Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo
Artillery Row

Ghosts at the feast

Christmas ghost stories are meditations on darkness at the darkest point of the year

I had a rare moment to myself last week, free from children and obligations. Having travelled to Rottnest Island (a small island off the coast of Western Australia that was once a colonial prison and is now a holiday destination), I escaped colleagues and walked the long way round to our Christmas party, along a desolate track of road between broad and frothing salt lakes.

It was brutal midday, the heat was relentless, the glare magnesium bright. I should have been snorkelling. Instead, I was entertaining a secret wintry thrill. The bleak, littoral landscape had conjured up a very different sort of Christmas. For a few moments, I was Peter Vaughan trudging through mist along the Suffolk coast, looking over his shoulder for a vengeful spirit.

It’s a sign of the potency of the ghost story that it can conjure dismal English winter in the midst of Antipodean heat. Even on this side of the world, I tend to drag out my boxset of the BBC’s A Ghost Story For Christmas as Advent ticks along. For me, spooks are as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and disappointment.

Why this festive obsession with things that go bump in the night? There are probably very good reasons connected with supposedly pagan traditions around solstices and the thinning of the ethereal whatnot between this life and the next. I suspect it’s more about anxiety. For the same reason we lie awake, inconsolably troubled by trifles at three in the morning, we are gripped at the turning of the year by yearning for what is lost and terror at what is to come.

Ghost stories were baked into Christmas traditions by Dickens

In other words, ghosts stories seem very 2021. Little wonder this Christmas brings a double serve of spectral horror, as Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, Doctor Who and The League of Gentlemen) revives two ageing properties: a retelling of Lionel Jeffries’ 1972 film The Amazing Mr Blunden and a new instalment for long-running BBC series A Ghost Story For Christmas. This year’s offering, The Mezzotint, will be Gatiss’s fourth contribution to the series and his third appointment with Montague Rhode James, the unbeaten master of the English ghost story.

Five of Mr James’s stories were adapted for the original 1970s run of A Ghost Story For Christmas (six if you include Whistle and I’ll Come To You, a standalone film from 1968). Gatiss has named Lost Hearts, perhaps the most gruesome of the bunch, as his favourite, but as far as I’m concerned, A Warning to the Curious deserves the throne.

In the 1972 film, Peter Vaughan plays Paxton, a down-on-his-luck Londoner who comes to Suffolk during the Great Depression in the hope of finding a lost Anglo-Saxon crown. Against all odds, he digs it up in the dunes. His black luck soon returns when it transpires the crown is guarded by a relentless phantom with a nasty cough. “Ever since I’ve touched this thing,” he confides in a new friend, “I’ve never been alone.”

Although ghost stories sometimes tangle successfully with the present, there is more often a sense of excavation, the digging out of some past horrors, often at a moment when the future seems even more worrying. Ghost stories were baked into Christmas traditions by Dickens in the Victorian era, amidst the tumult of the Industrial Revolution.  James wrote A Warning To The Curious in the aftermath of the Great War. A Ghost Story For Christmas arrived in the wake of another revolution: the summer of love was fading into a decade of strikes and civil unrest.

Dickens’s vision of the spectral was as modern as his concept of Christmas

It isn’t difficult to see why these stories might find new resonance now, as our digital age of identity has been brought low by an inescapable physical virus. But James, perhaps guarding against his own obsessions as an antiquarian, warns against surrendering to nostalgia. Be careful what you dig up from the past — you might not be able to put it back. Civilisation and reason are more fragile than they might seem. The wicked cleric Dr Haynes (played by Robert Hardy) in The Stalls of Barchester loses his prized reason to half-glimpsed horrors that move along his corridors without sound. I would not be the first to argue that the uniquely visceral, hairy nature of James’s ghosts hints at repressed primal urges that the author feared might be released within himself.

The BBC series was, of course, a revival of a Victorian fascination with ghost stories at Christmas. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol might be credited with inextricably linking ghosts with yuletide, but his vision of the spectral was as modern as his concept of Christmas — an urban affair, with families gathering indoors, rather than a rural and feudal celebration with lords of the manor responsible for yuletide feasts.

His ghosts tend to be equally forward looking. Scrooge’s visitations are there to help him avoid a miserable fate. Likewise, the eponymous protagonist in The Signalman (one of the few non-James instalments of A Ghost Story for Christmas) is haunted by spirits who sing in the wires and flash lanterns by the tracks, foretelling a terrible accident.

This link between eldritch horrors and technological anxiety might not be quite as paradoxical as it seems. In her brilliant work The Ghost: A Cultural History, Susan Owens points out that the nature of ghosts has always transformed with technology. When Dickens described Marley’s ghost as being transparent, he was drawing on what was then a recent convention, inspired by the development of lantern slides towards the end of the 18th century and reinforced by the invention of photography during the 1830s.

Nigel Kneale picked up on this uneasy relationship between science and the spectral in The Stone Tape, also shown at Christmas 1972. Scientists test a theory that the stones of a Victorian mansion have recorded past events, but their investigations ultimately unleash something ancient and malevolent. Kneale was also responsible for the scariest of all Christmas ghost films with his 1989 adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black, which explores the notion of the curse as raw fury — the irrational anger of a wronged spirit destroying all who cross her path in lieu of justice. (She would probably do well on Twitter.)

To enter a ghost story is to be fully in the room

Brilliant as it is, The Woman In Black might explain why the ghost story seems to have shifted to the periphery of pop culture, even in a historical moment that would seem certain to summon it. Kneale’s film is effective because, as with the best ghost stories, nothing happens for a very long time. It is a masterpiece of suspense and creeping dread. We get glimpses and jolts but when the title character finally descends — oh, Jesus.

I wonder if this is a form of visual storytelling that requires unusual courage in 2021. A ghost story requires us to be with ourselves, to sit with dread and uncertainty, to confront mortality. The best of them work because they demand the viewer fill the gaps with our private horrors. In stark contrast to most screen horror, the less we see, the worse it gets.

Ghost stories are not works of distraction, but meditations on darkness at the darkest point of the year. They will not work if you have your phone alight in your hand. To enter a ghost story is to be fully in the room.

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