Tuesday 6 December 2022

Festive eeriness from Christmases long ago

Well, it’s almost that time of year again. It’s cold and gloomy out there, but fairy lights are twinkling in windows, street vendors selling fir trees on foggy corners, and shop windows glowing with toys, tinsel and that distinctive warm and rosy light.

Yes, Christmas is just around the corner, so that’s what I’ll be talking about today. To begin with, I’m going to read you all a brief extract from SPARROWHAWK, my Christmas novella of 2010, which made it onto the final ballot of the British Fantasy Awards. But in addition to that, I’ll be reviewing THE HAUNTING SEASON, an anthology of atmospheric Christmas and winter ghost stories, published for the festive season last year by Sphere (unusually, with no individual editor credited). Apologies to all concerned that this review is in effect a year late, but I only acquired this book late last December, so there was no real opportunity to review it then in time for Christmas Eve. It’s still available anyway, so hopefully this review will not be wasted.

If you’re only really here to let me entice you to THE HAUNTING SEASON, then by all means take a sleigh ride to the bottom end of today’s column where you’ll find the review, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

On the other hand, you could bear with me a little longer, and I’ll take you to another haunting Christmas …

Long, long ago

SPARROWHAWK remains my personal favourite piece of work. I wrote it intentionally as my ode to Victorian era ghostly fiction but also to the Christmas season, my favourite time of year, and a celebration that I’ve never really been able to separate from thoughts of the supernatural.

As a child, the magical, mystical nature of Christmas was almost tangible to me. It wasn’t just the midwinter atmosphere: the long darkness, the icicles, the snow flurries. Or that huge range of Christmas folklore and mythology: the elves in the evergreens, Loki and the mistletoe spear, St Boniface and the sacred oak, Belsnickel, Krampus etc etc. It was the fact that this was a holy feast, it was Heaven-sent, which basically gave you full permission to believe in the fantastical. 

The Son of God had genuinely been born in a stable in Bethlehem on Christmas Day over 2,000 years ago, an angel taking the glad tidings to local shepherds, wisemen from the East following a star so they could pay tribute. A miracle for sure, which surely meant that other miracles happened around this time of year too. 

Father Christmas, as we called him in Britain (or Santa Claus in the States, Sinterklass in the Netherlands, Père Noël in France) was real (of course he was real!) because he was a saint, who if he didn’t actually personify in the shape of a chubby old man in a red cloak and a fur-trimmed hood, at least imbued the season with jollity and good will – something that happened at no other time of year I was aware of.

Many supposedly true ghost stories I’d heard involved manifestations specifically at Christmas.

It’s a moment when ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’ are close to us, and so the spirits – in that time-honoured fashion of A Christmas Carol – often visit as heralds, bearing warnings about the future or disapproving messages concerning the way we’ve lived our lives to that date. 

(One of the eeriest I ever heard featured Geoffrey de Mandeville, a brave knight of the 12th century, but in later life a robber baron, who was doomed after death to ride around the perimeter of his long-demolished castle every Christmas Eve in a cloak and armour soaked with the blood of his victims).

In light of all that, it seemed perfectly natural to me to both read and write ghost stories at Christmas. The two clearly went hand in hand, and of course it wasn’t just me. Umpteen classical authors had already done the same thing.

As such, those who follow this column regularly will know that, each year in December, I try to publish a free-to-read Christmas ghost story on here. The truth is that it’s often a toss-up whether I’m able to do this because time doesn’t always allow (though I’ll be trying again in the days ahead). But SPARROWHAWK was a particularly good effort on my part, if I say so myself, even though it did eventually run to just under 30,000 words.

It was first published by Pendragon Press at Christmas 2010 and later short-listed for the British Fantasy Award, only losing out to my good mate and all-round excellent writer, Simon Clark, so I can hardly complain. Despite that, I remain completely happy with this novella, genuinely feeling that it hit every target I was aiming at. But of course, I can’t really be the judge of my own work; that’s up to my readers. However, a couple of years ago, with the Pendragon version now long out of print, it was republished in paperback by my own small publishing house, Brentwood Press, and released on Kindle and Audible as well, the latter version admirably read by that wonderful actor, Greg Patmore.

I won’t say anymore because this is turning into a bit of a hard sell, which is not what I wanted to do. Instead, I’ll let the book do the talking, or a little bit of it. Here, as promised, is a short extract from SPARROWHAWK, which I recorded a couple of days ago. Perhaps give it a listen if you’ve got a few minutes spare, and see what you think, hey?


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.

by Various (2021)

A beautifully presented anthology of original Christmas and winter-themed ghost stories, mostly set in the past and with a decidedly Gothic aura. Before we get into it, I’ll let Sphere, the publishers, give you their own official blurb:

Winter, with its unsettling blend of the cosy and the sinister, has long been a popular time for gathering by the bright flame of a candle, or the warm crackling of a fire, and swapping stories of ghosts and strange happenings.

Now eight bestselling, award-winning authors – master storytellers of the sinister and the macabre – bring this time-honoured tradition to vivid life in a spellbinding collection of new and original haunted tales.

Taking you from a bustling Covent Garden Christmas market to the frosty moors of Yorkshire, from a country estate with a dreadful secret to a London mansion where a beautiful girl lies frozen in death, these are stories to make your hair stand on end, send shivers down your spine and to serve as your indispensable companion to the long nights of winter.

So curl up, light a candle, and fall under the spell of The Haunting Season …

The telling of ghost stories at Christmas and in the depths of winter is one of our most time-honoured literary traditions. I’ve waxed lyrical many times on this blog about the joy to be found in spinning spooky yarns while seated around the fire with snow-laden winds whipping at the window.

The likes of Charles Dickens and MR James, of course, dined out on the tradition, while even Shakespeare mentioned it. Anyone recall the throwaway line in A Winter’s Tale? ‘A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one. Of sprites and goblins.’

Many writers have followed in these venerable footsteps since, with the net result that Christmas, or midwinter – because not all the stories in The Haunting Season are specific Yuletide celebrations – now sits alongside Halloween as the time for eerie tales. And I am so delighted, I can’t stress that enough – I am SO delighted – that now at last, after what seems like an eternity, we see a major publisher getting in on the act.

Though no single editor is credited for The Haunting Season, it excites me no end to see that this beautifully bound and illustrated anthology comes to us from Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown. Does this mean that we’ll see further commissioning of original short fiction by the major houses? Time (and sales) will tell. But I’m cautiously optimistic, because this outing in particular has been quite successful.

On the subject of caution, that is one of the most notable features of this particular collection, I feel. It’s a cautious, or careful, exploration of the supernatural field, rather than a full-on dive into it. There are lots of effective tales here, though very few (if any) absolute spine-chillers, and nothing that is likely to shock. Of the eight stories contained here, there is only one I’d classify as a ‘horror story’, and that one is also subtle and meaningful. But there is also much here about subtext and undertone, the majority of which comes from a feminist persuasion. Which is absolutely fine by me, and works very well in this context, and which is also understandable because of the eight contributing authors, seven are women.

I will admit to being a tad perplexed that the bulk of these tales are set in that timeless Victorian/Edwardian timeloop, where so much ghostly fiction of the classical variety dwells. That makes for a slightly less diverse collection than I was expecting, but even now in the 21st century, that era remains our go-to period for Gothic fiction, so one can’t complain too much.

There is also, maybe, an over-preponderance of upper-crustiness in The Haunting Season. There are several country house tales here, while more than a few characters derive from the ruling class. But I reiterate, this was often the way of it with the Victorian ghost story tradition, so I see no real harm.

The stories themselves, without exception, are exquisitely written, are populated by memorable personalities (Natasha Pulley, for example, utilising characters from her very successful Watchmaker of Filigree Street series), and hit us with a range of supernatural antagonists.

Inevitably, of course, in that great custom of the Victorian ghost story, there are many mysteries to be solved.

For example, in Laura Purcell’s The Chillingham Chair, a spirited young woman is unable to attend her sister’s wedding thanks to a broken foot incurred during a riding accident. However, the wheelchair she is confined in now seems to develop a life of its own and attempts to impart a warning message, possibly about the potential fate of her sister …

The one contemporary tale I referenced, The Hanging of the Greens by Andrew Michael Hurley, presents us with a story inside a story, and a protagonist who must venture into the back of beyond to get the answers he seeks, though I found this contribution to the book particularly disturbing – it’s certainly a new twist on the festive chiller – so more about this one later.

Other stories meanwhile, while not exactly mysteries, hint strongly at the troubled pasts of those individuals participating, and leave much to the reader’s own (hopefully dark) imagination.

Bridget Collins’s A Study in Black and White is a great example. In this eerie outing, an unpleasant man on the run from his misdemeanors rents a 17th century house in the countryside. Intent on staying there alone, he soon becomes aware of an unseen presence, a presence that enjoys a game of chess, though it appears even more to enjoy winning.

Likewise in Thwaite’s Tenant by Imogen Hermes Gowar, the central character is displaced from one threatening location to another, which turns out to be even worse, though the exact details of what happened there are initially elusive. I enjoyed this one thoroughly, so a little more on this later.

Perhaps the most mysterious of all the stories in The Haunting Season is Monster by Elizabeth Macneal. It features a selfish protagonist on the trail of an elusive prize and entering a realm so soaked in mythology that it’s almost unreal. More on this one later, too.

For straightforward terror, meanwhile, though with a deep subtext, we go to Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s Confinement, wherein a woman suffering in the grip of a terrifying supernatural foe, may actually be at the mercy of her own tortured psyche. A poignant tale, this one, as well as a scare-fest, it has meaning far beyond the pages and remit of this anthology, so more about this one later as well.

Equally strange and delightful reads are provided by Natasha Pulley with The Eel Singers, in which a close group of friends take a trip out of London to the wintry fen country, only to encounter some locals who are not quite the welcoming crowd they anticipated, and Jess Kidd with Lily Wilt, in which a professional photographer of the dead falls in love with his latest project, a beautiful and delicate young woman recently deceased, and uses black magic to restore her to life, only to find that she is a long way from the woman she once was (or is she?).

All round, The Haunting Season does exactly what it says on the cover, delivering a bunch of original short fiction, all expertly and sumptuously written (there isn’t one dud in that regard), all flavoursome of the deep winter, and all offering hints of that gentle horror, or should we perhaps say ‘pleasing terror’ that so earmarks the traditional ghost story for Christmas. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find it here.

And now …


Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), and I honestly don’t know how likely it is, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my thoughts just in case someone with cash decides that it simply has to be on the big screen in time for next December.

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 of ghost stories. Of course, no such film or TV series 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 but festive circumstances, which require them to relate spooky tales. It could be that they’re marooned at a snowbound coaching inn and keeping each other company around the Christmas Eve fire, or perhaps are regaling Mr Dickens with recollections of their own experiences after he amuses his guests at a Yuletide dinner party with the first chapter of A Christmas Carol.

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

Thwaite’s Tenant (by Imogen Hermes Gowar): A woman, fleeing with her child from a brutal husband, seeks refuge in a desolate house used by her father for his assignations with various mistresses. But she finds it a dark abode where the many memories of male cruelty refuse to lie at rest …

Lucinda – Charlene McKenna
Father – Jim Carter
Mrs Farrar – Rita Tushingham

Monster (Elizabeth Macneal): A younger son, insanely jealous of his horticulturist brother and unmanned by his beautiful wife, seeks greatness by searching for dinosaur bones on the Jurassic Coast. When he uncovers a fully intact plesiosaur skeleton, it’s a wondrous moment, but it comes at a ghastly psycho-supernatural price …

Victor – Darren Boyd
Mabel – Kelly MacDonald

The Hanging of the Greens (by Andrew Michael Hurley): A former vicar recalls the event that cost him his faith: a trip to a lonely farm in the snowswept Bowland hills, to offer an apology from a troubled parishioner to the couple he believes he offended. But a terrifying truth awaits him there …

Edward Clarke – Dominic West
Joe Gull – Jack O’Connell

Confinement (by Kiran Millwood Hargrave): A woman returns to England from India pregnant. But the difficult labour and birth is made worse by the story she has heard that her nearest neighbour was an evil woman hanged for baby-farming. Is the nightmarish figure that now haunts the new mother a figment of post-natal depression, or something even more terrible? …

Catherine – Sophie Turner

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