Haunting Holiday Stories

For thousands and thousands of years those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have celebrated December's long nights and dark days by huddling around the fire and scaring each other half to death with frightening stories. As various holidays (Saturnalia, the Solstice, Christmas, etc.) developed we created new stories that paid homage to these holidays, with the stories eventually morphing and changing from pure spoken word to printed prose, plays, songs and carols, and eventually radio, and film. But through all of these changes the stories retained their essential scariness until this year we have the release of a slasher film called Black Christmas. This week we'll take a look at some tales that will make you and your family tremble.

Just about everyone is familiar with the most famous of Christmas ghost stories, A Christmas Carol, but how many have actually read it? The first time I read the original book I was pleasantly surprised by how witty it is. Dickens has a dry sense of humor that comes through in the descriptions, something you'll totally miss if you only watch this as say, Ratty the Rat's Moralistic Christmas Carol Sermon. That brings me to something else; there is a fair amount of moralizing in this story, (who can forget the characters of Ignorance and Want peering out from under the second spirit's robe?) which can make it hard to just relax and enjoy the story. But if you manage it, this is a very enjoyable story indeed because Scrooge's journey from a cold hearted man who cannot love even himself, to the man who is as giddy as a schoolchild and who lavishes his wealth on those in need and loves every second of it, is full of equal parts joy and terror. If you really want to watch the story instead of reading it, I heartily endorse the version starring Patrick Stewart, who is quite simply wonderful in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, the philanthropist in the making.

Telling Winter Stories,also from Charles Dickens, is a series of stories told in vignettes, perfect for reciting on Christmas Eve. There is the tale of the orphaned boy, forlorn and mistreated, who peeks out of the cage a wretched beast of a guardian kept him in, the wan and waterlogged maiden who drowned herself for want of love, there is the cousin who appears from a far away country in the moment of his death and many more that you may find familiar.

While this next story doesn't have holly bows or other Christmas related paraphernalia, it was released just in time for Christmas in the year 1902. It's a story of a woman who lives in a village and can't seem to do for herself. There's something about her that makes people want to do her work for her but then they slowly fade away as she gets prettier and more and more healthy. Perhaps not technically a ghost story, it's still a story about an entire town haunted by one woman. It's called Luella Miller and it's by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

For a rather chilling take on the whole Santa thing you should check out Neil Gaiman's 100 word Christmas card from a few years back called Nicholas Was. It's currently available as a free mp3 sample of his spoken word CD called Warning Contains Language, for sale at the utterly wonderful Dreamhaven Books. This is a terrific CD and I think I've listened to it every time I've gone for a greater than 250 mile drive for the last five or so years. If you're feeling particularly creative and want to do a mashup or a remix of the track, Neil says he'll happily (and seasonally) post it on his blog, found at http://www.neilgaiman.com/journal/. W00t!

Some kids view Santa as a kindly fellow who will bring them lovely gifts and some view him as a spying horror they can never escape; doubtless spending most of his year dreaming up dreadful things to leave in their stocking. If you were that kind of kid you'll very much enjoy this creepy and tragic tale by Lucy Lane Clifford called The New Mother. It's the story of two children, Blue Eyes and Turkey, who are enthralled by a wild and ragged child who tells them she'll show them wonderful things if only they are naughty enough. Their mother warns them that if they insist on being naughty she’ll "have to go away and leave you, and to send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail." This brilliant Victorian morals classic has inspired quite a few newer literary works, including Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, and quite possibly Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

For a little change of pace I offer you one of my very favorite Christmas stories, Nutball Season, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Officer Mantino is making plans to work through Christmas Eve and Christmas so he won't have to stay home alone when an old geezer comes into the station and introduces himself as Mr. Kringle. The geezer has a problem; a local woman has threatened to shoot him if he lands on her roof on Christmas Eve but she has a child who has been good so it's not like he can avoid her house. He'd like Officer Mantino to help him. This is a charming story of redemption and faith with some bittersweet moments.

One Sentence Review

Once again Paul Muolo shatters the rules of the one sentence review by submitting this three sentence analysis of Steve Wynn's "What I Did After My Band Broke Up: The Best of Steve Wynn." (Label: Dbk Works) Paul says, "The band that broke up was the Dream Syndicate, which put LA's "Paisley Underground" on the map in the early 1980s. In this "best of collection" (none of these songs went top 40) DS founder Steve Wynn proves once and for all why he's the Raymond Chandler of rock n roll. If nothing else, buy this collection for "Amphetamine" which hums like a rocket...going down the 101." Have you got a one-sentence review? Send it in to me and I'll run the best ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.