Monday, 9 December 2019

Darkness at the heart of our festive frolics


Okay, it’s now almost the middle of the month. Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, as the popular song says. I’m sure all your preparations for the big event are now well underway. Presents wrapped, decorations hung, turkey stuffed?

Well, on this blog, as you may know, we take a slightly different approach to Christmas. We love it too, but here we’re also interested in the darker side of the season, the mystery, the mythology, the downright creepiness of a time of year when mist lingers, frost forms and daylight is scarce. For that reason, now that December is well on, I thought it’d be fun to borrow from my occasional Gazetteer of Strange and Eerie Places posts, not focussing so much on a geographical location this week, but on the season itself.

So, today, we’ve got GAZETTEER OF STRANGE AND EERIE FESTIVE STORIES: 10 True Life Tales to Chill You at Christmas

In addition to that because, yes, today’s blog is going to be another big ‘un, I’ll be discussing and reviewing in my usual forensic detail Christopher Golden’s epic Yuletide horror anthology, HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SCREAM.

If you’re only here for the antho review, no problem at all. Just scoot straight down to the bottom of this post. As always, you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, you might be interested in one or two other festive treats first.

Christmas ghosts and winter sprites

Okay, now I promised you some spooky true-life tales connected to this most wonderful time of the year. And don’t worry, you’re going to get them. But before that – very briefly, I promise – you’ll have to put up with me giving a quick spiel concerning my own output for this forthcoming season of goodwill.

Before anything else, here’s a quick heads-up about a brand-new Christmas horror story of mine, THE MERRY MAKERS, which will be posted on this blog, completely free to read, the week before Christmas. So, watch out for that one. 

In truth, there’s quite a bunch of my own Christmas-themed scary stories already out there in the public domain. Some you can buy right now from Amazon, if you so wish. Others, you can find on this blog, again free to read – just scroll back to various Christmases past.

First off, the pay-fors:

SPARROWHAWK is one of those pieces of work I’m prouder of than almost anything else. It’s a 40,000-word novella set in London during the December of 1843, which follows the fortunes of a former soldier, Captain John Sparrowhawk, who is released from the debtors’ prison to protect a middle-class family from a mysterious enemy during the Christmas period. Though Sparrowhawk has served in Afghanistan, even he isn’t prepared for the astonishing cold that year, or for the presence, somewhere out in the ice and mist, of a malign supernatural entity.

Sadly, SPARROWHAWK is now out of-print (though we’re going to correct this next year), but it can still be purchased as an e-book. It’s been described in various reviews as “A creepy Christmas page-turner, full of surprises,” “a great Dickensian style story, brilliantly written”, and “well worth a read on a cold December night”.

Also available in e-book form is IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, a collection of five Christmas stories and novellas penned by me over the years. Unfortunately, it had to be re-uploaded onto Amazon quite recently due to a technical error, which eliminated the 30+ very positive reviews it had accrued since first appearing four or five years ago (and which led to it being translated into German and published in paperback as DAS GESPENST VON KILLINGY HALL).

If I say so myself, you’ll find everything in there from traditional Christmas ghost stories to tales of devilry and the occult (all with a Yuletide twist) to nightmarish pantomimes in which just about aspect of the joyous season is turned on its severed head.

And now the freebies

Yet more Christmas horror stories, mostly written specifically for my annual Christmas blog post, and still available should you wish to check them out.

They are :

THE MAGIC LANTERN SHOW
In a snowy Dickensian town, a police detective investigates a series of strangulations, increasingly convinced that he’s on the tail of a felon drawn from ancient Irish mythology ...

Heck is the only cop on duty one very cold Christmas Eve when a trio of deranged carol singers goes house to house, leaving a trail of bloody carnage …

A ghost-hunting sceptic and devout Christmas-hater opts to spend Christmas Eve alone in a notoriously haunted theatre, midway through the production of A Christmas Carol …

In the deprived years after the close of World War Two, a German child living in Britain is terrorised by nightmarish Nazi version of Father Christmas …

A disillusioned college lecturer spends Christmas Eve marooned in a mysterious and semi-deserted town, where the celebrations are the eeriest he’s ever known …

A neglectful son lets his aged father die one desolate Christmas Eve and thinks he’s unloaded a burden. But as Christmas comes around again his nervousness grows …

Office-worker, Wilton, is increasingly disturbed as the Roman temple in the nearby church crypt is excavated. It’s almost Christmas, and the feast of Saturnalia is looming …

An evil-looking snowman and a book of spells are all that young Jimmy needs to punish his thoughtless dad, but once the means of vengeance is loose, will anyone be safe? …

And now, as promised, some ...

Real life Christmas terrors

We all love spooky stories at Christmas. And there are all kinds of esoteric reasons for this.

In days of yore, deep winter was the season of death – plants and crops simply withered away (along with much livestock and many humans!), so the Kingdom of Shadows seemed that much closer. In the dread, desolate world of the winter-stricken North, early Man sought regular conferences with his gods, and it’s surely no stretch to conclude that such quests to the other side gradually morphed into ghost stories in more modern times. Or could there be a simpler explanation? Could it be that with the harvest gathered and sowing not due till early spring, there was little to do in pre-industrial village communities in December except sit around the longhouse fire and tell fantastical stories?

Personally, I think that bits of all these explanations are relevant. But I reckon the popularity of spook stories at Christmas owes as much as anything to the fact that during the festive season we’re mostly snug, well-fed, in good company and generally happy, which likely mitigates the fear factor to a manageable level.

But you know, Christmas can be a genuinely scary time in its own right.

Mysterious and unnerving things have happened at this delightful time of year. In the distant past, when ghosts were seen as heralds of major events to come, they were reported at Christmas more than any other time of year. In addition, there are the countless pagan origins at the root of so many of our traditional Christmas customs.

For example, evergreens were brought indoors during winter in those long-ago days because it was believed that elves and faeries inhabited them (thus keeping them green), and therefore it would curry favour with these magical folk if they were brought into the warmth and light.

Then there is Santa Claus, or should that be Father Christmas?

While Santa is a family-friendly American portrayal of the ancient spirit of winter, the British Father Christmas is much older and closer to the original, and manifested noticeable pre-Christian traits: he came bearing mistletoe and holly, for instance, both of which played key roles in Nordic and Saturnalian ritual; he was strongly connected to feasting and jollity, which Puritan governments during the 17th century frowned upon; Charles Dickens depicted him as a druid and the Lord of Plenty; while in general terms, the white-bearded traveller across the midwinter skies, bestowing gifts on his friends and punishments on his foes, has direct associations with the vengeful Germanic god, Woden, and his even fiercer Viking counterpart, Odin.

So, you see, there are many strange and even sinister aspects to our traditional Christmas.

Here are 10 more …. 


GAZETTEER OF STRANGE AND EERIE FESTIVE STORIES:
10 True Life Tales to Chill You at Christmas

1. Creepy Carols  (1/2)

We love our Christmas carols. Their joyousness is uplifting, their aura of spiritual warmth a comfort to millions. Yet, many of the carols we know today, while often credited to composers of the 19th and 18th centuries, descend to us from much earlier works: folk songs and medieval ballads about Christmas and winter that didn’t always sound a happy note.

The Coventry Carol, which was popularised after the carpet-bombing of the city by the Luftwaffe in 1940, is one of our most overtly melancholy Christmas songs, and yet the reason for this predates World War Two by many centuries.

It was first performed on the medieval miracle play circuit and particularly featured in Nativities, especially those focussed on the Massacre of the Innocents. For the uninitiated, this was the infanticide of all male babies in Bethlehem on the orders of Herod the Great in his efforts to wipe out the Christ-child. While this atrocity is not established historic fact – some scholars consider it apocryphal, though others argue that it fits with the narrative of Herod’s tyrannous final years – it figured prominently in early Christian teaching, and so The Coventry Carol is essentially a lament for murdered children.

I Saw Three Ships is one of our liveliest, most popular carols, and yet it’s difficult to work out exactly what the song is saying. The assumption has always been that it celebrates the visit to Bethlehem of the Magi, or three kings (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar). But we normally picture these famous dignitaries arriving on camels. After all, there is no harbour at Bethlehem; it’s 45 miles from the sea.

The explanation, or so it’s now believed, is that I Saw Three Ships does not bear witness to the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, but to the arrival of their skulls in Germany in 1162.

Their mortal remains still lie interred in Cologne Cathedral, having been brought there by German knights returning home from the Second Crusade. So ... will we still sing that happy ditty with the same gusto now?


2. The Mistletoe Bride

Of all our ghoulish Christmas legends, the story of the Mistletoe Bride is probably the most quintessentially English. I say this because so many of England’s great halls and country houses lay claim to it. In comparison, in the whole of mainland Europe, there is only one place that claims the story as its own (though perhaps for that reason alone, this one bears closer examination).

The tale tells how one Christmas Eve, the spoilt daughter of a great lord was celebrating her wedding in his stronghold, when, bored with proceedings, she interrupted the feast to announce an impromptu game of hide and seek. The indulgent guests gave her a head start, and watched fondly as, still in her wedding raiment, wearing an evergreen headdress and clasping her mistletoe bouquet, she dashed off to hide. However, if they’d been hoping it would be over quickly, they were to be disappointed. The game commenced and the entire building was searched, along with the outbuildings and all the surrounding localities, but the young bride was not found. When the family called her name, saying that the game was over, she still didn’t appear. Now there was concern in the air. But it made no difference. The bride remained absent, the hours becoming days, weeks, months, years, decades.

In fact, no one heard from the Mistletoe Bride again until several centuries had passed.

Again, it was Christmas Eve, the great hall was being readied for a festive banquet and a huge cleaning operation was in progress. In a dusty corner of an attic, a chest was found; a bridal chest no less, for the containment of handsome gowns and precious jewels. The sort of chest that locked itself automatically when it was closed.

Mystified, a servant opened it and inside found the bones of a young girl in the rags of a bridal dress, adorned with the desiccated remnants of an evergreen headdress and a mistletoe bouquet.

For the record, the great country estates to so far claim this tale are, among others, Skelton Hall in North Yorkshire, Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, Bramshill House in Hampshire (where the spectral bride is still said to walk each Christmas Eve), Brockdish Hall in Norfolk, and Shapwick in Somerset. But as I mentioned earlier, one European venue, Modena Palace in Northern Italy, also claims the bride and this one may have a greater claim than any of those in Britain. Because in Italy, the doomed girl is actually named as Ginerva Orsini, and her fatal Christmas is dated to some time in the 1570s.


3. Dark Stories of the North

Many modern folk have only become aware in recent times that Christmas has a mythical dark side thanks to festive horror movies centred around Krampus, the anti-Santa, the horned, humpbacked goatman who instead of rewarding good children, punishes the bad ones by taking them away in his sack.

The Krampus story comes to us from Bavaria, Austria and other Tyrolean lands, a rugged northern environment filled with mountains and forests, and deep-frozen in winter – exactly the sort of place that seems to specialise in spawning midwinter monsters.

Again, I suspect it all ties into half-remembered tales about Woden and his ferocious pack. The Wild Hunt is one universal term for these hellhounds, but there are many chilling variations: they were the Gabriel Ratchets in the English Midlands, the Yeth Hounds in Cornwall, the Cŵn Annwn in Wales, the Oskoreien in Scandinavia, though all performed the same service, accompanying their monstrous huntsman master through the icy winter realm in his quest to punish non-worshippers.

It’s all a far cry from Santa and his elves (though we should remember that in olden times, elves were considered devious and untrustworthy too). But if Woden/Odin is the progenitor, perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s mainly in the north where these evil alternatives to Father Christmas were mostly born. A quick northern roll call throws up some frightful characters.

In Iceland, for example, we have Jolakotturinn, the Yule Cat, a tiger-like creature who devours children who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas (a sure sign of wickedness in that isolated community where new, woollen clothing was highly valued), Gryla, the deformed ogress who boils them in her cooking pot, and her sons, the Yule Lads, a brood of goblin-like tricksters, who will always give gifts, though some of these can be very nasty.

Joulupukki, meanwhile, was a denizen of the German and Swedish forests, and another two-legged goat who would visit remote farming communities to ensure that the festivals of Christmas and Epiphany were both being adequately prepared for – if they weren’t, watch out!

In the Alpine lands, we find Frau Perchta, ‘the Guardian of the Beasts’, another spirit active over Christmas, but in this case female, sometimes a hag but sometimes a snow-white beauty, who would enter homes on Christmas Eve and decide whether the children there deserved a reward of money or to be killed and stuffed with straw and pebbles!

In Poland, we had Turon, who would travel with a mysterious group of carol singers; he was another horned monstrosity, often white-sheeted to conceal the true horror of his form, who would terrorise households that didn’t welcome the festive season.

So, it’s basically your shout. This Christmas, are you going to be naughty or nice?


4. The Sodder Mystery

Less amusing than tales of Krampus and his buddies, but no less mysterious and disturbing is the case of the Sodder Fire Mystery, which occurred in Fayeteville, West Virginia, during Christmas 1945, and has now become an American cause célèbre.

In short, two hard-working Italian immigrants, George Sodder and his wife, Jennie, woke in the early hours of Christmas Day to find their house on fire. Terrified for the nine children currently at home (one was away in the army), they commenced a frantic evacuation, but the house was already blazing and they were only able to get four of the nine youngsters to safety before the smoke and flames drove them outside. George went to fetch a ladder, so that he could scale up to the children’s window, but the ladder was missing from its normal place (and later found in a ravine, 75 yards away!). When he attempted to bring his two trucks to the house so that he could climb on top of them, neither would start, even though they’d both been in perfect working order the previous day.

The family and their neighbours made repeated telephone calls for help, but the operator never answered. When a message was finally delivered to the nearest fire station, which was only two miles away, there was no response until long after sunrise. By this time, the house had burned to the ground, seemingly with all five children still inside it. However, a search of the ashes located no human remains. The case grew even more bewildering when two private investigators whom the family later hired to look for the missing kids also vanished without trace.

Convinced of foul play, the family began to remember curious incidents from the weeks leading up to
Christmas. A couple of times, the Sodder sons had complained that a man had been parked up on Highway 21 watching them as they strolled home from school. That autumn, an itinerant had called at the house looking for part-time work, and while there had indicated two separate fuse-boxes, suggesting that they might cause a fire. George, who’d just had the house rewired, dismissed the idea (for which reason he also dismissed the later police suggestion that the wiring might have been faulty).

Not long after the itinerant’s visit, an insurance salesman had turned up and, when George refused his services, had raged: “Your Goddamn house is going up in smoke. Your children will be destroyed. You’ll be paid for the dirty remarks you’ve been making about Mussolini.”

For the first time, George’s activities back home in Italy came under scrutiny. Was he involved in politics? Was he connected to the Mafia? No one really knew though he had been outspoken about the Fascists when he lived in the States. From here on, the facts of the case become muddled with all kinds of sensational twists and turns that might not all be true: people claiming to have seen the missing children being driven away by kidnappers and, years later, in Europe, when they’d become adults (a photo was sent anonymously, purporting to show one of the missing sons in his twenties); people claiming to have seen mysterious figures firebombing the house that Christmas Eve, though why they didn’t report it at the time, or try to wake the family, was never explained. Others claiming that human bones had been discovered in the ash but that the fire crew on the scene was too inexperienced to identify them.

It remains a singular and chilling Christmas mystery, which has never been explained or resolved to the satisfaction to any of those involved in it.


5 The Anarchic Earl

“For 19 long winters, Christ and his angels slept!”

So opined the Peterborough Chronicle in reference to the period between 1135 and 1153, the so-called English Anarchy, a time of savage civil war in England, when all law and order broke down and banditry was rife.

One of the most ferocious figures of this time was Geoffrey de Mandeville, the Earl of Essex, a man who on one hand embodied the knightly ideal in that he fought heroically in countless battles and apparently cut a real dash in his gleaming mail and flowing, blood-red cloak, but who on the other was a robber baron of the worst order, taking advantage of the lawlessness not just to rebel against King Stephen, but to raid, pillage and slaughter on a grand scale. No one, it was said, could expect mercy from him: neither women, children, nor even the clergy. His cruelties were beyond imagining.

Can you think of anyone better qualified to be one of England’s innumerable Christmas ghosts?

I’ve long been amused that many of our celebrity ghosts, particularly those who offended against the state, appear to have been singled out for exemplary punishment in the afterlife, often seen in blazing carriages, accompanied by headless hounds and pursued by wailing banshees, and, as a sure sign of God’s displeasure with them, usually on the most important religious nights of the year: Easter Eve, Pentecost or Christmas.

De Mandeville, who was killed in 1144 at the battle of Burwell, isn’t quite so dramatically depicted in his ghostly state – he died bravely after all, despite having been excommunicated, and was pardoned at least once by the king during his lifetime – but he is a regular spectral visitor on Christmas Eve, and his appearance is still, by all accounts, one to remember.

His ghost allegedly appears on horseback in full armour, roaring with anger, broadsword drawn, his mount snorting steam as it gallops furiously around Oak Hill Park in East Barnet (apparently because this is believed to be a place where he once hid stolen gold), while it has also been reported riding furiously along an ancient moat in Enfield Chase, formerly a royal forest where De Mandeville regularly hunted the king’s deer.

Both manifestations supposedly occur on the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve.


6. And All Through the House

Lunatic Santas have become a staple of modern-day horror fiction, and on this occasion I’m not talking about their olde worlde counterparts, Krampus and his ilk. I’m talking about a Santa Claus or Father Christmas that our kids would recognise today – a genial big guy in a hooded red cloak with white fur trim, with a white beard and a sack of toys on his back – going completely nuts and committing atrocious acts.

Without digging too hard, the earliest example of this I can find is And All Through the House, which first appeared in the EC comic Vault of Horror #35 in 1950, and told the tale of a faithless wife who murders her husband on Christmas Eve, only to then be menaced in her snowbound suburban home by an escaped psycho dressed in a Santa suit, and unable to call the police as they’d discover her own crime.

That comic was a classic of its kind, but most fans will be more familiar with the story from the Freddie Francis 1972 movie version, Tales from the Crypt, which starred Joan Collins as the doomed murderess.

But there’ve been lots of others since then. Just off the top of my head, Christmas Evil (1980), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and Santa Claws (1996) were all horror movies in which madmen donned the Santa guise and went on killing sprees. Several ‘bad Santa’ short stories stick in my mind, too: Ramsey Campbell’s The Chimney and Alexander Welch’s The Grotto, to name but a couple.

Unfortunately, though as jaded adults lots of us find something deliciously funny about such a twisted concept, there’ve also been a couple of cases, believe it or not, where this, or something similar, has happened for real.

And trust me, this may be the part of today’s blog where we all stop laughing.

In 2001, a Christmas party for staff and their children was held at one of Denver’s many fire stations. The Merlin family attended and their youngest son was particularly pleased to see Santa Claus arrive and start dishing out presents. When it was the young boy’s turn, Santa had a quiet word with him and left the building. A short while later, the boy also went outside – and vanished. A search of the premises was launched but the child had gone. A police enquiry later discovered that nobody knew who the fake Santa Claus was, as no one would admit to having hired him; his identity was never discovered, and the missing child was never found.

Equally weird and disturbing were the events of Christmas 2007 in Arkansas, when residents in a snowy rural town became concerned about a stranger, again dressed as Santa, moving from house to house and leaving presents on each porch, all wrapped in Christmas paper but labelled for no one in particular. The gaily-clad figure eventually withdrew, but when the presents were opened, all were found to contain broken and useless toys, except for the one left on the stoop of the Frester family home. Their package contained a bundle of old office paperwork, most of it dog-eared and dating back to the 1980s, and one handwritten note, which, in large, childish writing said: ‘I’m sorry for whatever happens to your son.’ Nothing did happen to him until two years had passed, when he was killed in a hit-and-run incident. The car responsible and its driver were never traced. Coincidence or something more sinister?
 
(Both these stories carry a health warning, by the way, as, despite searching online in both the Colorado and Arkansas press, I’ve not been able to verify the details in either case. At the present, therefore, both must be regarded as Christmas urban legends).


7.  Sermon for the Dead

There is no place on any British map today called Derwent Woodlands. Nevertheless, the village did exist once, and was the venue for a Christmas ghost story that has attained legendary status.

The reason Derwent Woodlands appears to have vanished is that what remains of it lies under the Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire. The village was abandoned in 1946 to make way for the damming of the River Ashop. What’s left of it now we can only hazard guesses at, but before the floodwaters rose over it, it was famous for very different reasons.

A certain story holds that in the final years of its existence, a new vicar was appointed to Derwent Woodlands, a very modern-minded man who had no truck whatever with superstition. Because of this, we are told, he fell out with his congregation in various ways, but by far the most serious incident concerned their request that he follow the local tradition of saying a Sermon for the Dead on the final Sunday in December. When he enquired what this was and what it involved, he was told that it was a full service held at midnight, which none of his normal parishioners would attend because the pews had to be kept empty for all those souls expected to depart in the next 12 months.

In other words, he was to preach to an empty church.

The vicar found this idea ridiculous and offensive, and dismissed the whole thing as witchcraft. However, as the date drew near, he felt increasingly compelled to do as his parishioners asked, and on the night in question, though very unnerved, he attended the church alone. Though the venerable old building was decked for Christmas, outside there was howling wind and blizzarding snow, which only added to the air of menace.

When he stood on the altar, lit only by a handful of candles, the rows of empty pews faced him, but he also saw what looked like shadows moving in every corner. As he commenced to preach, he was shocked to hear the bell in the steeple overhead tolling, and then to see these various shadowy forms emerge into the candlelight to take their places. Stumbling over his words, the vicar forged ahead, but as the wraith-like figures took on recognisable forms, he was utterly horrified.

One by one he saw the faces of local folk whom he knew personally. Quite clearly, these people would be dead within the year. It was an awful revelation, but worse was yet to come ...


In the morning, he was found insensible in his pulpit: half-frozen but also feverish. When he was able to speak, he told his rescuers that to witness the souls of known friends and associates was bad enough, but that the last spectral form to enter the church was the most terrifying of all.

Because it was him.

Apparently, no one even tried to dissuade him from the notion that he was shortly to die, and indeed, he didn’t live to see another Christmas.

This is a famous tale, and there are many variations on it, all drawing deeply on the old English belief in soul-watching, wherein village elders would wait at an appointed time and place and see in the spirits of all those due to die in the next year. To be fair, it is not specifically a Christmas custom. In Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, it happens on St Mark’s Eve, April 24, and in Dorset on Midsummer’s Eve.

There is no one living who now remembers why it was a Christmas event in Derwent Woodlands. There are few living who even remember Derwent Woodlands. But legend holds that even now, on the last Sunday night in December, when the wind is not too fierce and the weather not too cold to prevent folk being out and about, the dim tolling of a submerged church bell can still be heard.    


8. What Happened Up There?

The 400-year-old Bear Inn, at Stock village, in Essex, boasts a particularly eerie ghost story all of its own, which began when a prank went disastrously wrong one drunken Christmas Eve.

By all accounts, in the 1890s, a man called Charlie Marshall lived on or near to the premises of The Bear, and worked there as an ostler. By any standards, Marshall seems to have been an odd character. He was a hard worker, but a small man who was described as being tough, wiry and athletic, though he also walked with a curious sideways motion, which earned him the nickname ‘Spider’. Despite this, he was not unpopular, as he would regularly drink with the locals in the bar, and would often be the centre of attention.

Part of this appeal was his strange and rather dangerous party trick, which would see him climb up the taproom chimney and reappear from the fireplace in the main bar, usually begrimed by smoke and soot. Both chimneys were narrow and crooked, and no one else would even consider attempting to clamber up them, so when Spider claimed that he was able to get from one to the other by snaking along an old bacon-curing gallery, which now was long bricked-up and not accessible from any other part of the building, there was no one to doubt him.

One particularly riotous Christmas Eve, Spider was encouraged by a rowdy bunch of revellers to perform his trick. He did so, scaling out of sight up the taproom chimney, but then failing to reappear in the bar. There was much shouting and cajoling, but still he stayed out of sight. The crowd became tetchy and impatient. They demanded that Spider come down, but when he didn’t, someone struck on the bright idea to light a fire and try to smoke him out.

Incredible though it may seem, this is what they did – and it was quite a while before anyone entered the pub who was sobre enough to point out that if Spider had not been in trouble before, perhaps stuck somewhere, he was likely in serious trouble now. Most probably in fact, he’d been smothered to death by the smoke. Annoyance turned to panic, and though no one else could climb up, the fire was damped down and efforts were made to push poles and props up the chimney, maybe to dislodge him. But no obstuction was located and when the would-be rescuers became forecul with the poles, they only succeeded in damaging the building.

Eventually the conclusion was drawn that Charlie ‘Spider’ Marshall was dead. It was certainly the case that he was never seen again, and no one heard anything such as coughing or shouting for help. According to the tradition of the pub, he is still up there, lodged in that tiny space, presumably cured like man-sized bacon.

Myths hold that at night, when everyone is in bed, this blackened effigy comes down and walks around the pub with its strange sideways gait. People in rooms there allege to have heard the dragging of his feet along passages. Though a slightly less grisly ghost story holds that his spirit often appears among drinkers on Christmas Eve, looking normal, even rather dapper, and that only the eagle-eyed might note that his white breeches, pink hunting coat, fur cap and boots are a little out of date.


9. The Christmas Haunting

There have been so many reported cases of haunted houses that most of us could probably recite backwards the types of phenomena we’d expect to encounter. When you think about the most celebrated cases ever – the Amityville house, the Perron house, Borley Rectory, Amherst, Ash Manor and such – almost invariably it’s the same kind of thing: disembodied voices heard, objects flying about, doors opening and closing, weird smells, children and animals reacting to unseen presences etc.

But though ghosts have allegedly been with us forever, the template for this classic type of haunting actually comes to us from Epworth in Lincolnshire in the early years of the 18th century and was witnessed by no less a personage than John Wesley, eventual founder of the Methodist Church.

Even more relevant to our purposes today, the Epworth Rectory Haunting, which became famous all over the country, was also known as ‘the Christmas haunting’.

It seems to have begun in early December, 1716, when John Wesley was a child and living there with his father, the Rev. Samuel Wesley, and the rest of his family. The eldest child, Hetty, began communing with an imaginary friend whom she named ‘Old Jeffrey’. She’d never shown this tendency before, but the family weren’t unduly concerned until they started hearing loud knocks and bangs, which they were never able to discover the cause of and which Hetty said were the work of Old Jeffrey.

The disturbances intensified as Christmas approached, the family now hearing heavy feet running around upstairs when there was nobody there. Sleep proved elusive and everyone was on edge.

Typical poltergeist activity commenced: static objects moving on their own, doors slamming open and closed, strange and frightening images scrawled on the walls. It reached a crescendo that Christmas Day, when the blast of hunting horns was heard all over the property, so loud that Samuel Wesley claimed he was almost deafened by one blast, which sounded right in his ear.

And then, when Christmas passed, it subsided. At first gradually, but after New Year’s Day 1717, there were no further incidents. Visitors came from far and wide, because pamphlets had spread the news, but all were disappointed. The Rectory still stands today, completely peacefully, a museum under the ownership of the British Methodist Church.

No explanations have ever been offered. A building on the same site was burned down in 1709, and it was theorised that someone might have died in the flames, but no proof was found, and that wouldn’t have explained the ghost’s short-lived tenancy anyway. Others have pointed to adolescent Hetty Wesley, and wondered if she was the unwitting creator of a psycho-paranormal pantomime. Still more have claimed that nothing much happened at all, and that the facts were exaggerated by pamphleteers eager for sales.

The Christmas factor remains an unusual aspect of the story. Or does it?

I mean, come on … both Charles Dickens and MR James were happily ploughing a long pre-existing furrow.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good Christmas ghost story?
                 

10. Creepy Carols (2/2)

The Huron Carol is widely believed to have come to us from the Huron people, or the Wyandots, as they were more correctly known, who occupied the Lake Ontario region in the 17th century, though the words were actually composed by a Jesuit priest, Father Jean de Brébeuf, who lived among them.

Whatever you think about the rights or wrongs of spreading the Gospel in ‘heathen’ lands, Father Jean, a stalwart missionary, but a gentle man too, undertook his 1625 assignment to convert the Hurons with a determination to learn their own culture first. His hosts proved receptive to this and made him welcome. The song he wrote for them could only have helped, as it set the Nativity in an animal-skin lodge, and portrayed the Magi as three wise chiefs, who brought the baby Jesus gifts of fox, rabbit and beaver pelts. The darkness in this story only comes later, in 1649, when the Iroquois, rivals of the Hurons, launched an attack on the encampment where Father Jean was living.

Though the priest was taken prisoner rather than killed there and then, his black cassock and white collar didn’t save him, his captors later skinning him alive and dousing him repeatedly with scalding water, an ordeal that only ended when they burned him at the stake.

To French and Canadian Catholics, The Huron Carol honours his martyrdom, though it also serves to veil from the rest of us the sickening details of his death.

Here We Come A-Wassailing is one of the cheeriest and bounciest of our carols, so it is surely no surprise that it dates back to that semi-mythical age known as Merrie England, the late Middle Ages, when at Christmastime the great baronial seats became halls of misrule and the feasting really did go on for 12 days.

The modern-day wassail tradition sees gangs of Christmas Eve revellers process from door to door, offering song, dance and costumed buffoonery in return for drink, food and money. In medieval times they would never have risked doing this at the doors of the nobility, had the nobility not seen the wisdom of keeping the poor folk merry at Christmas and thus invited them to do exactly that. This, it’s believed, is the origin of the custom (and the song): that it was an effort to maintain social order at a riotous time. But there’s a much older origin story too, which takes us to the dawn of the Dark Ages.

At this time, Vortigern was King of the Britons, and in the Venerable Bede’s words, ‘a proud tyrant’
who one Christmas was so struck by the beauty of a peasant girl begging at the door of his long-hall that he invited her in and plied her with drink until she was incapable of resisting when he moved in to ravish her.

So, there you go. It was all about getting the lower orders drunk so that you could do what you wanted to them. Another cheerful notion when you’re supping from the Christmas cup.

And if you thought all that cast the festive season in a grim light, try this for size:


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SCREAM 
edited by Christopher Golden (2018)

A Blumhouse Original horror anthology put together specially for the Christmas season last year, but packed with festive-themed chillers, several of which I can safely predict will go on to be reprinted many times throughout the Christmasses yet to come.

Rather than simply hit you with a succession of brief short story outlines, I’ll let the publishers give you their own official blurb, which pleasingly hints at the seasonal shivers lying in wait.

Eighteen stories of Christmas horror from bestselling, acclaimed authors including Scott Smith, Seanan McGuire, Josh Malerman, Michael Koryta, Sarah Pinborough, and many more.

That there is darkness at the heart of the Yuletide season should not surprise. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is filled with scenes that are unsettling. Marley untying the bandage that holds his jaws together. The hideous children - Want and Ignorance - beneath the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The heavy ledgers Marley drags by his chains. In the finest versions of this story, the best parts are the terrifying parts.

Bestselling author and editor Christopher Golden shares his love for Christmas horror stories with this anthology of all-new short fiction from some of the most talented and original writers of horror today.

Christmas-themed horror stories are nothing new these days. In fact, you have to go back quite a few centuries to find a time when they were new, if such a time ever existed at all. Regulars on this blog will know that I’ve waxed lyrical about the festive chiller many times before, dredging up examples from the distant past, not just Dickensian delights, but ancient tales of sprites and goblins as referred to in Shakespeare, and even earlier than that, from the Middle Ages. We won’t get into the history of it again now but suffice to say that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see Christmas-themed anthologies appear on our bookshelves as regular as clockwork when the autumn of each year approaches.

I was particularly delighted to acquire this one towards the end of last year, because its table of contents alone promises so much. Editor Christopher Golden is one of the most respected voices in horror writing and editing on the world stage today, and here he’s in pulled contributions from some of the most popular and successful novelists currently lurking at the darker end of the spectrum: Scott Smith, Josh Malerman, Joe R Lansdale, Sarah Langan, Sarah Lotz, Elizabeth hand, Tim Lebbon and Sarah Pinborough, to name but a few.

Did it hit my Christmas horror spot, though?

Undoubtedly, yes.

Golden clearly made the decision early on that with Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, he was going to forego some of the more tediously familiar festive horror fixtures. For example, axe-wielding Santas make regular appearances in low-budget Christmas horror movies, and even their somewhat more exotic and infinitely scarier cousin, Krampus, is starting to show up with wearying regularity. Likewise, reunions of relatives so appalling that they verge on the deranged are becoming a bit of a cliché, as are horrific presents and Christmas trees decorated with human body-parts. Thankfully, none of those caricatures figure here very much.

Perhaps inevitably, we do have ghosts. Ghosts are such a staple of Christmas fiction that it would be near enough impossible for any editor of a book like this to ignore them. But even here, Golden has opted to select very few of what you might call drawing-room ghost stories.

Anyway, enough of what there isn’t, and now onto what there is.

As I hope I’ve already intimated, this is an eclectic mix of tales, with a refreshingly diverse range of Christmas subjects touched upon. Tim Lebbon’s Home, for example, which shows us Christmas after the apocalypse, is something I for one have never seen before (and which will last long and dark in the memory).

That said, there are a couple of stories here at least that tweak the traditional nerve-string.

Sarah Pinborough, a long-established mistress of the dark fairy tale, spins an elegant yarn in The Hangman’s Bride, which is set in early-Victorian London, and follows the fortunes of a sweep’s boy who climbs the chimney in a big townhouse belonging to a gentleman executioner and finds himself in a labyrinth of brick passages, blinded and choking on soot, and with something horrible lurking just out of sight. At the same time, Seanan McGuire’s Fresh as the New-Fallen Snow lifts us from the realm of the mundane, a suburban family on Christmas Eve, into the dreamy world of Eastern European mythology (managing to be both frightening and sad at the same time). While Joe R Lansdale steps back from his more recognisable ‘Southern Noir’ territory to hit us with The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel, a spine-chilling tale of vengeance from beyond in the decayed environment of an abandoned inn.

Of course, the book isn’t all about ghosts. Golden also finds room for some harder-edged, more typically American-style thrillers, Kelley Armstrong’s Absinthe & Angels telling the tale of a loving twosome cooped up in a snowbound log cabin one wintry Christmas Eve, only to be terrorised by a couple of weirdoes who show up outside, while John McIlveen, in Yankee Swap, depicts a Christmas kidnapping in which a psycho dressed as an elf subjects his hostages to a festive version of Saw.

These two aren’t the most effective stories in the book, for my money, though they’re all a taut read. More intriguing, and perhaps a little more cerebral, are two surrealist contributions from Scott Smith and Elizabeth Hand, both stories – Christmas in Barcelona and Farrow Street, respectively – taking their protagonists to distant cities, Barcelona and London, where adventures in foreign climes rapidly become chilling dislocations from reality.

Equally serious in terms of its undertone, though solidly back on US turf, is Chris Golden’s own story, It’s a Wonderful Knife, which isn’t just a play on the title of the famous movie, but in its telling of a budding actress’s trip to a bigshot Hollywood producer’s Christmas house-party and his subsequent request that she come upstairs so that he can show her a grim relic from one of his early films, casts more than a quick, approving nod in the direction of the #MeToo movement’s campaign against sexual harassment in high places.

In stark contrast, other stories in the book are played almost exclusively for laughs.

Jeff Strand’s Good Deeds introduces us to a guy down on his luck who uncharacteristically does a good deed one Christmas Eve when he buys shoes for a ragamuffin child and afterwards is so startled by the feelings this stirs that he writes a song about the spirit of the season, said song proving so moving that everyone who hears it commits suicide. In Thomas E Sniegoski’s Love Me, meanwhile, a professional burglar comes out of jail looking to fix things with his family in time for Christmas, but, unable to get a job, switches his attention to an old woman who allegedly lives in a nearby apartment full of valuable antiques, and well … as you’ve probably guessed, he should just have tried harder to get a job.

If there’s any brickbat to throw at Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, I’d say that not all the stories in it are specifically about Christmas. Most are, but one or two, such as The Hangman’s Bride and Michael Koryta’s Hiking Through, which concerns itself with a haunted hiking trail in the snowy New England woods, could be set at any time of the winter, but both these stories, and all the others herein are so excellently written, and make for such an enjoyable read overall that no serious editor could refuse them and only the most churlish reader would complain about them.

As with all anthologies, not everything in Hark! The Herald Angels Scream will delight every reader. Like Christmas itself, a season of mixed blessings for so many, the tone won’t always feel right, some won’t get what they’re hoping for, while others won’t buy into any of it from the start. But Hark! The Herald Angels Scream is another very worthy attempt to take a horror angle on the festive time of year, to lighten our mid-winter darkness with plenty of screams and laughs. As such, it gets my strong recommendation.

And now …

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SCREAM – the movie.

Just a bit of fun, this part. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual Yuletide circumstances, which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they’re all going about their business one eerie and deep-frozen Christmas Eve, while a local DJ – Bill Shatner perhaps – regales his listeners with tales of their progress (as in A Christmas Horror Story); or maybe they first appear as comic-book characters, as read about by young Billy in an eerily quiet New England town (a festive editon of Creepshow, anyone?) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Fresh as the New-Fallen Snow (by Seanan McGuire)

Rich but unloving parents can do without their kids on Christmas Eve and go out to party, leaving their young threesome in the care of a new babysitter, Raisa, a beautiful but mysterious Russian girl. She proceeds to tell them the strange and terrible story of Snegurochka, the legendary Russian Snow Maiden …

Raisa – Yuliya Snigir

The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel (by Joe R Lansdale)

Haunted by the memory of a lovely girl who mysteriously vanished during a Christmas Eve party at a riverside hotel many years ago, middle-aged Robert opts to visit the same hotel on Christmas Eve all over again, even though it is now a ruin, in company with the man he suspects of murdering her …

Robert – Steve Buscemi
Kastengate – Hugo Weaving

Not Just for Christmas (by Sarah Lotz)

Unfaithful Jake tries to buy his way back into his wife, Amira’s affections by acquiring a Genpet for the kids for Christmas. The Genpet is a part-cybernetic puppy, which is cuteness itself, and which never poops, never ages, and even talks with its child owners. The problem is that Genpets are very new and there are all kinds of unforeseen quirks in their system. A strange and scary Christmas Eve lies ahead …

Jake – James Marsden
Amira – Sarah Michelle Gellar

Tenets (by Josh Malerman)

Ex-university friends gather at Hank and Anne’s for a Christmas reunion, but their liberal intellectual attitudes fall short when one of their regular crowd, Adam, turns up with an ex-con, Michael, a one-time cult-leader. Michael’s apparent regret about his former life emboldens the other guests to be rude and cruel to him, but little do they know that he isn’t regretful as much as utterly terrified …

Michael – Robert Carlyle

*

Today’s images are as follows, from top to bottom: a touch of dark comedy to kick things off (I have no idea who the original creator was, but if he/she want to get in touch I will happily credit them - as I will in all these cases where an actual author was untraceable); Sparrowhawk; In a Deep, Dark December; Krampus, as seen at an Austrian winter fair (could not work out who the snapper was); the evil snowman from the cover of my 2007 short story collection, Stains; a Christmas fireplace, lifted from Faburous.com; Pieter Brueghel’s Renaissance era-set and yet disturbingly realistic Massacre of the Innocents; Christmas skulls, as found on Paperchase.com; The Mistletoe Bride, as taken from FreakyFolkTales; a traditional image of Woden; the Yule cat, as pinched from WilderUtopia.com; Frau Perchta, as seen on HorrorNewsNetwork; the Sodder mystery; an appropriately insane looking Benito Mussolini; the fearsome Red Knight from Wonderland; the original maniac Santa from And All Through the House, as first seen in EC Comics, 1950; Joan Collins dies at his hands in the movie version, Tales from the Crypt, 1972; another lunatic Santa; yet another; an underwater graveyard in the flooded village of Llyn Celyn, Wales, pic courtesy of the BBC; hooded sculptures at the church of St George in the Czech Republic, photo by Roman Robroek; a supremely Gothic fireplace; smoke ghost; a generic haunted house GIF; demonic graffiti from the movie, Amityville II: The Possession; festive misrule in the great hall; Evil King by Anastasia Andriyanova; Hark! The Herald Angels Scream; Bill Shatner in the movie, A Christmas Horror Story.

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