The winters are especially long and often harsh here in New England. They tend to start a bit late but last well into the fourth or sometimes the fifth month of the year. Because I am not a winter sport person, I tend to find the warmest spot I can when the cold settles in and the days are short. Over the past few years I have found that I have reserved specific genres for specific times of the year when it comes to reading. During the winters I tend to read long nineteenth century novels and ghost stories. I want to be clear here, however: I don’t read much horror, but I do read a lot of ghost stories. No Stephen King or Dean Koontz for me. Give me the ghost stories of Charles Dickens, Poe, or Henry James any day.
Ghost stories, at least the ones that I read, tend to emphasize atmosphere over plot and character. In fact, the best ghost stories are the ones where the characters are left slightly unfinished or fuzzy around the edges. They are ungraspable and not entirely intelligible. Unlike detective stories (a genre I also enjoy reading), not everything has to be explained in a ghost story. A sense of place takes on a greater degree of importance in the ghost story. This includes breaking number one of Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules” for writing fiction: never begin with the weather. Well, ghost stories often begin with the weather because it is essential in setting the mood. A successful ghost story will always leave more to the imagination than any other genre of fiction. A ghost story demands reader participation in ways that other genres do not. Readers have to feel a heightened sense of awareness and narrative tension in order for the story to be effective.
Christmas is the perfect time for the telling of ghost stories. At no other time of the year are we so close to the supernatural. Perhaps it’s because the days are short and the nights are long, but the end of December is electrically charged with something insubstantial, something beyond the physical realm. This electrical charge goes all the way back to our pagan roots and has very little to do with the birth of Christ, which probably did not happen in December, if at all. The Victorians knew this well and considered the telling of ghost stories as an essential part of their Christmas Eve celebrations. The Yule logs and Christmas trees that fill countless homes are pagan rituals and have nothing to do with Christianity. It’s a time for communing with one’s dead ancestors by recounting stories. Long before television there was the hearth, around which families would gather to pass the time. The spirit or spirits of the tales can often possess the teller as well as the listener. We become enraptured and mesmerized by the tale, possessed by it if you will. Later, when tales began to be written down and the literacy rate started to climb, tales would lose some of their magic, as Walter Benjamin has written. Still, even without the oral component to storytelling, we are still communing with ghosts while reading.
Some of the ghost stories I intend to read this winter include:
The Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James
Classic Horror Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales by Vernon Lee
The Kiss of Death by Marcus Sedgwick
Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill
The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Terrifying Tales
Hamlet (Yes, Hamlet is a ghost story!)
The Celts by Gerhard Herm (a bit of history)
The Devil’s Elixirs and “The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann
Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale by Marina Warner
The Complete First Edition of the Brothers Grimm, the Jack Zipes translation