Photos: Page 2 of Mr.Jones (Courtesy of Biblioasis); victorian ornaments ( Diane Labombarbe / Getty Images)
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The Ghosts of Christmases Past
The old British tradition of telling spooky stories at Yuletide is revived with the help of a Canadian publisher and the famed cartoonist Seth / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 10th, 2021
The Victorian and Edwardian eras are considered the golden age of ghost stories, in no small part spurred by the original and enduring acclaim for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol In Prose, Being a Ghost Story About Christmas. The now-famous tale about a miserly man tormented by ghosts has its roots in the Gothic novel, but also in a rising interest in spiritualism, mesmerism and séances that flourished in the Victorian period.
Dickens didn’t invent the ghost story – they’re as old as literature itself – or the Victorian Christmas story, but he has come to embody both, and the genre certainly came of age when he was a writer and editor. The arrival of A Christmas Carol in 1843 dovetailed with the invention of the steam-powered, rotary printing press, enabling a publishing boom that made periodicals more widely and cheaply available than ever. Supernatural and sinister, and often laced with malice, ghost stories for Christmas became popular seasonal fodder in magazines and special editions of newspapers.
Victorian-era writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu, M.J. James and Elizabeth Gaskell are responsible for many of the canon’s classics, and they’re all accounted for in the pocket-sized editions of Christmas ghost stories curated by acclaimed Canadian cartoonist Seth.
A Sense of Dread
The one-name-only, Giller-nominated cartoonist, the nom de plume of Guelph’s Gregory Gallant, not only chooses the stories, he also designs the covers and enhances the text with drawings for Biblioasis, the Windsor, Ont.-based independent publisher that launched an annual series of Christmas ghost stories in 2015 with Dickens’ The Signalman. This season’s books are Edith Wharton’s Mr. Jones, F. Marion Crawford’s The Doll’s Ghost, and Bernard Cape’s An Eddy on the Floor.
The Biblioasis editions are handsome objects with embossed covers, double-page spreads that act like a cinematic establishing shot, and the artist’s thematic spot illustrations. “I tend to pick stories that are high in atmosphere,” Seth explains over the phone from Inkwell’s End, his elaborately designed and decorated home and studio in Guelph, Ont. “I look for stories that have some sense of dread to them, and a strong sense of place.” Wharton’s Mr. Jones, for example, appealed to him mostly because of the setting, and a house with a secret and a person you never get to see is hard to resist. “The actual house itself [is] this cold, uninviting place that, of course, [the new owner is] charmed with, initially, but grows increasingly uncomfortable.” An Eddy on the Floor, set in a prison, was a less obvious choice, “but the story was so cruel that when I closed it, it got under my skin.”
Whether they include forlorn Gothic rooms or desolate English manors, all of the Biblioasis Christmas books have Seth’s distinct sensibility and feature drawings in his mid-century style — even the Victorian classics. “I’m aware that anything I’m working on, I’m moving it ahead by 30 years to the 20s or 30s,” he chuckles. “Part of it is that I don’t actually much enjoy the classic ghost story illustrations, done in a fake, steel-engraving style so they look like they’re from old Punch magazines, and they’re always the same kind of fussy, spooky drawings that could be in anything from a kid’s book of Tales to Make You Tremble to The Folio Society.”
“I want them to be modern and crisp and very design-y so that they don’t feel so much illustrated as decorated.”
Spectre of spectres
The Seth editions are harbingers of a Christmas ghost story revival that includes, this season, a new edition of M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary from Illinois-based Poisoned Pen Press and the fifth volume of The Valancourt Book of Christmas Ghost Stories from an independent, Virginia-based publisher.
Chris Philippo, the editor of volumes four and five for Valancourt Books, says the genre has roots in pre-Christian solstice festivals and in the oral storytelling tradition. The fourth collection explored North American ghost stories, and included British-Canadian poet Robert Service’s ballad, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Philippo remembers first hearing it at summer camp “from a counsellor who had it memorized and delivered it animatedly at a campfire.” This year, the fifth anthology returns to the British Isles, the traditional stomping ground of Victorian supernatural tales. It includes several rare stories he found through archival research. “The Siren,” one of the more obscure ones, is set on the Isle of Mann and originally ran in a small local Manx newspaper in 1898.
There are many reasons readers are drawn to the darker, bygone aspects of this holiday tradition, but American writer Ambrose Bierce offers a clue to our renewed appetite for the eerie in his satirical 1906 book The Devil’s Dictionary, where he defines a ghost as “the outward and visible sign of an inward fear.” It’s similar to what British writer Elizabeth Bowen described in 1952, after living through two world wars: “Ghosts exploit the horror latent behind reality.” If, as one Bowen scholar has suggested, “the ambiguous presence of ghosts becomes one of the extreme symptoms of the psychic stress experienced by civilians during wartime,” then the past 20 months of the pandemic is similar to wartime, which Bowen described as living “in a state of lucid abnormality.” It’s the cultural moment that makes us receptive to ghost stories.
But Philippo wonders if “Christmas was too much and too sugary, something people don’t always feel a part of. If people are returning to some of the older parts of Christmas, it’s an exhaustion with the relentlessly upbeat mood.”
Another new anthology, published in November, focuses solely on Scotland. Tales for Twilight: Two Hundred Years of Scottish Ghost Stories, contains 15 stories that eschew what editor Alistair Kerr calls the typical “ghostly legends and traditions of old Scottish castles, replete with breathless first- or second-hand accounts of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night.” In a telephone interview from his home in the English countryside, Kerr says he believes Scottish stories are more interesting than British tales, and have special qualities. “Scots tend to stand in a relationship to the past with which few English, or other, people readily empathize,” he opines. “They celebrate and identify emotionally with all their ancestors – good and bad, real and legendary – back to the earliest generations.”
In those days, Kerr adds, “a good storyteller was welcome anywhere because he provided wonderful entertainment when there no films, no radio, and no newspapers. The best storytellers could command quite high prices,” he explains, “and lot of their stories were about the other world, the supernatural.”
Early practitioners James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott are among the selections, as is Ian Rankin’s “I Live Here Now,” a Christmas ghost story published in The Spectator in 2020. “Although we have Halloween in Britain now,” Kerr continues, “it seems to have been entirely mislaid after the Reformation. To give grandchildren and nieces and nephews a glorious fright, ghost stories were very much part and parcel of an old-fashioned Christmas.”
“The ghost story is inherently old-fashioned—more now than it ever was,” Seth agrees. “If you asked people to list popular genres they wouldn’t even list it!” He thinks it’s easier to put a ghost story into the average person’s hands than it is a horror tale, because the latter often have visceral scares, blood and gore. “That almost never occurs in the ghost stories – they’re very gentle and, much like the way people fell in love with Downton Abbey, I think people love this idea of stuffy old Britain.”
“It doesn’t have to be British, but that certainly doesn’t hurt,” he says about his own tastes, although Canadian writer Carol Shields (The Stone Diaries) and U.S. author Shirley Jackson (The Lottery) are on his future wish list. Seth quotes the French writer Madame de Staël, who famously said she didn’t believe in ghosts, but she was afraid of them. There’s a nostalgia for the vanishing past, yet part of the appeal is not so much a belief in ghosts, but the idea that we could believe in them. Perhaps, as Canadian writer Robertson Davies declared in High Spirits, his own anthology of chilling tales, we simply need “ghosts as a dietary supplement … to stave off that most dreadful of modern ailments, the Rational Rickets.”
The Thrill of Chills
Sharing ghost stories to pass the long evening hours would have been the average experience when they first appeared 150 years ago, but now they offer the opportunity to recapture time—or at least, slow it down. “A book,” Seth adds, “is always a combination of a time machine and an empathy machine.” The measured narrative of the ghost story is key, as are physical books in general, especially to escape the electronic world we live in and hold something in our hands that does not link up to anything else, he says. “They’re ideally suited to what we consider now as the absolute luxury experience, which is to sit down and do nothing.”
It reminds me of something that another one of the foremost contributors to the ghost-story genre, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton, said in the 1937 preface to Ghosts, her own anthology of chilling stories (also reissued by NYRB Classics this year). Wharton wrote ghost stories to counter “the hard grind of modern speeding-up,” and attributed their attraction to “the fun of the shudder.” As many physiologists have posited, the release of dopamine, adrenaline and endorphins from a mild fright in a safe environment offers a pleasant rush. Whether ghost stories are read in a quiet corner or whispered by candlelight, we couldn’t agree more.