It's that time of year again, so there's no better moment to remember how Christmas, its precursor Yule and the Celtic Midwinter events in general feature in horror fiction.
We all know how horror just loves to embrace the festive season in a ghost story, but I'm going to start by talking about The Festival by HP Lovecraft. I love this story. No one does chilling terror with an uncomfortable underbelly of rising tension better than the dark master of our genre.
In The Festival, the narrator is visiting Kingsport in the run up to Christmas, but in HP Lovecraft's fictional fishing town they don't celebrate this Christian festival, they observe a far darker and more disturbing tradition.
HP Lovecraft takes the opportunity to remind us that the Midwinter festivals co-opted by the Christian faith predate Christ by millennia back in Memphis (Egypt) and Babylon. He also raises the tantalising prospect of these observances having their origins outside our world, possibly on the other side of the cruel and unforgiving universe that he portrays so well.
"It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind."
It's an intriguing possibility! Wouldn't it be fabulous it that were true?
Meanwhile, we are on much more traditional ground with the ghost story. It's no accident that so many feature a Christmas backdrop. The ghost story usually presents a cosy domestic set up as the perfect foil to the chilling events regaled to the listeners, and gathering around the fire is never so appealing as at Christmas with stockings hanging from the mantelpiece, flames flickering in the grate and chestnuts roasting in the embers.
And the festive season brings family and friends to the hearthside (often from great distances) more readily than any other time of year, widening the regular audience for a ghostly tale.
My favourite Christmas ghost story (against some pretty stiff competition from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol) is actually The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell.
After months of the snowy weather that has contributed to the household's sense of isolation, the nurse's young charge (Rosamond, an orphan living with extended family in a Northumberland manor house) is lured out of the warmth and safety of her home by the spirit of a young child out on the moors. This continues between an afternoon just before Christmas and right through into the New Year, throughout which young Rosamond remains in peril. It's not uncommon for stories set at this season to use the twelve days of Christmas to bookend the action.
For as long as we're celebrating Midwinter festivals, Christian or otherwise, horror will be sitting alongside of us at the fireside, reminding us that even in the warmth of family we still delight to be thrilled by a chilling tale!
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