Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, edited by Tara Moore
The Victorians had a very different conception of what constituted a "Christmas ghost story" than what we might expect. Few are the ultimately-well-fed urchins, the inevitable roasted geese, or misers-turned-philanthropists. Indeed, a Christmas ghost story didn't have to take place at Christmas. Unlike Dickens's famous A Christmas Carol, most of the stories collected in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories don't have any particular or pronounced connections to the holiday; rather, they were tales published in special Christmas editions of magazines and journals that continued the tradition of printing dark, foreboding "winter stories." 

Originally, the "winter story" was part of an oral tradition. Family and friends would gather around the hearth in the coldest, darkest season to entertain each other with thrilling tales of supernatural intervention and ghostly visitations. We see a hint of the tradition in Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale when Mamillus and Hermione discuss what kind of story is best suited to telling on a winter's night:

MAMILLIUS: Merry or sad shall't be?

HERMIONE: As merry as you will.

MAMILLIUS: A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.

HERMIONE: Let's have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down: come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you're powerful at it.

The rise of literacy and commercial publishing in Britain created a venue for the oral tradition of the winter's tale to take new form as part of the thriving ghost story industry during the nineteenth century. Dickens gave us the most famous example, but he was simply popularizing an already existing form. For an earlier example of the ubiquity of the Christmas ghost story, we might look to "Christmas Dinner" in Washington Irving's The Sketch-book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

When I returned to the drawing-room, I found the company seated round the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair, the work of some cunning artificer of yore, which had been brought from the library for his particular accommodation. From this venerable piece of furniture, with which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, he was dealing out strange accounts of the popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the course of his antiquarian researches.

The "dealing out of strange superstitions and legends" that Irving cites in his account never really died out or fell into disfavor. The tradition of Christmas ghost stories initiates the frame narrative of Henry James's classic late-nineteenth century Gothic novella The Turn of the Screw

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 say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to note that the notion of Christmas ghost stories was not a quaint, bygone practice that had been relegated to traditions remembered by characters in fiction. In the brief preface to his collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, M. R. James states that he wrote his spectral fiction to be delivered at gatherings during the Christmas season; the stories, "most of which were read to friends at Christmas-time at King's College, Cambridge," as James reports, were meant as macabre, and expected, entertainment.

The older examples of Christmas ghost stories, especially those of the nineteenth century variety collected in Valancourt's volume, often go beyond the boundaries of propriety that we might expect of tales meant to be read out loud during family gatherings of straight-laced Victorians. Grim tidings abound, such as a mother-in-law who lights a new bride on fire in the anonymous "Bring Me a Light!" and horrific details drawn from the Indian Rebellion of 1857 in Ellen Wood's "A Mysterious Visitor"--which includes reports of children impaled on bayonets as part of its narrative. More modern holiday horrors, such as the profane Yuletide gathering in H. P. Lovecraft's "The Festival" or the cinematic nightmares of The Krampus, rarely mine trauma and vicious maleficence so blatantly. 

However, not all of the stories in Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories are quite so ghoulish. The variety of the stories in the collection reflects the multiple lens through which the Victorians viewed spectral possibilities. Although ghosts were often items of faddish interest or bouts of fervor in the nineteenth century, such as the rise of the spiritualist movement and performative seances, the very possibility of the supernatural was continually challenged by world views that were increasingly scientific, mechanistic, and based in objective material realities. 

Which means, of course, that there's probably a ghost story for everyone to be found in the pages of The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Stories. When they are not busy manifesting gruesomeness incarnate, a Christmas ghost tale may instead be a story of family tragedy and bittersweet unrequited love, as it is in Margaret Oliphant's "The Lady's Walk." Alternately, a Christmas ghost story may even voice skepticism about the very idea of the supernatural, as "How Peter Parley Laid a Ghost" does. My favorite stories in the collection both treat their ghosts in terms of the uncanny, albeit in very different tones. Ada Buisson's "The Ghost's Summons" leverages the power of the unheimlich to unsettle with narrative ambiguity and disquieting imagery. F. Marion Crawford's "The Doll's Ghost" uses a more restorative flavor of the uncanny, but the end result is no less emotive. I read these stories leading up to Christmas Day, and their haunts have lingered in my mind into the New Year.