Friday, December 9, 2022

A Goodnight for a Ghost Story

“The story has 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 be essentially be…” 

Not the words of horror maestro Stephen King, or perhaps from the legendary Peter Straub, who unfortunately passed away last year. But another genius who was not recognize in his own time, Henry James. 

James was known for such works as ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, and ‘the Wings of the Dove’ , he perfectly captured a time when ~ on Christmas eve there were no presents in sight and no merriment to be had, instead it was time for a ghost story.  

Acknowledged for his literary modernism, penned the novel The Turn of the Screw’ in 1898. In his later years, James wrote what motivated him to create such a story, and it was none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson. James wrote in a letter to A.C. Benson, son of Edward “Your Father repeated to me the few meager elements of a small and gruesome spectral story that had been told him years before and that he could only give the dimmest account of.” 

The telling of a ghost story one Christmas Eve became one of the classic ghost stories of the Victorian Age, of all time actually.

The strange fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, wrote his Christmas time horror story ‘The Festival’. In the story, a young man returns to his hometown seeking his birthright, and terrible fates await him. Lovecraft, set the scene, as only Lovecraft could do:

“It was the Yuletide that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.”

As Lovecraft’s protagonist makes his way through the ‘shallow, new-fallen snow’ … did the young man walk there, did he take a bus or a train? Lovecraft never said, but that is not important...

The town of Kingport, a fictional town, was inhabited only in Lovecraft’s mind, like Derry in King’s imagination. The town itself becomes a minor character in the story:

 “Beside the road at its crest a still higher summit rose, bleak and windswept, and I saw that it was a burying-ground where black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse. The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind. They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.”

In ‘The Festival’ there is an encounter by firelight that changes everything. 

All the world is familiar with Charles Dickens immortal classic ‘A Christmas Carol’. In the story, the central character Ebinezeer Scrooge is visited by three specters, although Dickens used the word “haunted” by these apparitions, which is nearer to the truth. 

As the ghost’s paint pictures of Scrooge’s life in the past, present, and the future, he is struck by certain dread. In the final haunting, Scrooge witnesses the last of the spirits that is pointing to a lonely site: 

“A churchyard. Here, then, the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place! The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.” 

In this tale, Scrooge makes amends saying:

"Spirit!" he cried, tight clutching at its robe, "hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?"

Scrooge avoids his fate, a desolate early grave.

A Christmas Carol is one of the most ghostly tales you can tell at Christmas that has a happy ending. 

But there is no happy ending for The Turn of the Screw’:

“ … the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him-- it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”

Happy Christmas everyone …. Time for a good ghost story.