M. R. James and the dwindling tradition of the Christmas spook

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For hundreds of years the ghost story has been inextricably linked with winter, and particularly Christmas. From medieval tales such as The Haunting of Frodiver, to the frozen wastes of the Overland Hotel in The Shining, the darkness and bleakness of the end of the year have provided ample opportunity to be spooked.

Although this tradition goes back far enough to be referenced in Shakespeare (‘a sad tale’s best for winter. I have one/ of sprites and goblins’), it was not until the 19th century that ghost stories around the Christmas period really hit their stride. Arguably the most famous is A Christmas Carol, which functions as a modern morality tale, a critique of Victorian attitudes to poverty, and is a smashing ghost story. Here, ghosts function both as guides and literal ‘phantoms’ of Scrooge’s past, serving an explicitly moral purpose within the story.

the darkness and bleakness of the end of the year have provided ample opportunity to be spooked.

Conversely, in Dickens’ The Signalman (1866), the ghost is a symbol of foreboding eventually leading to tragedy and despair- and more importantly is morally neutral. There are also questions raised about the ghost as an expression of a disturbed psychology, appropriate for a time of year where people are under greater financial and social pressures than usual. For Dickens, ghost stories function as a form of entertainment which can morally educate and examine, where spectres are indispensable.

However, arguably the master of the Christmas ghost story is M.R. James. This is possibly because he designed his stories with Christmas presentation in mind and especially with an eye to be read aloud. As a result, James’ stories are more playful and vary their voices frequently with formats such as letters and diary entries. These, in turn, add to the realism James’ fiction was famous for- removing ghosts from gothic settings and instead placing them within the ordinary world. James’ ghosts inhabit boarding houses, libraries, abbeys- recognisable to his contemporaries and modern readers, and thus arguably more frightening.

moves from the psychological elements of Dickens to an active malevolence.

Unlike Dickens, spectres and forces are uniformly malevolent and menacing, frequently demonic, and inhuman, such as the unnerving singing coming from Number 13, or the clawing, hairy hand in Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook. James’ ghouls are also physical presences able to harm his protagonists, scratching the face of the unfortunate Dr Haynes in The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.  He moves from the psychological elements of Dickens to an active malevolence. Resultingly, M.R. James’ stories stand up as tales designed to unnerve, and so serve their purpose as a meticulously designed winter’s entertainment.

The influence of Dickens and James was continued in the 1970s by the BBC’s adaptations of their stories for the immensely influential A Ghost Story for Christmas series of films. Only six programmes were ever made in this strand. Their depiction of terrors, however- crawling spider babies in The Ash-Tree, creeping black goo in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas– honoured James’ work and made it accessible and creepy for a new generation. Similarly, television such as Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972) presented a modern version of the Christmas ghost story, where both technology and romantic relationships played a more vital role.

some brave souls continue to carry on this proud tradition.

The tradition continues even now, as seen in Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of James’ Tractate Middoth and forthcoming The Dead Room, to be broadcast this Christmas. So, whilst the ghost story might not have the same precedence in Christmas fiction as it once did, some brave souls continue to carry on this proud tradition.

So, on Christmas eve, before it hits midnight- take out a ghost story and scare yourself silly.

The bad dreams are worth it.

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