A Christmas ghost story

Nightfeather: Ghosts is the title of this year’s Christmas ghost story, which I begin telling today and will finish on or before December 24. What’s it about? Well, ghosts, of course. And a strange young woman named Sanderson, who has problems of her own. Followers of this blog should recognize one of the ghosts in the story, but the rest are newcomers. So please start reading at chapter 1, entitled, “In which our protagonist is introduced, while she is not on good terms with the world.”

James looks like the scholar he was

James looks like the scholar he was

Don’t be too impatient for the ghosts, though. I’m following some of the rules for ghost stories set down by M. R. James (1862 – 1936). Montague Rhodes James, to give him his full name, was a scholar of the Apocrypha, church history, and medieval manuscripts. And he wrote ghost stories. In fact, the only fiction James ever wrote for publication were ghost stories, and he is considered the first Twentieth Century master of the ghost story. By his own account, he would write these and read them around Christmastime to his friends at Cambridge and Eton, keeping up the old tradition of Christmas being a season for ghost stories. They were compiled into four slim volumes in his lifetime.

James’s interest in ghost stories was not limited to his own, no. We owe him a debt for rescuing the ghost stories and other supernatural stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814 – 1873) from obscurity. Le Fanu’s name not ring a bell? He wrote one of the first great vampire stories, “Carmilla” (which I’ve mentioned elsewhere), as well as the creepy novel Uncle Silas. James dug through years of old forgotten periodicals to find forgotten stories by Le Fanu, which he helped popularize by compiling a collection entitled Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (1923).

James had definite ideas about how ghost stories should be composed. In general, he was one for suggesting horrors, rather than depicting gore. And sex? No, for James sex ruined the mood. (He died a bachelor.) While I am not following James in every particular, there are two rules of his I am following for this story.

I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you might meet or hear any day. (Taken from the preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, published in 1911.)

Let us be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. (Taken from the introduction to Ghosts and Marvels, a 1924 collection of stories edited by V. H. Collins.)

As it will be seen, I do not follow James’s advice in every point. Neither did he. In fact, his advice isn’t consistent from one telling to another, and neither was his practice! Perhaps he kept in mind that greatest of rules: sameness produces boredom.

James had a friend illustrate the first volume of his ghost stories

James had a friend illustrate the first volume of his ghost stories


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Nightfeather, Writing fiction and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A Christmas ghost story

  1. danagpeleg1 says:

    Ach, vat a mentsch you are! (or, taking into consideration the characters featured in this post: Right-ho, Bixby! What a chum!) it It’s only fifth day of Hannukah, I’ll still be able to read the first chapter this story in the flickering candle light! No kidding, I may start reading it with Boaz…

  2. Judy says:

    I like point two. I’ve always enjoyed how horror mounts out of the deceptively ordinary and all the while the subject of the horror is trying to convince himself little by little that each oddity is totally explained by the ordinary…until as you say…..malevolent insistence cannot be denied.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      One might say that the difference between horror in mainstream fiction and horror in sci-fi/fantasy is whether one begins with comparatively normal circumstances or not. “Salem’s Lot” is mainstream fiction in the sense that King’s vampires emerge out of a normal decaying small town in Maine. Farnham, as Sanderson will make clear, would be decaying if it weren’t growing, so it’s just simply an ugly place.

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