Tag Archives: Christmas ghost stories

More Than A Shadow for Christmas

A Warning to the Curious, A Ghost Story for Christmas  by M.R. James (1925)

December’s Short Story,  Tuesday, December 14, 2021

M.R. James  (Montague Rhodes James) is the master of British ghost stories. Five stars all the way.  No arguments. He is known as the originator of the “antiquarian ghost story.”

This story was written to be read aloud on Christmas Eve, like many of James’s stories were at the time. I love his style of writing because he often brings up the mysterious in a way that leaves you chilled to the bone with his supernatural manifestations. In his A Warning to the Curious,  A Christmas Story we have a multiple layered narrative that is creepy and unsettling— storytelling so smooth, you’ll be unable to stop reading. His skills in drawing in the reader by implication and suggestion of the malevolent  supernatural reach far deeper into the imagination than explicit horror narratives. He does write exquisitely in  “quiet horror,” which is my genre!

The setting is the wind-beaten coastal town of Seaburgh. Heaths, fir woods, a gorse, church tower, white windmills and cottages of bright red brick.  Quaint, yes, but buried here is an Anglo-Saxon crown (one of three holy crowns of East Anglia). An antiquary archeologist, Paxton (A James’ classic gentleman protagonist), is vacationing at the village inn and discovers where this crown is buried in “a mound in the woods” of Seaburgh . Dare he dig it up? He does, of course he does. And soon after Paxton begins to notice a “dim presence” following him … and waiting for him in secret places.

The theme is obviously curiosity but with tones of the attraction to fear. And as ghost story readers that we all are, attractions to fear are always at the core.

 

You can read it below, listen to the audio, or watch the 1972 film, which is vintage horror.

Read the full short story (35-minute read) at Gutenberg Australia

https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605921h.html  

Listen to the audio on YouTube.com:

 

Watch the 1972 film broadcast by the BBC:

 

 

James’s ghost stories were published in a series of collections: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925).

In the anthology Ghosts and Marvels, James is quoted: “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo. … Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

 

As an extra treat, you might want to try BRIT BOX from your cable stations. They are showing MR James’ A Ghost Story for Christmas collection (available from 20th December 2021).

Based on the works of MR James’ chilling short stories, this collection of BBC produced adaptations of ghost stories is an extra special Christmas treat. These adaptations, which have a subtlety and style all of their own, have been a major influence on many contemporary British horror filmmakers and have come to be some of the most sought after British TV titles of all time by their legions of eager fans.

BBC’s classic M.R. James ghost stories coming to BritBox this Christmas

 

TO ALL, HAVE A HAPPY AND HEALTHY HOLIDAY SEASON AND PROSPERITY FOR ALL THE NEW YEARS TO COME!

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Christmas River Ghost by Paula Cappa

Christmas River Ghost    by Paula Cappa

A Christmas Tale,  Thursday,  December 7, 2017

Merry Christmas to my readers and followers. I give you a free short story by yours truly (flash-fiction, 12-minute read). Snuggle in with a cup of hot spiced cider, a Christmas cookie, and the Christmas River Ghost.

 

 

They come—through the icy wind, between the naked trees, walking the bridge, by Eagle Hill River. On Christmas Eve, I come home to call the old time back. Holly wreaths, tea and sugar, apple cakes, a partridge in a pear tree. And a peacock hung dead with its speckled feathers in the pantry. ‘ Take the peacock, break its neck.’  That I remember with a shiver.

Tonight there is the good news of snow falling, the dark village sleeping beneath giant snow drops everywhere as I make my way through Main Street. The church steeple chimes do not sound yet, as it is not midnight. My little girl memories call up images of pixies and elves and the ringing of sleigh bells across the sky.

 

The house waits for me, shabby with the grief of those passed on. Spending Christmas alone has its virtue, my sister Annabella used to say, whose heart was ever open to charity’s claims and gift-giving. She would know about such solitude; she had spent many a Christmas alone. Too many times, my fault.

A Christmas Eve supper will sooth me: ham and apricots, a fresh biscuit, a glass of warm red wine with a cinnamon stick. The crabbed and wrinkled Scrooge breaks into my thoughts. Maybe I would read a few pages of Dickens. Remind myself of the miserly and cold-hearted man.

Snow pelts arrows at me as I stumble up the hill to the front path. I ring the doorbell just for fun, announcing my arrival to no one. Maybe Annabella will hear it. That is, if her spirit still lives here. Christmas ghosts are common, I’m told. Christmas miracles and all that—the arrival of the holy babe makes a holy night. If true, her presence would certainly reside in the kitchen especially. Her lilac perfume and the green ribbons in her light brown tresses every Christmas day. I can see her at the stove, blue eyes sparkling, her cheeks flushed with the holiday excitement. Home is such a magnet. In the front hall I nearly expect to hear her laughter just one more time.

The kitchen is the same as when I was a girl. Oak table by the frost-crazed window panes. That ancient curly-legged cast iron stove that spouted smoke at the ceiling. A white cupboard, open-shelved where pies would cool and tempt.

‘ Rose, take the peacock, break its neck, cut its throat.’

Again I shiver. “Time to make Christmas.” I warm the kitchen with Annabella’s boiling copper kettle and make a pot of orange tea in her china teapot trimmed in holly. I set my slice of ham, three apricots, and biscuit into the oven. The red wine steams with the cinnamon stick on the stovetop. The savory aroma is exactly as Annabella used to make it. In the library, I stack logs and kindling in the hearth as she did every Christmas when I was a child. Nothing like a roaring fire to set things right. For I must set things right tonight.

As I recline in the giant armchair, I decide against reading Dickens. No need for Scrooge now, nor the reminder of being arrogant and vain and stingy.  My tight-fisted hand at the grindstone. Is this really me? I’m done with all that. Music will serve. I find Annabella’s old Christmas records. Sleigh bells ring … are you listening … walking in a winter wonderland.

‘ We cut its throat. Flay him, skin him, feathers and skin altogether.’ I squeeze my eyes shut to blink away the raw images. Such exquisite turquoise- and purple-eyed quills. Peacocks are perfect everlasting beauties. I shoot my vision out the side window. Through the snow, I see the old ice house still stands by the bridge. And that marvelous sledding hill that Annabella and I rode, sisters hanging on to each other at every curve. Veering right, veering left, flying high. I never minded numb fingertips.

‘ Draw him down tight. Keep the neck whole. Mind the dripping blood now.’  My breath catches in my chest like an ice block. I down the wine and head to the kitchen to check the ham. I set out my Christmas supper on the oak table and sit down. Later on we’ll conspire … as we dream by the fire … walking in a winter wonderland. The biscuit is oozing with melted butter. The ham juicy and tender. I add a dash of salt and pepper.

‘ Brine the bird with salt, sugar, a palmful of peppercorns.’ Annabella’s words repeat in my head. She always basted the peacock with beaten eggs and honey.   ‘To keep the meat moist and tender.’ And she never believed the folklore that peacocks were bad luck or evil-eyed spirits. ‘ Pure as snow,’ she was certain.

‘ Let’s roast him high as if he is sitting up alive—just like a king.’

Every Christmas she would carry the bird on a silver platter on her shoulder to the table. The breast dripped with golden gravy. Annabella dressed it with the tail feathers struck out in a wild plumage of color. Before we ate it, as was usual from our childhood days, we made the peacock vow of immortality, an honor to the bird’s ‘ love and beauty forevermore.’

Forevermore, Annabella’s favorite word to shout out every Christmas.

“Annabella? Are you here with me tonight? Please be here with me tonight.”

Silence at Christmas time can be unnerving. I listen closely for a moment. “Annabella?”

Words float into my mind.  ‘ Rose, remember the flocks in the woods. Remember the dancing peacocks when you were a little girl.’

I gaze out to the vast woods and recall the giant birds’ studded tails, how they twirled their feathers into violet hues. I would practically swim in those exuberant colors, getting lost in them. What loud calls they made, like urgent church bells. Each peacock seemed to walk alone, though, on his own path. I always wondered why. Still, I loved the luster in their eyes as I greeted them good morning and good night each day.

‘ Remember, Rose. The bridge. Our favorite spot by the river.’

Maybe Christmas ghosts are real. If I could be granted just one moment with her. One moment to say just two words. Within minutes I bundle up, hat to boots, and slosh out. Leaving tracks behind me in the snow, uphill toward the sledding hill, I stop at the foot of the bridge. The river is churning slowly with ice patches. Through the snowfall, on the far side, I see a tangle of shadows, pointed shapes, hot-blue barrel chests, and streaming colorful threads. Dark is present. I am not afraid of the dark. I walk across the bridge and stop midway. Only the soft sounds of the snowflakes surround me. And then I see them. The flocks. Hundreds of all-seeing eyes stare straight at me. The woods are full of peacocks, their plumage unfurled and radiant, just like when I was a girl. My heart shivers.

One by one they turn away from me and walk through the trees on their separate paths. No Annabella appears. Nor will she. I know that now. There is no such thing as a ghost. No extra moments to be given. No words allowed to mend the past. Too many years now since the river swallowed Annabella that Christmas morning. Her canoe overturned; her body never found. I should have been here.

We live. We die. Only the peacock’s flesh does not decay when it dies, Annabella used to say. ‘ They live on for all of us, these forgiving souls of wisdom.’

A single peacock comes forward from the woods now. He mounts the bridge where I stand. With his beak lifted, he trails a dusty green aura behind him. Regal beyond words, he holds all the secrets in his vibrancy. I so envy him.

 

The snow stops. The peacock curls his soft feathers around me and I smell his meaty flesh. He flaps his wings and cries out as if laughing at life. He follows me back to the house, just like when I was a kid. Peacocks are such gifts. “Goodnight, lovely peacock. Goodnight.”

Christmas chimes ring out from the church steeple. Midnight, holy night. His wings flare, his tail swings generously, rocking the darkness. He perches himself up on the backyard fence rail, letting his feathers drip down like tresses.

 

Inside the house, I sit in the armchair by the window. Does he know I’m watching him? The shifting iridescence of his colors in the sudden moonlight saturate my thoughts.  Alone, I drift off to sleep in the chair. Were it not for the church chimes ringing in the holy babe on Christmas morn, I might not have woken from such a deep sleep. Scrambling to my feet, I look out the window to the fence.  Is he still there?

Gone. His claw prints are tracks leading back to Eagle Hill River.

I look again, this time my throat tightening. There, in the pure white snow he had shed his full plumage. A wild fan of green-rimmed, blue-eyed feathers are luminous in the Christmas sun—standing upright. Alive like a king.

“Forevermore,” I say aloud. “Forevermore, Annabella.”

 

 

 

 

 

In medieval times, peacock was served for the Christmas feast. The bird would be skinned, roasted whole and then redressed in its feathers to look as if it was still alive. Its beak was gilded with gold leaf and a piece of cloth soaked in spirits was inserted into the beak and set alight. It would be served by the highest lady of the house.

 

 

By many accounts, it is well known that the iridescence in the peacocks’ colors represent the reality of the spiritual world rather than the imaginary world. In Christianity, peacocks are a common motif representing eternal life, the peacocks’ feathered eyes symbolizing the all-seeing eye of God. 

Fra Angelico’s Nativity with a peacock on the stable roof.

 

 

Friends, do leave me a comment. This is my newest short story and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Or, ask me a question, let me know if you would recommend this story to friends, or if you’re so inspired, write me a quick review. 

 

 

 

 

Christmas River Ghost. Copyright © 2017 by Paula Cappa.

All Rights Reserved. 

 

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Christmas Eve’s Phantom

Between the Lights  by E.F. Benson  (1912)

Tuesday’s Tale of Terror    December 15, 2015

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Christmas ghost stories are a worldwide tradition. This story by E.F. Benson takes place on December 24, Christmas Eve. A story within a story, if you will, and striking a dark tone.  Between the Lights is perfect for a read aloud, guests sitting round the hearth, glasses of nog in hands, fire spitting, candlelight throwing shadows against the dark windows.

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Outside, wind drives the snow and only the sounds of the scurry of snowflakes and the voice of our narrator prevail. He reports about another Christmas Eve’s event at this same house as he sat in his chair.

“It was nearly dark, but a little light came in from the door opposite to me, which seemed to lead into a passage that communicated with the exterior of the place …  there now burned a dim firelight, and my eyes were drawn there. Shapes were gathered round it; what they were I could not at first see.”

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But our narrator does see what materializes between the lights and it’s not just shadows or faded light. “It haunted me; for months, I think, it was never quite out of my mind, but lingered somewhere in the dusk of consciousness …”

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 What does he see between the lights that Christmas Eve night? What happens to the dusk of his consciousness in the clear light of day? Phantom of the mind … or real?

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Read Between the Lights at Gutenberg.net.au (Australia). Scroll to the Table of Contents and select the title (4th story).

Listen to the Podcast. No. 11 on the itunes list at Corvidae.co.UK. Narrated by Richard Crowest.

Edward Frederic Benson (known as Fred) was an English author of over 50 novels and various collections of short stories. He is famous for his scandalous novel Dodo in 1893 and Mapp and Lucia (Lucia series, 1920s), which explore Edwardian society (not quite Downton Abbey but certainly full of English snobbery, small town rivalry, and British high society). He has had a cult following for decades because of the Lucia series. Many of his readers remember him for his ghost stories. More info on this author  and his novels at the EF Benson Society.

194px-E_F_Benson

 

[Images from WikiCommons.]

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