There are two kinds of Christmas spirit. One lies in the warmth and cheer which most of us yearn to wrap around ourselves at this time of year.
Then there’s the chilly, grey, spectral version: the good old-fashioned ghosts which also haunt our Christmases.
For many of us, telling ghost stories is an essential part of the Christmas tradition. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most famous of these, but the tradition of winter tales, chilling stories which seem just right for the darkest days of the year, goes back beyond the Victorians.
A thrill of horror, an unease about what lies in the dark beyond the firelight, lingering presences from the past: all these seem to strike a note of fear which, somehow seems to enhance the Christmas mood rather than spoil it.
So if ghost stories are your thing – here are suggestions of four classics, all set in East Sussex, which might offer you just the right fright this festive season:
Edith Wharton – ‘Mr Jones’
‘The two women stood for an instant measuring each other with level eyes; then the housekeeper’s were slowly lowered, and she let the curtain fall from her hand. “There are a great many things in old houses that nobody knows about,” she said.
“There shall be as few as possible in mine,” said Lady Jane.’
When Lady Jane Lynke inherits an abandoned country mansion she finds it’s easier to inhabit than it is to control. It seems the terrified servants are more likely to obey the orders of the mysterious, half-glimped caretaker Mr Jones than those of the new owner. His room, and his papers, are definitely out of bounds they feel, and the consequences of disturbing them may be terrible. After all, Mr Jones has been in charge for many, many years….
The story appears in The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton
Neil Gaiman – Coraline
‘Outside the world had become a formless, swirling mist with no shapes or shadows behind it, while the house itself seemed to have twisted and stretched. It appeared to Coraline that it was crouching and staring down at her, as if it was not really a house but only the idea of a house – and the person who had had that idea, she was certain, was not a good person.’
Children get used to being ignored by busy adults – so Coraline Jones is comfortable exploring on her own. When her family moves to a flat in a rambling old house (based on the author’s own previous home at Littlemead in Nutley) it’s not long before Coraline discovers the secret of a passage to another part of the house, and to another world. In this world she meets her strange ‘other-mother’ who will give Coraline all the attention she could possibly want. But would that be a good thing? And what if there was no way back through the passage? Coraline will need all her bravery and quick-thinking to survive in this brilliantly creepy story for young adults.
Rudyard Kipling – ‘They’
‘I felt my relaxed hand taken and turned softly between the soft hands of a child. So at last I had triumphed. In a moment I would turn and acquaint myself with those quick-footed wanderers. . . .’
A motorist is stranded at the gates of a beautiful Sussex house (recognisable as Kipling’s own home, Bateman’s in Burwash) and hears the laughs and cries of children as he wanders its grounds with the owner, a blind woman. On return visits, he seeks out the children in the gardens, woods and fields surrounding the house without ever catching sight of them. But at last he does make contact – shocking himself with a sudden flash of knowledge about the children and his connection to them.
The story appears in the collection Traffics and Discoveries
E.F Benson – ‘Naboth’s Vineyard’
‘It mattered not that he neither saw nor heard anything for which there was no normal and material explanation; the power, whatever it was, was about his path and about his bed, driving terror into him.’
People tend to know Benson for his witty Mapp and Lucia social comedies, set in a fictional version of Rye. But Benson was also an acclaimed writer of ghost stories, several of them also located in his adopted home town. In ‘Naboth’s Vineyard’, a barrister is greedy to acquire the finest house in the town of Scarling (Rye) even if it means trading on his professional knowledge to force out the previous owner. But once in residence, it seems he may not find it so easy to shake off the historical forces stalking his house and garden.
The story appears in the collection Spook Stories
Those are just a few classic tales and there are many more ghosts ready to rise at your command. Why not just type ‘ghost stories’ into the East Sussex library catalogue and see what you can summon?
Do you have a favourite ghost story you’d recommend? Share it in the comments below.