Scary Solstice to All!

Solstices are liminal times. Whether involving death on a tree or blood on the snow, the shortest and longest days of the year are held to be the time when the veil between this world and whatever other worlds are out there is thin. Whether another dimension or beyond the veil, the cold darkness of the Winter Solstice makes it a perfect time to tell ghost stories. The sun goes down early, and everyone huddles around the fire telling stories of hope or death – or both.

If Summer is the time for tales of the fey and the summer lands, December is the time for haunted stories. Shakespeare’s Mamillius informs us in A Winter’s Tale, “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins. There was a man dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly; yonder crickets shall not hear it.” Or Shakespeare’s Barabbas: “Now I remember those old women’s words, Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales, And speak of spirits and ghosts by night.”

Victorian humorist Jerome K. Jerome had a collection of stories “Told After Supper” published in 1891 (which you can read for free on Kindle). He wrote, “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”

Charles Dickens had the same idea decades earlier. We all know how Scrooge was visited by ghosts and the spectre of death – his own and others, in particular children. And beyond the ghosts of A Christmas Carol, he wrote in “The Seven Poor Travelers” that Christmas Eve is “the witching time for storytelling.”

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote “The Old Nurse’s Story” in 1852, a deliciously gothic Victorian ghost story with a haunted house, dramatic organ music, and ghosts galore. I’ve often wondered if Charles Addams thought of her while drawing Lurch at the organ.

James Joyce penned “The Dead” which, although it has no ghosts, is still a haunting of a death upon the living. I love this summary at the end, “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

M. R. James’ “Complete Ghost Stories” is a delightful collection of stories told at Eton over eggnog and a hearth fire. His explorations of ghost stories are not all centered around Christmas, but more the feeling of the season and an enjoyment of fear, unease, melancholy, and death that makes winter evenings a shivery delight. “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” is also on Amazon.

Other fun anthologies: