FROM THE PULPIT
K ATHRYN H UGHES FESTIVE SPIRITS
now free to pop in and go ‘boo’ whenever they feel like it. All this is a shame. For it seems to me that we have never needed our ghost stories more than now. Literary theorists will tell you that
T HERE IS A long custom of telling tales of the uncanny at Christmas. When Dickens spun his classic yarn about four ghosts trooping through Scrooge’s front room, he wasn’t creating a tradition so much as putting a particularly bright, shining star atop one that had existed for centuries. But he did it so brilliantly – that is, commercially – that at a single stroke Christmas and Mystery, two nouns which had been floating near each other for as long as anyone could remember, now started to do a more formal dance. From then on, and right through the nineteenth century, no December issue of any periodical was complete without a tale of ghostly haunting. In women’s magazines, the plot usually involved a long-deceased former lover who insisted on turning up in church just as the heroine was about to say ‘I do’. In boys’ magazines there were whole cohorts of wispy pirates or headless Cavaliers barging noisily through the frenetic plot. In those publications aimed at gentlemen, meanwhile, the setting for a seasonal haunting was more likely to be a club library or ruined abbey. This tone of antiquarian connoisseurship was in turn brought to exquisite perfection by the Cambridge scholar M R James, whose early ghost stories were read at the Christmas gathering of King’s College in 1903. Exactly how this association of Christmas with all things spooky sprang up is probably lost for ever. It seems to have something to do with the idea that around the time of the winter solstice the family ancestors return to share the festival with their earthly relatives. In Scandinavia the shades would rattle the windows vigorously, while in Brittany people put out food that the ghosts would eat while the living family attended church; tweak the custom a little and you have the origin of leaving mince pies for Santa. Whatever the exact form their teasing takes, the point these revenants are trying to make by their presence is that beyond this complacent corporeal world of mince pies and eggnog there lies a realm of infinite depth and boundless space whose dimensions can never be fully known. The ghost is terrifying not because it means us any harm (it doesn’t, usually) but because it jolts us out of any lulling sense that we are the masters of our own universe. Recently, though, we seem to have lost this relationship between Christmas and tales of the supernatural. Perhaps it’s something to do with the way that Hallowe’en has been boosted by cultural borrowings from the States, to the point where it has become a swollen celebration of plastic terror, less about the undead walking the streets than about children high on sugar playing noisily in their neighbours’ gardens. Perhaps, too, the commodification of the supernatural in the form of the Harry Potter multi-platform franchise has deadened us to any sense that it is specifically in midwinter that ghosts and ghoulies take up temporary residence on earth. Unanchored from both the pagan and the Christian calendar, the denizens of the nether world are
the genre has always flourished just at those moments when the known world feels as if it were slipping out of control. In the 1860s writers including Wilkie Collins, Sheridan LeFanu, Ellen Wood and Mary Braddon produced a stream of narratives positively thrumming with unhallowed doubles and vengeful revenants. Even the normally sedate Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot were happy to produce short stories that shivered with uncertainty. And all because beneath the apparently placid surface of High Victorianism things were much less stable than they seemed. The economy was about to stall before going into free fall, while middle-class women were calling for social and political changes that would recalibrate relations between the sexes for ever. And it was this sense of dark things bubbling under that led directly to all those tales of ghostly hands plucking at the heroine’s skirt or a wild shriek at midnight presaging the collapse of family and fortune. Decades later, the principle held good for M R James too. Written at a time of shrivelling Empire, James’s stories of ghostly abbots and cursed crowns allowed readers to experience a world that was infinitely bigger than the one they could reach out and touch. This expanded realm might be threatening in the way that it flouted the rules of normal time and space. However, by connecting readers with the possibility that their ancestors were watching over them, ready to warn of coming terrors, James’s ghost stories also offered a thoughtful comfort in stormy times. It is exactly this sense of depth and mystery that we need so badly now. Our contemporary Christmases are devoid of anything that speaks of the unknown or the infinite. Presents come branded, experiences pre-packaged. Advent calendars tell the story of the Simpsons, while little girls long for a Bratz doll. Adults, in turn, hope to find under the Christmas tree not a new piece of sheet music but a replacement iPod nano for the one they left on the train only last month. And if the story of the Christ child gets told at all, it is with anything likely to unsettle left out (primary schools now routinely omit any references to Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents on the grounds that it might disturb worried little boys). Against this landscape of flat surfaces and primary colours we need the depth and drama of the ghost story. The clutching hand, the light brush against our hair, the mysterious guide who vanishes with the daylight – these are more than leftover fragments from a dried-up tradition. They are, rather, reminders that we are still living in a world which is infinitely less singular than we care to imagine.
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2006 / Jan 2007