Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories

There’s something about the long, dark nights just as autumn turns into full-fledged winter that seems especially suited to spooky tales. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Victorians were especially fond of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Of course, one of the most famous ghost stories of Christmas is none other than A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The novel itself does a very good job of making the ghosts frightening and my favorite adaptations are the ones that truly capture the chilling moments. However, A Christmas Carol is not the only Christmas ghost story Dickens told.

Charles Dickens published “The Signal-Man” in the 1866 Christmas edition of his periodical All the Year Round. “The Signal-Man” tells the story of a traveler who comes upon a lonely railroad signal-man who tells him the story of a ghost who appears every time disaster is about to strike the train line. There’s not much Christmas in this tale, but it’s full of atmosphere and foreboding. It struck me that the traveler tries to find rational explanations for the ghost that sound a little like Scrooge dismissing Marley’s ghost as more gravy than grave. It also struck me that the lonely signal-man bore more than a passing resemblance to my spooked telescope operators in The Astronomer’s Crypt. A lonely, isolated setting works well in any ghost tale. “The Signal-Man” is available to read in Charles Dickens’s collection, “Three Ghost Stories” available at Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1289/1289-h/1289-h.htm#page312

Another fascinating winter ghost story is “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. This was first published in the January 1851 edition of the Dublin University Magazine. This is a story about two cousins who take up residence in a haunted mansion in Dublin only to be beset by mysterious thudding footsteps and apparitions of a man with a noose about his neck. Of course, Le Fanu is most famous as the author of the vampire tale “Carmilla” which inspired both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and my story “Fountains of Blood,” which appears in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone. As it turns out, “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” was ultimately collected in the book In a Glass Darkly alongside “Carmilla.” There are several free versions of LeFanu’s haunted house story, but this is one at Project Gutenberg: https://gutenberg.org/files/11699/11699-h/11699-h.htm#An_Account_of_Some_Strange_Disturbances

Like Dickens, Le Fanu makes an effort to rationalize the ghost before revealing that the haunting is real. It’s fascinating to me to see the tug-of-war between the spiritual and the rational at this time period. To be quite honest, I have felt this tug-of-war myself. I’m a professional scientist who is a trained skeptic. Yet, I’ve had experiences I can’t completely explain. I’ve taken photographs that appear to show ghostly shadows and I’ve seen lights where they shouldn’t be.

When I wrote the first part of The Astronomer’s Crypt, I set it during the long dark of winter on a stormy night. I based it on a real night that I experienced when I was alone, servicing the instrumentation. I had a strong sense of dread and felt certain something was coming to get me. Wind caused the dome to rattle and it whistled like a ghostly wail. Even though I was dressed in a heavy coat, I couldn’t get warm. It was a relief when I finally escaped the observatory for the morning and snuggled into my blankets. If you’re looking for yet another Christmas ghost story, you can read my fictionalized account of that night at http://www.davidleesumers.com/Astronomers-Crypt-Preview.html.

And if I’ve hooked you, the full book is just 99 cents until New Years’ Day at Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1025608

Here’s wishing you many bright lights and clear winter days to dispel the ghosts of the long, dark nights around the solstice.

4 responses to “Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories”

  1. I’ve read The Astronomer’s Crypt, and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a creepy tale! The story behind its creation reminds me of a night I spent in mid-pacific. My section came on for the mid-watch, midnight to 4:00 AM, and there were eight stations, lookouts, helm, log-keeping, etc. All were concentrated on the bridge except for one, the fantail watch at the aft point of the ship, very isolated, as you couldn’t see forward, nor hear anything but the greasy hiss of the hull sliding through the water. When we came on duty, the off-going watch was abuzz with stories of mysterious lights that had paced the ship, darted from side-to-side, and so on. The 30 minutes I spent on the fantail was the longest half-hour I’ve endured in a long time! Funny the paths your mind will go down when a suggestion is made and you’re left alone to let it ferment. Sounds like a good subject for a horror blog…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the endorsement, Jack! Much appreciated. Also, that’s really interesting to hear about the watch on the ship’s fantail. I’ve heard some truly spooky ghost stories set on passenger liners, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one set on a Navy vessel. That could make a really compelling story.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. David, I enjoyed your post. I was glad to see you mention the Gutenberg Project. I work teaching inside two State Prisons in northern Ohio. Thanks to the Gutenberg free downloads, I have introduced hundreds of incarcerated students to many of the classics. What a wonderful project. Nice read. Tom.

    Liked by 1 person

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