Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Top 10 Classic Ghost Stories for Christmas

Further to my last blog post about gruesome and creepy writing for Christmas, I thought I'd put together my Top 10 classic ghost stories for the festive season. I decided to select classic stories because while there are many superb modern ghost stories, I personally quite like something with a patina of age on it for Christmas (12 year old malt also welcome, cough).

I love ghost stories and have many tatty old Fontana anthologies and well-thumbed collections by M.R.James, Sheridan Le Fanu, L.T.C.Rolt, etc. For this Top 10 I've tried to choose the stories that have really stayed with me after reading, which usually means that they genuinely gave me the chills! They are creepy rather than bloody; I don't mind a bit of gore in scary stories if it is well done, but that wasn't what I was looking for here. I've gone for spine-tingling rather than gut-wrenching!

If you love the classic tales as much as I do, and you've already read all of these, you can amuse yourself deciding to what extent my Top 10 coincides with yours.

By the way, many (though not all) of these stories are available online; however, if you can find an anthology with some of these tales in it, it's probably worth investing in your own copy. I know I love to re-read them!

1. Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book by M.R.James
Any list of classic ghost stories has to include one by the master of the creepy tale. The problem is: which to choose? I think out of all of James' tales, the one that scares me most is probably A Neighbour's Landmark, with its unpredictable shrieking ghost; I'm so fascinated with that story that I wrote a sequel to it, The Third Time, which appears in The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows 2. However, I suspect that most other fans of James' work would not select that one as their favourite. I think the laurels should probably go to Canon Alberic's Scrap-book, which was the very first story in James' first collection, Ghost Stories of An Antiquary. This particular tale, of a scholar who picks up an antiquarian book in a sleepy French town and thus brings himself into highly undesirable company, is a chilling example of James' skill that will make you want to sit with your back to the wall for the rest of the evening.

2. Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Sheridan Le Fanu has the accolade of being a ghost story writer whom James himself admired. Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter is my favourite of all his stories, and one that gives me a genuine sense of dread every time I read it. Although the tale is named for Schalken, the victim of the supernatural is the unfortunate Rose Velderkaust, whom the painter loves. I think her fate has a peculiar horror for female readers. Brrr.

3. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman
There are a great many supernatural stories in which the protagonist wittingly or unwittingly commits some offence and is then implacably pursued for it - M.R.James' Count Magnus being a superb example - but The Inner Room uses this theme in a much subtler way than most. The narrator acquires a splendid dolls' house as a child but it appears to have some mysterious and repulsive qualities; she is not sorry when it is sold again. Later she re-encounters it in a waking nightmare. That is the obvious part of the story. More chilling is the sense that these events have tainted the psychological landscape of the family - and that the narrator has not behaved any worse than we ourselves would have.

4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
It's de rigeur to include this one on any list of Christmas ghost stories. Personally I find A Christmas Carol for the most part entertaining rather than frightening, with the exception of two points in the story. The first is when the ghost of Jacob Marley unwinds the cloth around his face and his lower jaw drops down upon his chest. If I were Scrooge, I think I should have died of fright at that point; there is something so horribly grotesque about it. The second point is when Scrooge perceives a claw-like hand under the robe of Christmas Present, and the ghost shows him what it is.

5. Man-size in Marble by E.Nesbit
A village church has a monument with two knights in armour "drawed out man-size in marble" on it; according to local legend, on All Saints' Eve they climb down from their tomb and walk back to their former home, and woe betide anyone who meets them. Naturally as soon as we read this, we know that somebody is going to...

6. The Tower by Marghanita Laski
I read this story years ago, and it's stayed with me ever since. Perhaps it affected me so much because I like to poke about in old and abandoned places myself! In The Tower, the wife of a British man working in Italy sets out alone to visit a very high tower built by a sinister nobleman in the 16th century. I dare not say very much more about this tale; it is such a good story that it would be a pity to give any spoilers. Suffice to say that the heroine's climb up the tower is vertiginous; the descent is much more frightening.

7. Thurnley Abbey by Percival Landon
Once again, a master of the terrifying takes a familiar theme and ramps up the fear. There are many tales about waking up and seeing something nasty at the end of the bed - in fact there are several supposed "real life" occurrences of this in Haunted Homes. Where Percival Landon's story scores is in its description of the paralysing fear this creates. The ghost is pretty horrible but it's the terror it evokes in the other characters that's really chilling. I like this story so much that I use excerpts from it for ghost story workshops. "Here's how to do it, kids."

8. The Accident by Ann Bridge
Unusually, this story is set in Zermatt, in the world of mountaineering. A pair of climbers, one of them a distinctly unpleasant personality, have died in a mysterious accident, but it seems that they have not finished with the world of climbing. The terror kicks off with the discovery of two sets of tracks in the snow - that begin in the middle of nowhere. Then the messages start arriving...
I like this story for the same reason I like Aickman's The Inner Room. There's more to it than the obviously supernatural events. The characters themselves question whether what is happening is reality or mental illness; and we experience through the eyes of one of them the agony of having failed to protect the innocent.

9. Lot 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Lot 249 isn't strictly speaking a ghost story - it's more of a necromancy story. I've included it though, because personally I find it the scariest of Conan Doyle's supernatural tales. He did write some actual ghost stories - The Brown Hand, for example - but I find them less thrilling than this tale of malevolence worked out through Ancient Egyptian magic. I love the sense of arcane mystery that pervades the story, the wonderful descriptions of place including Bellingham's room full of antiquities, and the thrilling denouement: "He (Smith) was a famous runner, but never had he run as he ran that night." Brilliant.

10. Bosworth Summit Pound by L.T.C.Rolt
I love the supernatural stories of L.T.C.Rolt, who chose unusual, often industrial settings: a foundry, a  mine, a railway, a canal. If you haven't read any of them, I thoroughly recommend his collection Sleep no more (it definitely "does what it says on the tin..."). Bosworth Summit Pound is my favourite, although The Garside Fell Disaster also gives me the almost unbearable creeps. It is the tale of a man who witnesses supernatural vengeance - again, a familiar theme, but handled masterfully by Rolt, who provides some supremely chilling moments, as when the protagonist seemingly dreams of something sinister, then awakes to find himself actually outdoors, shivering and staring fearfully into the dark...

Canals: spooky

As I said at the beginning, this is my Top 10; I'd love to hear some recommendations from other people! Do you agree with my selection? What would you leave out, what would you include that I haven't?

Meanwhile, here's a ghost story of mine: Lilith's Story (free audio, read by me). If you enjoy it, you might like to check out my collection The Sea Change, which is available from Swan River Press.


  1. "The Beckoning Fair One" by Oliver Onions is probably my favorite classic ghost story.

  2. Excellent list, and a couple I've not yet read to look forward too! I also love 'The Tower', and if I were to add to the list, it would probably be 'The Step' by EF Benson

  3. You've tempted me to purchase MR James

  4. I have read all of these except No. 6. For many years my Chrisrmas Eve ghost story was 'The Rosewood Door' by Oliver Onions. For a fabulous winter ghost story though look no further than Mrs Gaskell's 'The Old Nurse's Story'.

  5. I'm definitely going to be reading these suggestions! I have a feeling I have read The Beckoning Fair One, but so many years ago that I can't remember much about it. It's great to get some story recommendations.

  6. A little hard to find, but Margery Allingham's "He Was Asking After You" is worth looking for. The matter-of-factness of the prose adds to the feeling of dread, even if the reader can see where its going. Well, almost where---the last lines have a final twist that I didn't see coming!

  7. That sounds excellent - will be checking that out, Jeff!

  8. Shows what a vast range of subject-matter the BBC could have selected from had they produced a Ghost Story for Christmas religiously each year.