What’s Christmas, if not a time for ghost stories?
Well, some might prefer The X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing—or, God help us, Mrs Brown’s Boys (now there’s a horrifying thought)—but if you’re reading this, chances are you’ll agree that when all outside is dark and chill, there’s little more enjoyable than settling by a warm fire—ideally with a glass of port, sloe gin, whisky or whatever poison you prefer at hand—to read something suitably spine-chilling.
There are plenty of old masters (and mistresses) in the field, but also a wealth of contemporary talent. With that in mind, I’ve done my best to focus on stories written in the past couple of decades (with two exceptions.) Some will be names you know and some may be new to you—but all are well worth your attention and easy enough to lay hands on in time for the festive season. So without further ado, here’s your Christmas reading list …
‘Slaughtered Lamb’ is a story that might not travel across the Atlantic as well as some of the others on this list, set as it is during the ‘Troubles’ of the 1970s and 1980s, when paramilitary groups from Northern Ireland were carrying out campaigns of bombing and assassination both in the province and the British mainland, often met with brutal responses from the governments of the day. The narrator, Bob, recollects his experiences touring with a theatre company in Ireland, presenting a play about the plight of the Birmingham Six. The piece features a real animal carcass as one of its props, meaning that Bob’s regularly required to source a replacement, often asking around in pubs for something cheap. Until one night he ventures into the wrong pub in Belfast, and encounters something truly evil as a result. It’s a genuinely frightening tale, and you can find it in Volume Eight of The Best Horror of the Year.
2) ‘This Time Of Day, This Time of Year’ by Lynda E. Rucker.
Like Thana Niveau, who also features on this list, Lynda Rucker is an expatriate American. Strongly influenced by the British tradition in weird fiction, she writes deceptively quiet and subtle tales that ultimately reveal the world as a strange and disturbing place. In that sense, she’s more in the tradition of Robert Aickman than M.R. James: for James, the supernatural is something that intrudes into the mundane world we know, while for Aickman the supernatural is a part of that world, hidden in and emerging from it.
Rucker’s two story collections to date are The Moon Will Look Strange, which will be reprinted next year by Undertow Books, and You’ll Know When You Get There, from Swan River Press. Both are well worth seeking out. My pick from Rucker’s work comes from You’ll Know When You Get There.
I was hard put to choose a favourite, and was torn between two stories. One was ‘Who Is This That Is Coming?’. Its protagonist is Fern, an American fan of M.R. James, makes a long-planned trip to Britain to visit the settings of his stories. Staying at a Suffolk hotel, she yearns to encounter something greater than the mundane life she’s come to despair of. Unfortunately for her, she gets her wish.
But finally I settled on ‘This Time Of Day, This Time Of Year’, which revolves around the relationship between two sisters, Josie and Ellen. Josie has just returned from military service in Iraq, and it’s left her radically changed, so much so that Ellen wonders if she knows her sister any more. They visit their family’s old lakeside cabin, only to discover a lost town lying far beneath the surface, whose ringing church bells call to Josie. A sad and truly haunting tale.
3) ‘The Callers’ by Ramsey Campbell.
With a writing career now spanning over fifty years, Campbell continues to demonstrate an unerring instinct for pinpointing our anxieties and dreads. His latest collection, By The Light Of My Skull, published this year, continues to maintain his high standards, and almost any of the stories here would be a great choice for this list. Honourable mentions go to ‘At Lorn Hall’, where an electronic headset guides the luckless protagonist through the dilapidated stately home of the title to a rendezvous with its master, and ‘The Moons’, where a group of lost children encounter another sort of guide, who directs them to a shortcut through the woods, but one that doesn’t lead home. Then there’s ‘Know Your Code’, which begins as a black comedy of paranoia on ageing and failing memory and leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.
My pick from this collection is ‘The Callers’. A teenage boy staying with his grandparents ventures out after dark. He’s looking for his grandmother, and finds her at her regular bingo night. But she isn’t pleased to see him, and before long he realises that the rhymes uttered by the bingo callers contain sinister messages—messages directed increasingly at him. Campbell’s humour has rarely been blacker or more chilling.
4) ‘Against Envy’ by Emmannuelle de Maupassant.
Nicholas Royle once described the settings of Ramsey Campbell’s short stories as ‘anywhere our imagination allows us to interpret our surroundings in terms of nightmare’, and that’s not a bad description for horror as a whole. Horror spills over the boundaries into most other genres at one time or another. Science fiction, crime, fantasy – all, in one way or another, can be the stuff of our worst fears. And so, of course, can sex or love. Emannuelle de Maupassant is one of two authors of erotic fiction on this list who’s strayed across the boundary from the Land of Smut into altogether darker territory.
De Maupassant’s collection Cautionary Tales is written in the style of Russian folk stories and narrated by a chorus of the dead; the tales usually involve sex in one form or another, but rarely in one that’ll give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. Quite the opposite, in fact. In ‘Against Trickery In Love,’ a young woman’s spell to capture the man she lusts for comes true, but in a truly horrifying way. ‘Against Miserliness’ is a more blackly comic piece, in which a young bride takes a lover behind her skinflint husband’s back. They’re all fine stories, told in a rich and evocative prose that’s just perfect for a cold winter’s night, and the full collection (the only place where you can currently find ‘Against Envy’), is well worth your time.
‘Against Envy’ tells of two twin sisters with very different personalities, who both desire the same man. When he chooses the gentle Svetlana, the ruthless and scheming Anya resorts to murder to get what she wants. But her misdeeds haven’t gone unseen… and they won’t go unpunished either.
5) ‘Two Five Seven’ by Thana Niveau.
American ex-pat Thana Niveau has emerged as one of British horror’s most original new voices, and ‘Two Five Seven’ shows why. Here, Niveau finds supernatural menace in the phenomenon of the ‘numbers stations’, where unknown broadcasters continually recite apparently random figure. Coded messages, perhaps, but for whose ears? When little Heather, staying with her grandfather, starts listening to his old radio, she finds messages that seem to be meant for her ears in particular, but deciphering the message places her in danger. Subtle and scary, this story can be found in Niveau’s collection Octoberland, which contains a wealth of excellent tales. Readers looking for a story with a specifically Yuletide setting might also enjoy ‘And May All Your Christmases…’, from the same collection.
6) ‘The Magic Lantern Show’ by Paul Finch.
Paul Finch is a storyteller par excellence, and I don’t think any contemporary author loves a Christmas ghost story as much as he does. His best work combines the traditions of the classic English ghost story with a thoroughly modern refusal to pull his punches when it comes to the brutality and cruelty human beings are capable of, giving them a compulsive, visceral power.
When it comes to finding a story for this list, I was spoilt for choice with Finch. His ebook mini-collections In A Deep, Dark December and Dark Winter Tales are both treats for anyone looking for traditional seasonal dreads, and for anyone seeking a longer read, his novella-length Victorian Christmas ghost story, Sparrowhawk, should be nothing short of perfect.
Another of Finch’s mini-collection is Major Craddock Investigates. It’s set in the 1860s, where we find Major Jim Craddock posted to the Lancashire mining town of Wigan—Finch’s real-life home—to head its fledgling police force. The Industrial Revolution is at its height, and the town is a maze of smoky, smog-choked backstreets, packed-out slums, drunkenness, squalor and violence. A tough job at the best of times, but Craddock’s quarry isn’t always human evil.
The four novellas in Major Craddock Investigates are eerie and compulsively readable, and it makes for an addictive, chilling read. The one selected here, ‘The Magic Lantern Show’, is actually set over the Christmas period; the titular show is part of Craddock’s plan to catch a brutal killer terrorising Wigan’s Irish community. The Victorian setting is conjured up to perfection, and by the end, you’ll be able to hear the winter wind howling outside.
7) ‘Special Needs Child’ by Keris McDonald.
Keris McDonald is the second author on our list who, as Janine Ashbless, is best known for her erotica. Much of it has a supernatural twist to begin with, most notably her ‘Book of the Watchers’ trilogy (Cover Him With Darkness, In Bonds Of The Earth and The Prison Of The Angels) but as Keris she has penned a body of dark, unsettling stories.
I thought long and hard (no pun intended) as to which of McDonald’s stories to recommend on this list. ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ is a great favourite of mine, in which a woman tormented relentlessly by her vile father-in-law finds the persecution doesn’t even stop when he’s dead, but has only been published, so far, in the hard to obtain Ash-Tree Press anthology At Ease With The Dead. Then there’s ‘The Coat Off His Back’, first published in Terror Tales of Yorkshire and reprinted in Best Horror of the Year #7. Or there’s ‘Nepenthes’, published in the anthology Impossible Spaces and featuring a council flat that hides a bizarre – and decidedly carnivorous – secret.
In the end, though, I settled on ‘Special Needs Child’, one of McDonald’s contributions (alongside stories by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Adam Gauntlett) to the Alchemy Press anthology The Private Life Of Elder Things. The narrator, a hard-bitten Iraq veteran, takes part in the clean-up that follows the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and discovers a pregnant woman’s decaying corpse. The body’s surely too far gone in decay to have a living child inside it… and yet it does. She adopts the child, but despite her best efforts at denial, it slowly becomes clear that there’s something very wrong with him. It’s a belter of a story, and with an ending that definitely isn’t for the easily shocked.
8) ‘The Witches’ Sabbath’ by James Platt.
James Platt was a contemporary of M.R. James, a renowned scholar who was fluent in every European language by the age of twenty-five, and a contributor to the original Oxford English Dictionary. He also published a single story collection, Tales of the Supernatural, in 1894, from which The Witches’ Sabbath comes. It’s nothing like James: it reads a little like a very dark mediaeval romance, as the renegade knight Hageck and his loyal page Enno approach a desolate mountain in search of a hermit—a repentant warlock, now turned priest. Hageck has come to beg the hermit to let him speak one last time to the woman he loved. He and his brother both loved her, but when she chose Hageck his brother attempted to kill him, caused her death instead. Plot twist follows plot twist at an almost dizzying rate, culminating in an all-out assault by the powers of darkness on the hermit’s mountain lair. All this and a hint of necrophilia, plus a jaw-dropping last line, make this a unique experience.
9) ‘The First Time’ by Steve Duffy.
Steve Duffy has, for the better part of thirty years now, been building up a body of work that ranks with any of the finest classical ghost stories. While earlier collections like The Night Comes On showcased stories in the M.R. James mould, later collections found settings and situations both more contemporary and more personal to the author. Tragic Life Stories, published by Ash-Tree Press in 2011, is a truly superb collection, featuring nine tales showing just what the supernatural tale can do, and the finest story of the whole lot is the final piece, the devastating ‘The First Time’.
Duffy’s tale is, on a personal note, set in the part of South Manchester where I grew up—Timperley, Wythenshawe, Brooklands, Sale—and in the Manchester nightclubs of the punk era (which I was born a little too late for.)
The teenage narrator, Chris has a crush on the tough, tomboyish Lesley, one he thinks will remain forever unrequited. But, unluckily for him, it doesn’t. Lesley and her boyfriend have been dabbling with chaos magic, and they’ve made the mistake of stealing a grimoire from a group of thuggish bikers, who’ve set something far worse than any of them on the trail of the thieves. Lesley is Chris’s first time, all right, but it turns out to be a means to an end, to keep the thing the bikers have summoned at bay, and its consequences will haunt him for the rest of his life. This is an incredibly powerful, moving, and thoroughly creepy tale.
10) ‘The Hunchback of Brook Green’ by Joan Aiken.
Joan Aiken was, not to put too fine a point on it, a fucking literary giantess. Not only did she write The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase, she also produced more brilliant and idiosyncratic stories of the spectral or just plain weird than you can shake a stick at, all of which can be easily tracked down. Written with wit and sly humour and an unsparing eye, any one of her story collections is worth snapping up, but I finally narrowed the field down to her 1982 collection A Whisper In The Night.
There are some great stories in this one. In ‘Old Fillikin’, young Timothy unwittingly sets his late grandmother’s familiar on his hated maths teacher, and in ‘Finders Keepers’, an ancient idol that can track down lost things also proves capable of summoning things that should have remained last. Two friends journey to Ireland in ‘The Black Cliffs’, one with mischief in mind, but his plans go awry after an encounter with a sinister priest. And then there’s ‘The Hunchback of Brook Green.’
A young French boy visits his Uncle in London, and discovers him melancholy and heartbroken. Uncle Emile’s grief is linked to his lost love, Rose Nightingale, to a secret WW2 German weapon and to the terribly deformed Tom Virgoe – who, although long-dead, still walks at night through the woodlands of Brook Green.
It’s hard to say any more about this story without spoiling it. I will say that I first read it when I was about ten years old and that the climax of that story actually managed to genuinely horrify me (NOT easy, even then!) and that I still remembered it thirty years later when I tracked down a copy of A Whisper In The Night. All of which makes it more than suitable for inclusion here.
Simon Bestwick’s latest book is the mini-collection Singing Back The Dark, from available now from Black Shuck Books.