Ghost Stories at Christmas?

Christmas Spirits

Bill Ectric’s Place is celebrating Christmas with this website called Hypnogoria and the history of Christmas ghost stories:

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago…

So sang Andy Williams back in 1963 in his festive favourite It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. And the lyric quoted above has caused much scratching of heads over the years, as not every one is aware of the old tradition of telling spooky tales upon a Christmas night. Indeed some have wondered whether the lines above are merely referring solely, in a hap-hazard fashion, to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But of course there’s more spectres abroad at Yuletide other than just Mr Marley and his crew. To begin with some of the finest ghost stories ever written were produced by M. R. James who notes in the preface to his first collection of tales, Ghost Stories of An Antiquary (1904) –

“I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas…”

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Rupert Holmes Discusses The History of The Mystery of Edwin Drood Musical

Top Center: Charles Dickens, Bottom Center: Rupert Holmes


Back in the 80s, I took a college course called Victorian Detective Literature. One of the assignments was to write an ending to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the novel that Charles Dickens was working on when he died, leaving the book unfinished. I’m sure college students all over the country have received the same assignment. It was a fun exercise, but not nearly as fun as reading Rupert Holmes’ account of how a flash of inspiration resulted brought his award-winning Drood musical to life. Here’s an excerpt:

I thought again of Drood. Could I convey the basic plot of Dickens’ bleak literary curiosity and still supply an audience with enough fun to make them momentarily forget they had a dentist’s appointment tomorrow? And what to do about the scarcity of principal female characters in the story? How could I resolve Dickens’ tale without implying that I alone knew the ending the great man had envisioned? And how could I do all this in a manner totally unique to theatre?

Well certainly, as a performer, I knew that a live audience delights in anything that happens on stage spontaneously and only in the specific performance they’re witnessing: an ad lib, an unscheduled song, a guest artist who drops in without warning, a genuinely unexpected unrehearsed encore. A fuse is blown and the singer does a number a cappella. A piece of scenery falls on stage and the actor makes a joke about it without dropping character, earning a round of applause for his improvisation – pleased, you turn to your companion and murmur, “That doesn’t happen every night.”

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Burning Man

I thought Steve Aylett was joking when one of the characters in his phosphorescent noir-action novel,  Novahead, says that a character in Charles Dickens’  Bleak House died from spontaneous human combustion. I have obviously never read Bleak House. David Perdue tells us that “Dickens sparked controversy in Bleak House when he had a rag and bone dealer named Krook die by spontaneous human combustion, a phenomenon where the human body catches fire as a result of heat generated by internal chemical action. Although scientists have denied the existence of this phenomenon, supposed cases of spontaneous human combustion are still reported today.”

In the next paragraph of Novahead, one of Aylett’s characters refers to Howard’s End as a “vampire novel.” It’s not, of course, but in some strange way, it seems like it could have been mistaken for a vampire novel by someone from the future (if that makes any sense). The E. M. Forster novel is set in Old England, the people have defined roles based on social class. Aren’t the rich always sucking life from the poor? Rob Doll, in his E. M. Forster web site, Pharos, reminds us that the character named Leonard is called the “grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town; as one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit.” It’s only a small leap from that idea to the recent proliferation of historical vampire and zombie fiction, like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian  or Seth Grahame-Smith’s revision of a Jane Austen classic,  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

All that from a couple of sentences in Novahead; sentences which have little to do with the plot, but go a long way in illustrating the density of knowledge we have come to expect from Steve Aylett.