The time has surely come for entering a protest against the superabundant ghost stories, which annually overflow the pages of magazines and the columns of newspapers about the season of Christmastide. The rivalry of publishers, which has continued so long on the same lines, might now well take a new departure. Superstition should receive no encouragement, as it is still prevalent enough, notwithstanding all the means of enlightenment which are at the command of the present age. It is true that the writers of the stories do no themselves, as a rule, believe in ghosts, otherwise they might sometimes be frightened out of existence, like Frankenstein, by monsters of their own creating; but they excite superstitious feelings and fears in others by the art with which they make fiction wear the semblance of reality.
The extent to which it is still possible to work upon the credulity, that seems so difficult to drive out of the human heart, is made evident by the accounts of the dealings between fortune-tellers and charm-sellers and their too credulous dupes that appear from time to time in the newspapers. This very week a charm-swindle was reported from Dorsetshire, which seems like an importation from the Dark Ages.
The séances of spiritualists, which made such a noise a few years ago, and the trickeries of which it required the Slade trial fully to expose, were also indications—humiliating enough it must be confessed—of the hold superstition still has upon the minds of people who have received the highest education, are in constant contact with religious influences, and who form, in fact, the elite of society in its inner-most circles. When the séance mania was at its height, the belief in the presence of the spirits of the departed—who rapped on tables, touched hands, and jingled tambourines in darkened drawing-rooms—was really stronger and more widely diffused in the fashionable squares of enlightened London than in any other part of the British Islands.
The exposure of the spiritualistic swindles, which did not come a day too soon, should have had a more beneficial effect upon the writers of ghost stories than it actually did in inducing them to add more natural interest and a healthier attractiveness to Christmas and New Year literature.
Ever since the time when Constable and Knight, the Chamberses and Cassell, who were pioneers in cheap publications, began to disseminate popular books and serial issues, thereby bringing mental instruction and recreation within the reach of all classes, the heads of families have often felt pleasure in reflecting how much better situated the young are now than they were in the days when they were half-scared out of their wits before going to their beds by “eerie” fireside gossip and tales about hobgoblins, sheeted spectres crossing the belated wayfarer’s path on lonely roads, elfin-locked brownies suddenly starting out from behind whin-bushes [gorse] in the last glimmer of the gloaming, banshees waiting warningly outside windows at night, ghastly forms moaning and sobbing at spots where suicides are known to have taken place, or water-kelpies “nickering” at fords and causing horses to shiver and tremble under their riders.
But may not the Christmas ghost stories—which have multiplied immensely of late years by the increase of Christmas Numbers and Annuals—be regarded as revivals or imitations of the fireside recitals which frequently induced children to bury themselves alive under the bedclothes as soon as their heads touched the pillow in case they should see something frightful whenever the light was taken out of the room? In their connection with Christmas stories of the kind may, aptly enough, be likened the blue flames which lick up the brandy that is supposed to give the crowning flavor to the chef d’oeuvre of the pudding-making art.
When Shakespeare introduced Banquo’s ghost and the stately shade of Hamlet’s murder father “clad in complete steel” into two of his most celebrated tragedies, those visitants from the unseen world had great purposes to serve in relation to the foul crimes which had been committed; but the ghosts in the majority of Christmas stories are “made to order,” so to speak, and are not specially designed to purify the heart by terror, though they are expected to create sensations of fear in the hearts of readers.
Why, however,–oh, why should it be thought necessary to create legions of dread-inspiring ghosts at Christmastide, which ought to be associated with all that is pleasant and agreeable, heart-cheering, and bright? If something supernatural be considered absolutely requisite to impart a certain speciality of character to Christmas literature, there is plenty of scope for the fancy disporting itself in the company of the morris-dancers [!!] on the moonlit sands, or among those “good people” the Fairies—the frolicsome Lilliputians of our haunted heaths and woodlands who, in the odorous stillness of summer nights, hold mimic tournaments in the green forest glades, or play at the jingo-ring on moss-covered knolls, making the air musical with their low sweet peals of light laughter and lilted lays.
Shakspeare, as all the world knows, had his delightful fairy dreams; and besides Oberon and Titania and their attendant trains, did he not create Ariel—that wonderful, musical “wandering voice”—and the marvelous Puck—electrically swift in his aerial movements—who “could put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes?” These creations of the great dramatist, though supernatural, yet seem outcomes or emanation of idealized nature—they do not communicate the charnel-house chilliness and creeping sense of horror that betoken the presence of a wan-faced ghost. Surely there is yet room for the exercise of inventiveness, in the direction just indicated, by the writers of Christmas tales.
The North London News and Finsbury Gazette, 6 January 1883
“Superstition” was the bogey-man of the Victorian era. Ridicule of the credulous and astonishment that belief in charms and ghosts still lingered in England’s green and well-educated land, are echoed by hundreds of accounts of ghosts published in the contemporary newspapers, which seem to have been staffed almost exclusively by proto-Amazing Randis. “I am not supersitious” was the cliché disclaimer in many an eye-witness tale, while those witnesses struggled between not wishing to appear a “dupe” and honest mystification at seemingly paranormal experiences.
Slade was Henry Slade, the oft-exposed slate-writing spiritualist “medium.” He was prosecuted in 1876 for fraud and sentenced to prison. He appealed his conviction and then fled, eventually dying in New York in 1905. I haven’t located the Dorsetshire charm-swindle.
What is fascinating here, is the suggestion that fairies be substituted for ghosts in Christmas literature. The author clearly has made the shift from the tall and terrible sidh, who stole children, lured folk into eternal fairy dance-circles, and could display terrifying malevolence to benign “little people” frolicking in the moonlit meadows. Harmless, colourful, cosy, and, above all, stamped with the Bard’s seal of approval, a surfeit of fairies flitted through pantomimes, songs, and children’s Christmas stories up through the 1920s. Fairy pantos and Christmas-tree-topping fairies are found even today.
That said, despite the author’s earnest intentions, Christmas ghosts were not stampeded by the march of the fairies or laid by universal education, but dissolved, wailing, in the wake of modern entertainments like bridge or by the move from ancient manor houses to modern service flats. Stephen Leacock in “The Passing of the Christmas Ghost Story,” written in 1920, admirably describes the traditional Christmas ghost story’s demise. While we have plenty of paranormal pablum on cable, it does seem (with a few notable exceptions–I am looking at you, Robert Lloyd Parry) as though the Christmas ghost story is as dead as a door-nail.
I’d be happy to be contradicted on the point. And to hear about the Dorsetshire charm-swindle. Send to the highly-educated yet rankly superstitious Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.