The 13 Ghosts of Christmas is the latest offering from Spectral Press and celebrates editor Simon Marshall-Jones’ love of the traditional ghost story. The collection brings together some of the hottest talent in the horror genre to celebrate the darker side of the festive period and take the reader back to an era of ghost stories read by firelight on a cold Christmas Eve.
John Costello opens the book with his first published story ‘An Odd Number at Table’. The story is set in the 1990s and present day, as protagonist Josh travels to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the very first time. The small family Christmas is disrupted by the presence of shunned family member, the beautiful Ailsa, and from this point proceedings take an altogether darker turn. ‘An Odd Number at Table’ is an incredibly assured and confident tale of a dysfunctional family interwoven with sex, lies and deceit. Given that this is John Costello’s horror fiction debut readers should certainly anticipate his future output with baited breath.
Jan Edwards takes the reins with ‘Concerning Events at Leinster Gardens’, the beguiling tale of a young man who gate-crashes a very formal party. The strength of the writing and beautifully crafted storytelling shines throughout. The atmosphere of the party is completely believable and the sucker-punch conclusion lingers long after reading.
Unfortunately the next two stories are slight missteps for the collection, with William Meikle’s ‘Carnacki: A Cold Christmas in Chelsea’ and Raven Dane’s ‘A Taste of Almonds’ not quite keeping up the standard of the first two stories. ‘Carnacki: A Cold Christmas in Chelsea’ features William Hope Hodgson’s ghost finder and is an interesting read because of this, but it lacks any suspense or intrigue throughout and the ending falls somewhat flat, particularly in comparison to the excellent story before it. Whereas the chief complaint about ‘A Taste of Almonds’ is that the Christmas element felt forced into the story with no real benefit. The majority of the stories in this collection treat Christmas almost as a character in its own right whereas Raven Dane’s story treats it as a mere afterthought.
This blip is soon corrected with a run of strong stories. The first of these ‘Where the Stones Lie’ by Richard Farren Barber is a bleak and disturbing tale about a family visiting their elderly relative in Ireland. The ruins of the grandmother’s previous family home are nearby and she strictly forbids her relatives to enter it. The resultant story is harrowing and ultimately heart wrenching. Barber delivers a memorable and emotional climax that lifts the story to a new level.
Following on is one of the more traditional stories, ‘All that is Living’ by Nicholas Martin. This has a classical feel to it and there is an early nod to MR James in the antique shop setting. This is a well plotted tale that doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to a grisly scene, its atmosphere is haunting and its very essence encapsulates everything which a Christmas ghost story should be about.
Thana Niveau’s ‘And May All your Christmases’ takes us away from the traditional ghost story as an unnatural snowfall brings tragic problems for a young family. Whilst not necessarily a ghost story, Niveau delivers a story which conjures up the feelings of excitement we all had at Christmas as a child, before cruelly twisting them into something far more terrible. Niveau develops the role of the creeping, insidious snow very carefully creating a nervy story fraught with tension.
‘Now and Then’ by Martin Roberts is one of the most disturbing stories in the collection, to summarise would sadly be to spoil it. The strength lies in its emotional hard-hitting core. Whilst a number of stories in the collection deal with misery over the Christmas period, this story portrays the emotion in an accurate and human way.
Paul Finch’s ‘December’ is the tale of two sisters, one suffering from a recent bereavement and the other helping her to pick up the pieces of her life. Finch, as the author of the Christmas ghost novel Sparrowhawk has previously produced high quality Christmas tales and this is no exception. Finch mingles the themes of rampant commercialism and the importance of pagan ritual as it fades from view. The characters in the story are realistically portrayed, in particular the grieving widow Brenda as she struggles to adapt to a new Christmas tradition.
‘Ritualism’ by Gary McMahon is one of the strongest stories in the collection, whilst it is not the most festive tale here, it encapsulates the loneliness and desperation of those without anyone to celebrate with at this time of year. Rituals and traditions play a large part in Christmas celebrations, yet this twisted take on the theme will make all readers think twice before heading into town for a few last minute gifts.
Neil Williams’ ‘We Are a Shadow’ invokes an old tradition in the picturesque Cheshire village of Lymm. The story centres around a group of local actors who put on a play to celebrate the Feast of St Stephen. However, some of the actors are not quite what they seem and certain lines seem to be fluffed. The characters Williams uses are for the most part an obnoxious and pretentious bunch yet their presence in the story makes the ending much more horrifying. Williams masterfully creates a village community full of intrigue and ritual, which at its best evokes twisted memories of The Wicker Man.
John Forth continues the strong march towards the end of the collection with ‘The Green Clearing’. This is a carefully told tale with some tender and sensitively written nods towards the early experiences of young love that many readers will be able to relate to. Forth also references the cabin from The Evil Dead, in a nice wink towards the reader. ‘The Green Clearing’ is the tale of one man possessed and haunted by an event in his past, the story reminds the reader of how emotional the season of goodwill can be and how difficult some memories can be to deal with at this time of year.
The final story, from Adrian Tchaikovsky, is entitled ‘Lost Soldiers’ and is a tale of ghost hunting gone wrong. This is a very intriguing story with vivid, well-drawn characters and some superb description. The Christmas theme comes across as an afterthought, yet the story has a downbeat and understated conclusion serving as the perfect closing tale.
The 13 Ghosts of Christmas is a great collection for the most part, a couple of early missteps aside, the stories are consistently excellent and vary from heavily festive to fleetingly so. The title may be slightly misleading as not all tales are strictly ghost stories but there is something here for every horror fan to enjoy over the coming dark weeks.
Christmas is currently buried in a commercial shitstorm; adverts and products blind us from what truly matters at this time of year. Do yourself a favour, turn the fire down low, gather your loved ones and read some of these tales aloud on Christmas Eve, as this book represents a traditional Christmas that every horror fan will love.