lay next door. I slung on some clothes and went out of my apartment. Momentarily I looked at the apartment, that had a notice “Police notice keep out”. As with my folly of the previous night, I decided to make a bold move. I re-entered my apartment and picked up a crowbar. With my one decent working hand, I managed to prize open the door.

The apartment seemed empty, cold and vapid. I held my arms close to my chest and shivered. I felt like an intruder. I began to question my own actions. What I wondered had led me to break in to this latent
apartment, which seemingly had nothing for me. I was about to turn on my heals, when I felt a presence.
She appeared so suddenly and deftly . She looked miniscule in the vastness of the apartment. She glided towards me, she had a blithe look on her face. She was wearing the same immaculate white dress. She did not speak, I would not have expected her to, her face expressed it all. I pitifully tried to communicate with her. “What’s your name” I asked in a soft voice, worried I might alarm her. She looked right through me. A smile reached her face and she seemed to enact a dance movement, she twirled and then giggled, her arms cutting an arc shape through the air. Any question I asked was met with total insouciance and disregard. Her dancing became emphatic, she began to circle me, dancing round and around, to the point where I began to be mesmerized. My legs began to give way. I was blinded, a bright light seemed to illuminate the room. I was now a crumpled heap on the floor, my body immobilized. Something miraculous was happening and I was the beneficiary of this magic.
The young girl lent over me and unraveled the bandage on my hand. I did not protest. She was so gentle, and proficient in the way she went about things. She was still smiling and joyful. Once the bandage had been unraveled, she held my hand. There was no pain however. Indeed any pain I’d had previously was now alleviated. I drifted off and went into a deep sleep. When I came round I was alone. I felt a bit groggy, but as the grogginess began to wane, it became apparent a big change had happened.

My hand was as it was before the fire, perfect without a single blemish. I gave the apartment a closer inspection. It was now back to this imposing emptiness, the child having disappeared. There seemed nothing of value. Under a dense film of dust on the mantelpiece, there was a photograph. It had faded in time, but the resemblance was most apparent. The photograph was of a young woman, it was obviously the young child, some years on., having matured as an adult There was still the discernible beauty , but there was also some sadness engrained in her face. The young child was joyful and optimistic, the adult version, tainted by angst. I had encountered the optimistic one. Something significant had taken place, in her life, the bright glowing child had been lost to the world, or had it? It seemed like the glowing child had the capacity to rematerialize.

I took the photograph and went back to my apartment. I took stock of events, made some telling decisions. I put my impending marriage into perspective. I came to the decision I could not commit to a marriage, where I as unsure I would be loved. My confidence in the union had been broken, her love for me superficial, her reaction to my disfigured hand, had proved as much. I was cowardly in the way I broke the news. The fact that my hands were both in a perfect state, also besmirched me further. I skirted around all explanations, I would never have been believed anyway. I had left my now ex-fiancé weeping, great sobs, her head in her hands. I felt terrible, maybe there had been some love between us, I had underestimated her. I lived in almost solitude. I was trapped, unable to think beyond those events and the angel child, as I had named her.

What had happened previously in the apartment, was hidden in a veil of secrecy and I imagined deceit, none of the residents would let me in on the secret. I even had to question myself about the events of the fire and the days that followed. After all my hand was now in a perfect condition, with burns or marks to show, evidence that I had entered a burning apartment. I had no name, just images in my mind, images that would diminish in time. The residents of the building ostracized me for daring to question them, to probe into the deep mystery of what had passed in the apartment next to mine. There would never be any explanation, my mind would be in darkness.

A few years on and with the value of local property escalating, the boarding around the door were taken away. Some property developer, had purchased the property and was investing money into it. In time so doubt rich owners were installed. They seemed friendly enough. One day the door to the apartment, was slightly ajar. I was sure I could make out the image of a young girl with a mop of thick curly blonde hair dancing with a scintillating smile of contentment, on her angelic face, it must be the angel child, but then again…

 

FOLLOW Francis H Powell, on Twitter

https://twitter.com/Dreamheadz

 

 

Francis H Powell, author of Flight of Destiny, 22 quirky short stories…

I enjoyed these tales as they gave me a fantastic break from my daily routine and I enjoyed remembering them and day dreaming about them afterwards. They’re a little Ray Bradbury, a little Stephen King, but with Powell’s own unique twists. Very interesting read.

 

 

 

 

How to write the perfect ghost story…

The perfect Ghost story small

What are your feelings…Ghosts…do they exist? They are ridiculed, have been made mundane, absurd films like Ghostbusters have trivialized them. Kids aren’t blinkered and naïve. Cynics rule.

Christmas seems the perfect time to unleash a Ghost story.
Whatever many writers set out to write thrilling stories to a cynical disbelieving audience. Perhaps the golden age of ghost story telling, the Victorian age, was a period when readers were far more susceptible to believing in ghosts. Modern day readers are far more pragmatic, scrutinizing what they are reading. Equally houses are lit up with bright neon light, streets are not dark and shadowy as they were in past times. I guess very few writers who write ghost stories have ever encountered a “real” ghost, so they are letting their imagination run wild.

For a Ghost story to work it has to sustain a high level of tension, from the opening sentence to the last. Short story format works really well on this account. The author faces a mountainous task of how to conclude their story. It’s not like a crime story…in which all the reader’s questions can be answered at the end, the reader of a ghost story has to be engaged by the plot but at the same time needs to feel uneasy and on edge. A successful ghost story should be overflowing with atmosphere, descriptions of sounds, colours, feelings should prevail. A good Ghost story should not be too far removed from reality, not too fantastical, this way the reader can believe in it, imagining themselves facing such an encounter with a phantom. A good ghost story should not be like a distant long long ago fairy tale, the reader should be led to believe the story takes place in the recent past. Writers should shy away from the over used “old lady” or “tiny infant” go for a ghost that is some ways a mirror of yourself and representative of your fears. Indicate gruesome happenings but let your reader fill in the details.

You can test your ghost story by telling it in a room filled with bright light, during the middle of the day, if you scared under these circumstances your story is on to a winner.

Where should a writer look for their ideas? Should they venture back to their childhood and tap into their childhood fears? Do we have to have led troubled lives to write a good ghost story? With M R James, considered an undoubted master of the genre, apparently this was not the case. A colleague of James’s once said, perjoratively, that his was a life untroubled – a smooth progression from Eton to Cambridge and then back to Eton. He never experienced real life; it was in every sense academic. So seemingly an academic, living in a rather insular world has the makings of a great ghost story writer and perhaps it is the ghost story genre that allowed him to challenge the rational world he inhabited, that lay behind his motivation.

How should we write our ghost story? In the third person or the first person. One option, might be…write it in the first person, but make it obvious the narrator is untrustworthy, flitting between reality and madness.

Ghosts like people, come in many forms and have different missions, whilst amongst the living. Some return from the dead to wreak vengeance; others have good intentions, wanting to help a loved one. Some are the spirits of people who were murdered or committed suicide and so are not at peace and are still troubled beyond the grave.
What we can say definitively all ghost stories should always contain a lot of suspense, always trying to create anticipation and excitement. Atmosphere is vital in building tension in the
story.

 

FOLLOW Francis H Powell, on Twitter

https://twitter.com/Dreamheadz

 

 

Francis H Powell, author of Flight of Destiny, 22 quirky short stories…

I enjoyed these tales as they gave me a fantastic break from my daily routine and I enjoyed remembering them and day dreaming about them afterwards. They’re a little Ray Bradbury, a little Stephen King, but with Powell’s own unique twists. Very interesting read.