Book Review: GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

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ghosts of christmas past
John Murray Publishing
2018

  • A present contains a monstrous secret. An uninvited guest haunts a Christmas┬áparty. 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.

HALLOWEEN’ING Day 29: The Golden Arm

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halloween'ing 2017golden arm
It was October of 1984. I was at a sleepover at a friend’s farm, along with various other grade school chums. We were out in the back area, near the grove of trees that seemed to go on forever. The sun had gone down a while ago, and we were all sitting around a fire, and began telling stories ghost stories. I mostly listened, myself having not yet developed the story-telling skill, and not being well-versed in some of the more traditional campfire stories. But, these guys did. One of which was the classic tale, “The Golden Arm”.

Doing some research on the history of this particular folk tale, “The Golden Arm” dates back to at least 200 years prior, and was used by one Mark Twain as an example of how to tell a story.

Truly, the best way to get the most out of this story is to tell it orally. And it’s not just how you tell it, but also the place you’re telling it and the aesthetics of the setting are part of the whole experience. That night, all those decades ago, was the perfect setting, which is probably why this story has stuck with me for so long, and probably was instrumental in collecting folklore and ghost stories.

The GOLDEN ARM

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HALLOWEEN’ING Day 11: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow & Other Macabre Tales (Washington Irving)

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halloween'ing 2017
IMG_20170929_172745569
The name Washington Irving should be familiar to those of us Gothic literature enthusiasts. He was one of the first early American-born writers, with quite a few contributions to 19th Century ghost stories. You might remember a little story called The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow? Even if you’ve only seen the Disney animated short, the underrated Tim Burton movie, or even nods to it in various bits of media (my favorite being an episode of The Real Ghostbusters), the original story is a classic ghost story that goes hand-in-hand with Halloween.

This particular book that contains this and various other short stories by Washington Irving (including his other famous work, “Rip Van Winkle”) I ran across at Barnes & Noble, in the Discount Books section for cheep a couple of years ago. It includes the two stories mentioned, plus __ others: “The Spectre Bridegroom”, “Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman”, “The Devil and Tom Walker”, “Walter Webber, or Golden Dreams, “Guest from Gibbet Island”, “Legend of the Two Discreet Statues”, “The Grand Prior of Minorca”, “Don Juan: A Spectral Research”, “Legend of the Engulfed Convent”, and “The Enchanted Island”. I paid about $7.99 for it, not factoring in the tax, back then. I’ve seen it listed for less than that at the Barnes & Noble online site, though, as an ebook.

For some classic American Gothic ghost stories, this is one of the better collections.

The LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW & Other Tales of the Macabre

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HALLOWEEN’ING 2014: Day 11 – Ghost Stories

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Scary-Stories-coversI was ten years old, and in 5th grade. One of my friends in the rural grade school I attended had a sleep over at his place, which happened to be one of the many farm families that populate the area of my neck of the woods. We built a fire outside by a dense grove of trees behind the house, and come night time after the requisite ritual of roasting hotdogs and such, we all began telling ghost stories, to see how freaked out we could get each other.

The stories told were your basic campfire ghost stories: classics like “The Golden Arm” and that one with the guy with a hook for a hand that just escaped the mental hospital, along with some others that I only remember having been told at that campfire that night. All told with the earnestness that only young boys with some very fertile imagination can conjurer up.

I was completely enraptured by that night of storytelling. It was cut short after a couple of hours, when some coyotes began howling in the distance, and we retreated to the warmth and safety of the indoors. But the images that the stories told that night continued to fascinate me, long after that night. Soon after, I began checking out books of ghost stories and juvenile-aged horror stories that I could find at the library, feeding my growing interest in the macabre. I never had nightmares, really…well, nothing I would consider nightmares, personally. Even at that young an age, I found myself more fascinated rather than scared by ghost stories.

Besides, what’s Halloween without a good, old fashioned ghost story? It’s an art form, really. And when told right, like any other story, it can open up a sense of wonder and mystery, as well as scare the dickens out of you.

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