Top 10 Most Chilling Ghostly Tales to Read This Winter
“Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night…”
-From “The Jew of Malta” by Christopher Marlowe, 1589
Telling ghostly tales at Christmastime, and, more generally, in the wintertime, is an English, and, by inheritance, an American custom going back hundreds of years, when the only light people had after the sun went down came from the moon and the stars, fires, candles, or lamps, and when stories were often told to provide what ghostly tale master M.R. James called “a pleasing terror.” Alas, this unnerving custom has largely died out in our age of skepticism and materialism, when people believe in nothing but what their senses and science tell them is real. I am all for the revival of the reading and telling of ghost stories in winter, for winter is a proper time of the year to reflect on our own mortality, and to scare little children (and ourselves.)
So, suggested here for you to enjoy during the darkest nights of the year are ten chilling ghostly tales. While only some of the ghost stories recommended here feature winter settings, all of these tales will leave your blood cold with fear. So, turn down the lights, pour a snifter of port or Madeira, stoke up the fire, and settle back in your chair. I hope that you enjoy these marvelous works of the moral (mortal?) imagination.
“There’s A Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” for which Russell Kirk won a World Fantasy Award in 1977, is set in a frigid, wintry world. The protagonist, Frank Sarsfield, finds himself holed up in an abandoned house that somehow seems familiar to him. Has he been here before? Are the creaks and groans he hears just the wind? What about the whispering voices?
“The Peculiar Demesne of Archvicar Gerontion,” another Kirk tale, is set at a Christmas Eve party in the mythical African Commonwealth of Hamnegri. One of my favorite literary characters, the cosmopolitan European Manfred Arcane, Hamnegri’s Minister Without Portfolio, first treats his guests to a traditional game of Snapdragon, and then to a personal reminiscence about a particular encounter with a strange being (dare I say “man”?) that leaves his wife in tears and his holiday guests deeply unsettled.
“The Old Tailor and the Gaunt Man” by Brian Showers is a masterful tale, written in the classic style. It is available as an illustrated chapbook, and in the Ash-Tree Press collection Acquainted With The Night. An old tailor’s custom has fallen on hard times, since no one wants fine, handmade suits anymore. His eviction and ruin seem certain until a new customer arrives after hours, wanting a tailored suit to replace his worn one.
Sarah Monette has written a series of short stories featuring Kyle Murchison Booth, a nervous museum archivist whose unwise, tragic, but successful attempt at necromancy has made him a magnet for ghosts, ghouls, and demons…creatures you generally don’t want finding you. Ten of these tales are collected in The Bone Key: The
Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth, which is aptly dedicated to M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. The first story in this collection, “Bringing Helena Back,” is my fourth choice for winter reading.
Many of M.R. James’s stories were written to be read aloud to eager audiences of friends after Christmas Eve services at Cambridge. “The Mezzotint” may disrupt your sleep with troubling dreams. Alas, no relief will come to you. The mezzotint in question “was not specially exciting,” but as the story progresses, it seems to change, which pictures do not do, right?
My favorite M.R. James story, “Wailing Well,” was written for a troop of Boy Scouts and read to them by the author while they were on a camping trip. Rash Stanley Judkins is a most disobedient scout, and when he determines to ignore the warning of a local shepherd and drink from a forbidden well, it is so very hard to pity him.
With “The Monkey’s Paw,” W.W. Jacobs does so much: he creates an unsettling backdrop, touches on the dangers of industrial society, upsets every loving parent, and creates one of the most memorable revenants in all of literature, though we never actually see it. He also scares us out of our wits, while making us consider the wisdom of wishing, or, at least, the wisdom of what we wish for, and why we want it.
“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe is often associated with Halloween but actually takes place “…in the bleak December…” This marvelous poem recounts the unrelenting sorrow of the narrator over the loss of his beloved Lenore, and his visit by a haunting, stately bird whose origins can only be supernatural.
“Smee,” a proper Christmas ghost story by A.M. Burrage, concerns a group of people playing a variation of hide-and-seek in a dark house where a woman met an untimely death playing a similar game years before. The participants enjoy the fun at first, but then someone wonders, are there twelve players, or thirteen? Count again.
Most Decembers, “A Christmas Carol” comes off my bookshelf, and I reacquaint myself with Charles Dickens’s helpful ghosts. One of the greatest tales of moral transformation in the English language, this story has the best literary description of hell outside of the Bible that I have ever read. There are several great film versions of this book, but read the book first.
So, there are my top ten chilling ghost story recommendations for you for Winter 2016-2017. As I wrap this post up, the snow is falling heavily on my woods, the sky is growing dark, and the old year is passing away. It must be time for a spectral tale. May your ghosts be chilly and white, and may all your tales be filled with fright.
Jeffrey Dennis Pearce is a history teacher and a writer. He is the creator and editor of Ghostly Kirk, a web page dedicated to the ghostly fiction of American man of letters Russell Kirk. Pearce lives among his ancestors, contemporaries, and descendants in Washington State.