Christmas spirits

It's that time of year again. The days are shortening dramatically. You wake in the dark, go to work in the dark, and come home again in the dark. It's the time of year from October through the shortest day, when, at least in Celtic lands, the veil between this world and the next is viewed as being at its thinnest. Is it any wonder then that the period around Christmas time is also traditionally the period when ghost stories are most frequently told, and also seem to be at their most enjoyable.

If you're looking for some tales to terrify your friends while sipping a glass of festive punch around a log fire, you need look no further than the superb Oxford book of Victorian ghost stories (also published as Victorian ghost stories) selected by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. It's a smashing anthology covering the whole of the Victorian period and going up to 1908 with stories that are Victorian in spirit. Many well-known writers are included - Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Henry James, M.E. Braddon; but there are a host of lesser-known writers (many of the very best tales are by female authors). Some of the stories have been anthologised many times, some are having their first re-printing since their publication in Victorian times.

Of course not all the tales are brilliant, but most are excellent, and there are some seriously creepy tales - the claustrophobic At the end of the passage by Kipling, and the ghoulish Kit-bag by Algernon Blackwood guarantee the odd sleepless night. I loved Mrs. Gaskell's The old nurse's story - a bit of a surprise for me, as I'm not a big Gaskell fan, I also thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson's The bodysnatcher while staying in Edinburgh. Mary Elizabeth Braddon delighted me - she is such an assured writer, who writes fluently with never a word out of place, while I also loved Rosa Mulholland's grisly tale The organist of Hurly Burly and Mary Louisa Molesworth (now best known for her childrens' books) sly poke at lovers of ghost stories in, what turns out to be quite an eerie tale, The story of the rippling train.

Altogether in this volume there are 35 short stories dated between 1852 and 1908. There were only one or two that I can honestly say that I didn't enjoy. Most were a pure delight for those who like to "make their flesh creep". There was some unexpectedly brilliant writing. If you're a newcomer to the world of supernatural fiction or are looking for some different tales to read as the nights draw in in the northern hemisphere, why not give these period ghost stories a go?


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