ghosts of christmas past
John Murray Publishing
2018

  • A present contains a monstrous secret. An uninvited guest haunts a Christmas party. A shadow slips across the floor by firelight. A festive entertainment ends in darkness and screams. Who knows what haunts the night at the dark point of the year? This collection of seasonal chillers looks beneath Christmas cheer to a world of ghosts and horrors, mixing terrifying modern fiction with classic stories by masters of the macabre. From Neil Gaiman and M. R. James to Muriel Spark and E. Nesbit, there are stories here to make the hardiest soul quail–so find a comfy chair, lock the door, ignore the cold breath on your neck and get ready to welcome in the real spirits of Christmas.

Now that it’s December, and the whole Thanksgiving season is in our collective rear-view mirrors (if you happen to be living in the United States, that is), we are now firmly ensconced in the Christmas season part of the yearly Holiday Clusterbomb. The lights are up, the trees and houses are decorated, the seasonal music is playing, and if you happen to be dwelling in the northern hemisphere of this planet of ours, the days are getting darker far earlier every night now. It’s a fun fact that this was the traditional season to be telling ghost stories around the fire at Christmas time, and I for one wish to continue this grand tradition started in the Victorian era. It’s a very Gothic time for me, so it’s in that spirit of the season in which I purchased this electronic tome of spooky stories set during Christmas to liven up the nights. Let’s take a gander at the stories carried within Ghosts of Christmas Past, shall we?

  • “The Story of a Disappearance and a Reappearance” (M. R. James)

Beginning with one of the masters of literary ghost stories, a man relays, through a series of letters dated December of 1837, his travels to a town to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of his clergyman uncle, and having a nightmare involving a Punch and Judy puppet show.

  • “Dinner For One” (Jenn Ashworth)

Narrated from the point of view of the ghost of someone who is still haunting their significant other, kind of disproving the whole “death do us part” bit of a relationship.

  • “The Shadow” (E. Nesbit)

Fun Fact: Ms Nesbit was primarily an author of children’s books, and only messed around with ghost stories and such on the side. Anyway, after a grand Christmas party at an old house, the housekeeper of this story’s narrator’s aunt stops by the room where there are girls telling late-night ghost stories by the firelight, and she’s invited to tell a chilling tale of her own–one that turns out to be all too real.

  • “This Beautiful House (Louis de Bernieres)

The narrator of this story sits outside one picturesque Christmas night, admiring the lights of a Christmas tree inside the old house he grew up in, prompting memories of Christmas past, and why the ghosts of his family keep pestering him.

  • “The Leaf-Sweeper” (Muriel Spark)

A story that answers the question: What happens when you surpress your Christmas spirit for too long?

  • “Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk” (Frank Cowper)

A gentleman visiting a friend over the Christmas holidays finds himself stranded on a wreaked and long-abandoned ship while duck hunting, and encounters something foul overnight. No pun intended. As a side note, this story references the 17th Century Gothic novella “The Haunters and the Haunted”, one I was not familiar with and is apparently available for free online. Nifty.

  • “The Step” (E. F. Benton)

An unscrupulous business landowner evicts a poor family from their residence, then begins to get the paranoid feeling of being followed at night. I’m sure the two incidents are unrelated.

  • “The Vanishing House” (Benard Capes)

A drunken banjo (that wasn’t a typo) retells the tale of when his gran’pappy and his mates came across the Devil one snowy night…I think. This was a weird story.

  • “Someone in the Lift” (L. P. Hartley)

A young boy of six keeps seeing a man in an hotel lift (that’s what they call elevators in Britain, gov’nah) that isn’t there, then has a dream on Christmas Eve involving his father dressed as Santa Claus on that very lift.

  • “The Visiting Star” (Robert Nickman)

A famous stage actress arrives in a small town to put on a play, and brings along her two companions who turn out to not be who they appear to be.

  • “Nicholas Was” (Neil Gaiman)

A very, very brief, yet very chilling look at Santa Claus in a whole ‘nother light.

  • “The Ghost of the Blue Chamber” (Jerome K. Jerome)

While visiting family, a man’s uncle tells the tale of the history of the ghost that haunts a room in the house called the Blue Chamber every Christmas Eve, from Midnight to when the cock crows; so obviously the nephew decides to sleep in said room, and discovers the ghost is very much real…and he makes a new friend that night…

  • “The Lady and the Fox” (Kelly Link)

A pretty good dark fantasy involving a girl noticing a strange man standing outside whenever it snows on Christmas Eve, looking in the window of her godmother’s house every year, which results in her growing love of the man and her plans to finally free the man trapped by the magic of a lady. Good way to end the collection of stories, very C. S. Lewis in scope and feel, here.

Overall, I have to say that Ghosts of Christmas Past is a pretty good collection of classic and modern stories. Of course, the two authors that I recognized right off the bat were M. R. James and, of course, Neil Gaiman; the stories each had their own particular tone and style going on, making all of the stories enjoyable; however, I have to say that the standouts for me were “The Story of a Disappearance and a Reappearance” (always a sucker for a good M. R. James tale), “Dinner For One” (even though the whole “twist” was rather evident early on in the story), “This Beautiful House” (touching yet unnerving), “The Leaf-Sweeper” (more of humorous than spooky), “Someone in the Lift” (has a dark Robert Bloch feel to the story), “Nicholas Was” (and not just because I’m a Gaiman fanboy, trust), “The Ghost of the Blue Chamber” (again, more humorous than spooky), and the ender “The Lady and the Fox” (for the same reasons I gave in the section, there).

Whether you go all out for the atmosphere and read a hefty copy of this by firelight in a tall-backed Victorian chair on a cold winter night, or–like me–you’re reading this by the light of a Kindle, Ghosts of Christmas Past is indeed a good way to get into the Christmas spirit in the only way people like myself know how: by giving ourselves a jolly good fright. Recommended.