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Be afraid. Be very afraid ..

The seasonal tradition of huddling around the fire to hear ghostly tales goes back millennia, writes Jerome Monahan

The seasonal tradition of huddling around the fire to hear ghostly tales goes back millennia, writes Jerome Monahan

"Ghosts?" asked the little girl. "I thought they were only for Halloween." Her tone was somewhat dismissive; her interest distinctly unpiqued. Seated comfortably, surrounded by her schoolmates in the hall of the Wroxham School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, she was apparently going to need some convincing that any ghost story - or the teacher telling it - would succeed in engaging, let alone scaring, her.

Yet ghosts and Christmas have gone together for millennia. For just as the winter solstice was an important festival linked with fire ceremonies, many think telling fearsome tales of things that might lurk in the shadows beyond the threshold was another way our ancestors defeated the dark and contained their dread. Think of the thrill of being safe and snug in the mead hall in an Anglo-Saxon winter and hearing the poem Beowulf with its monstrous bogeyman Grendel haunting the marshes and desolate fens - the same kind of landscape that lay just outside their doors and away from the flame-light.

Perhaps Shakespeare put it best in The Winter's Tale: "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one of sprites and goblins."

As a freelance teacher who leads ghost-story workshops, my main authorities, however, are Victorian. Best known is Charles Dickens, whose 1843 novel A Christmas Carol, now an intrinsic part of Christmas, is packed with ghosts. Its immediate success underlined the public's enthusiasm for the subject and proved a key component of the broader Victorian invention of many seasonal traditions we take for granted today.

But, for me, the link between ghosts and Christmas is truly forged by Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), a classics academic and provost of King's College Cambridge. Despite his expert knowledge of the Apocrypha and achievement in cataloguing his university's medieval documents, MR James would almost certainly have vanished into obscurity were it not for his terrifying tales, and his tradition of reading them to his colleagues in his rooms each Christmas. His friends encouraged him to have the stories published and the first volume, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, appeared in 1904. Three more volumes would emerge over the next 20 years.

Indeed, his collected works have never been out of print. But what is it that makes an MR James ghost story so special and such good teaching material for anyone thinking of writing a spooky tale? In 1931, he attempted to identify his principles in an essay for the London Evening News. Its title, "Ghosts - Treat Them Gently!", sought to distinguish his output from more excessive "horror" stories such as Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), in which, he believed, "the butter is spread far too thick".

James redefined the ghost story by using convincing backgrounds and characters living ordinary lives, leaving the reader with the sense that "if I'm not careful, something of this kind may happen to me". His descriptive passages are masterly, seeded with hints of the disturbing events to follow, and lent authority by his architectural and historic knowledge. His characters are often academics and antiquarians drawn by profession to the dustier parts of bookshops - and fired by such a sense of rational superiority they do not flinch at the first hints of impending supernatural nastiness.

And his ghosts are something else: malevolent and terrible, with a habit of latching on to the main character and proving inexorable. The best are summoned by a protagonist's chance encounter with a rare document or even fabric with a pattern like rippling hair. He doesn't spare the young. In Lost Hearts, pubescent children are drugged by a dabbler in the occult who removes their hearts. It's uncomfortable but transfixing stuff.

In keeping with the best art, James's stories have had a rich "afterlife", inspiring numerous writers to try their hand at the genre. Susan Hill's gorgeously spooky 1983 novella The Woman in Black is steeped in Jamesian atmosphere, and Penelope Fitzgerald's 1990 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Gate of Angels contains a fantastically unpleasant ghost story set in James's native East Anglia. Stephen King cited James's influence on his novel The Shining.

What ghost stories offer young people today remains undiminished. James, with his Edwardian prose, can pose a challenge to young readers. But it's worth getting them over the small hurdle of his language to appreciate the suspense and sense of fear his stories still have the power to conjure.

James would likely be bemused by the longevity of his work. He never married or had children, and confessed that he was a fence-sitter when it came to the supernatural. "I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me," he said, when asked once if he believed in ghosts.

That's not a bad adage, on any subject, to pass on to children.

Jerome Monahan is a freelance journalist and teacher, and the author of "Ghost Stories on Film", published for the British Film Institute


What else?

Other MR James ghost stories

- The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1904). Do not seek cursed gold.

- A School Story (1911). A masterclass in the slow approach of horror.

- A Warning to the Curious (1925). Another quest leads to disaster.

- Wailing Well (1931). Ghosts don't have to appear - they can sound horrible, too.

- The Malice of Inanimate Objects (1931). James, in playful mood, underlines the dangers posed by seemingly innocuous objects.


For worksheets, lesson plans and schemes of work exploring the complexities of the Gothic genre, visit TES Resources.

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