"It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.”
– Jerome K. Jerome
While we mostly associate spooky stories with Halloween, for generations in England there has been a strong link between the ghost story and Christmas. Of course, there’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is perhaps the most famous Christmas ghost story of all. Yet the tradition of holiday ghost stories dates back at least as far as the Victorians, when people gathered around a roaring fire to keep the cold at bay and share tales that sent a different sort of chill down the spine.
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Remember: There was no TV or radio back then, so Christmas gatherings were given over to friendly conversation, indoor games, and the telling of tales. And what better kind of stories to tell on the longest, darkest nights of the year than ghost stories?
It was a tradition perhaps most famously practiced by M.R. James, widely considered the master of the English ghost story, who wrote a new spectral tale every year at Christmas. James would invite some of his fellow teachers and favorite students to his chamber, where he would treat them to a reading.
The best ghost stories for Christmas have a few details in common, even if they don’t take place during the holidays. They possess such a convivial sense that you feel a part of the crowd, gathering close to the fire to hear a scary story that just may be real. Such ghost stories remind listeners that they’re inside someplace warm, while hinting at the limitless dark that presses in from outside.
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The tales I’ve gathered for you today date from a little after the true Victorian period, but all of them are in the public domain and available to read for free online. You can peruse them yourself this holiday season—or, if you’re feeling whimsical, you can revive the grand tradition of holiday ghost stories and read them aloud to family and friends when the evening grows dark.
1. “Between the Lights” by E.F. Benson (1912)
E.F. Benson was a protégé of James, and it shows in his ghost stories. Nevertheless, Benson brings much of his own style to the telling, including a sense of fun and sly self-deprecation that never blunts the chill.
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“Between the Lights” may not be his best tale. As the teller in the story warns, “It has no apparatus about it at all. You will probably all say that it was nothing, and wonder why I was frightened.” But what it does have is a perfect Christmas Eve ghost story setting. A group of friends gathers in a darkened room around a blazing fire to compete “with each other in blood, bones, skeletons, armour and shrieks.” If “Between the Lights” merely whets your appetite for more of Benson’s delightful scary stories, I recommend following it up with one of my favorites, “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery.”
2. “Lost Hearts” by M.R. James (1904)
Though M.R. James tended to tell his stories at Christmas, they seldom take place during the holidays. However, there’s a kind of wintry feeling in “Lost Hearts,” even as its telling spans a whole year.
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In some ways, “Lost Hearts” is a remarkably straightforward ghost story, yet still every bit as chilling as some of James’ stranger tales. It contains the undercurrent of sorcery that infuses some of his very best stories. It’s also an example of a tale where the ghosts themselves are at times no more terrible than the men with whom they interact…
3. “Smee” by A.M. Burrage (1931)
If the bit of hide and seek at the beginning of “Between the Lights” made you hungry for more ghostly games in a big, dark house on Christmas Eve, then A.M. Burrage’s “Smee” is the Christmas ghost story for you.
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Even the story’s strange name gives a chill. As the tale unfolds, those chills only multiply. Like jokes, the trick of a great ghost story is not in the phenomena it describes, but in the telling. "Smee' succeeds wonderfully in this regard. It’s a layered tale that gives you all the particulars up front. Yet the accumulation of eerie details still delivers the chills, and the story's frightening climax is tailor-made for spectral tales told around a warm fire.
4. “The Searcher of the End House” by William Hope Hodgson (1910)
William Hope Hodgson’s name is seeing a much-deserved resurgence in popularity among aficionados of the weird tale. He's often held in similar regard to pioneers such as H.P. Lovecraft. While Hodgson may be best known for his novel of classic cosmic horror The House on the Borderland, he wrote widely and prolifically across a variety of subjects, with many of his best stories dealing with strange goings-on upon the sea.
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One of his greatest creations is the paranormal investigator Carnacki, the Ghost Finder. Besides containing that delightful Christmas ghost story touch of a tale being told around smokes and drinks and a crackling fire, Carnacki’s stories combine strange “outside forces” with occasional doses of Scooby Doo-like revelations for what at first appeared to be spectral happenings. “The Searcher of the End House” is a fine example, with one of the most unsettling uses of footprints in the history of the ghost story, and with a mysterious ending that leaves us with as many questions as answers.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons