I am not very good at reading in December. Following the flurry of literary excitement in October with the Man Booker shortlist, by December I’ve gone into new book hibernation. Amidst the darkness, Christmas card writing, present shopping, wrapping, festive celebrating and the fact I fall asleep on any flat surface means I can never seem to get into a new book. Instead I go for the chilling yet cosy familiarity of re-reading ghost stories.
Is there anything scarier than my scary book selfie?
Having watched too many scary films at underage sleepovers, I am too afraid to watch an actual horror movie. But a spine chilling book is just my cup of tea. To quote Jerome K Jerome in an anthology of Christmas ghost stories, “It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon the grave, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.” Happily the only Christmas horrors we’ve had so far this year is the Christmas tree collapsing mid week and the car needing a new exhaust. All in the week before pay day. Scarily expensive but not scary, scary. Cosy, twinkling lights, warm favourite armchair in here, thrilling, dangerous spooks out there. I’ve included some of my favourites with little extracts to wet your appetite:
Susan Hill: The Woman In Black
I mean – the ultimate. Luckily the cinema I saw the Daniel Radcliffe film in was too full to not be able to walk out of without causing a scene. SO SCARY. I fell in love with the book first. On Christmas eve Arthur Kipps recalls a job in his youth, where he travelled to Eel Marsh House to manage the effects of Alice Drablow. It’s not long until he spots a woman in black, with devastating consequences.
“I had seen no one, felt nothing. There had been no movement, no brush of a sleeve against mine, no disturbance of the air, I had not heard a footstep. I had simply the absolute certain sense of someone just having passed close to me and gone away down the corridor. Down the short narrow corridor that led to the nursery whose door had been so firmly locked and then, inexplicably, opened.”
Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol
The king of the ghost story. You know the story. Watch the Muppets. But do also read it.
“The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.”
Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger
I’m not sure if I can write a book edit without talking about this book. I love it so freaking much. Doctor Farday visits the crumbling Hundreds Hall, where the minds of the Ayres family are as unstable as the walls that hold them.
“I stood frozen for a moment, not knowing what to do. A few minutes before, the little garden had appeared almost snug to me. Now the small walled patch, with its single narrow exit leading only to another choked and isolated space, seemed filled with menace. The day, as I have said, was a peculiarly still one. No wind disturbed the branches of the trees, no bird rose, even, in the thin chill air, and if any sound had come, any movement been made, I would have caught it. Nothing changed, nothing at all- and yet, it began to seem to me that something was there in the garden with us, creeping or edging towards us across the crisp, white snow.”
Roald Dahl: The Witches
Not technically a ghost story but still barely suitable for children. Spent most of my childhood trying to figure out who was a witch. Mrs Jones- the dinner lady- itchy scalp AND favoured a glove.
“‘There are witches everywhere. There’s probably one living in our street this very moment.’
‘A witch wouldn’t come in through my window in the night, would she?’ I asked, quaking a little.
‘No,’ my grandmother said. ‘A witch will never do silly things like climbing up drainpipes or breaking into people’s houses. You’ll be quite safe in your bed.'”
If your busy-ness or exhaustion is just too much to open a book and not collapse I also have some deliciously gruesome podcasts to recommend:
My Favourite Murder
Very American- they have some chat to start with with a lot of in jokes that become funnier with time. Georgia and Karen tell each other a murder story every week. With performances from the cat Elvis. For a great set of ghost stories listen to their Minisode no 92 (from Halloween but even better enjoyed on a frosty December evening).
I listened to this after the recommendation on Dirty John podcast- also EXCELLENT. It’s written like a thrilling page-turner telling the story of Charles Manson, looking back from the Sharon Tate mass murder and forward from Charlie’s boyhood. So so dark.
They Walk Among Us
I started listening to this last week and have already gone through 15 episodes. If I’m listening whilst unlocking my front door I can throughly freak myself out (it’s like the serial killer is right behind me!) Each episode tells a British true crime story. Highlights/lowlights: episode 10 of season 1 with the teacup poisoner.