DESPITE its joys -- the birth of Christ, the giving of gifts -- Christmas is a decidedly ghostly time, partly because Christmas announces the death of another year, partly because it brings gloomy weather and the concomitant attraction of storytelling around a blazing fire. As Victorian ghost story writer Sheridan Le Fanu put it in one of his tales, weather is all-important, for ghosts need "the appropriate mise-en-scene of the old-fashioned parlour fireside and its listening circle of excited faces, and outside, the wintry blast and the moan of leafless boughs."
But there is another reason for the onslaught of Christmas ghosts, and it has to do with Charles Dickens. In 1843 he brought out "A Christmas Carol," which naturally gave the tradition its single biggest boost. But as editor of the magazines Household Words (1850-59) and All The Year Round (1859-70), Dickens also commissioned from prominent writers a yearly bounty of malevolent Christmas treats.
Dickens hired the greatest ghost story writers of his time. From Elizabeth Gaskell's overtly Gothic "The Old Nurse's Story," which appeared in the first Christmas annual of Household Words in 1852, to Le Fanu's diabolically understated "The Child Who Went With the Fairies," which appeared in All The Year Round in 1870, the year of Dickens's death, he served up more supernatural stomach-churners than anyone else in the business.
Dickens's most horrific contributors were often women. Besides Gaskell, these lady spooksters included Irish novelist Rosa Mulholland and Egyptologist Amelia B. Edwards. (Others, such as Hesba Stretton and Adelaid Ann Procter, tended toward the milder, more sentimental ghosts of their male counterparts.)
A particularly chilling example is an 1864 piece by Edwards, which opens with the narrator lost on "a bleak wide moor" -- the wind "due east; the month, December . . . not a pleasant place in which to lose one's way" -- and builds to a fearful climax involving a Phantom Coach carrying living corpses. The latter, with their "bloodless lips," "gleaming teeth," and dripping "putrefaction," make for a decidedly unmerry Christmas. Typically, this ghoulish tale was unsigned, bore a nondescript title ("Another Past Lodger Relates His own Ghost Story"), and was part of a larger narrative frame of tales within tales by other anonymous contributors ("Mrs. Lirriper's Lodger").
The modern reader may find that the scariest stories are not the Christmas annual pieces, but the more concise, self-contained tales that appeared just before and after Christmas. The writers Dickens hired for these issues often specialized in supernatural chills for their own sake rather than as didactic devices (to evoke compassion for the poor, for example) or as special effects to spice up a larger adventure narrative. Le Fanu, the most notable writer in this category, specialized in what ghost story master M. R. James called "the gradual crescendo," a subtle mood curve that required its own rapt, isolated voice to produce its frisson.
But the communal framework of the Christmas specials had its advantages. It provided a fireside coziness and amiability, what Arthur Conan Doyle, himself a dabbler in ghost stories, once called the "gregariousness of terror." The yoking together of disparate voices -- the panoramic sweep of Wilkie Collins, the witty banter of George Augustus Sala, the philosophical digressiveness of Bulwer-Lytton, the homey intimacy of Dickens himself -- brought authors and readers together around a common fireplace. We are not alone in our fears, these stories seem to say, which is surely a key to their enduring popularity.
I dug a bunch of them out of the library recently. Reading them in their original format, even on xeroxed microfilm, delivered a peculiar thrill. Their rarity, along with their faded, ornate typefaces, seemed appropriate for their ghostly contents. Even the ads -- for The Woman in White and A Tale of Two Cities -- were a magic Christmas treat.
Dickens's magazines were not the only homes for Christmas spook stories. Other ghost story writers who doubled as editors picked up on the tradition, including Le Fanu (Dublin University Magazine), Mary Braddon (Belgravia, Temple Bar), and Mrs. Henry Wood (Argosy). By 1873, Rhoda Broughton (Le Fanu's niece) was able to call her 1873 ghost story collection simply Tales for Christmas Eve; by 1891 Jerome K. Jerome was ready to satirize the whole tradition in his Tales After Supper, which presents a drunken storytelling session around a Christmas Eve fireside and lampoons cliches of the genre such as "the skeptical guest": "Everyone urges him not to be reckless, but he persists in his foolhardiness, and goes up to the yellow chamber (or whatever color the haunted room may be) with a light heart and candle, and wishes them all good night, and shuts the door. Next morning he has got snow-white hair."
In England, the tradition still exists, but more with contemporary ghost stories about Christmas than with magazine ghost fiction appearing at Christmas. The current master of the genre is Ramsey Campbell, whose "The Chimney" focuses on a child's paralyzing fear of something distinctly unjolly emerging from his chimney on Christmas Eve, and whose "First Foot" calls up a living corpse from a river, its resurrection announced by an unsigned Christmas card received by the horrified heroine: "A Very Harried Christmas, And No New Year."
In America, ghosts have been banished to Halloween, a season much too early and mild for proper spookery, leaving us with an unghostly, blandly commercial Christmas. Perhaps the greenhouse effect will bring us to our senses -- this past Halloween in particular was depressingly balmy -- and bring ghosts back into Christmas, where they belong.
Jack Sullivan is the author of "Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood." His newest book is "Words on Music: From Addison to Barzun."