All These Glorious Ghosts: Darkness, the Holidays, & the Spirits We Can’t Escape
by Gwendolyn Kiste
Rattling chains in the hallway. Disembodied voices in the attic. Foggy figures that can walk right through you.
It’s easy to recognize the trappings of a ghost story when you hear them. These are among the oldest tales we’ve ever told, and even after countless generations, they still rank as some of our favorites. After all, where would literature and film be without all its haunted houses?
And while there’s never a bad time of year for a ghost story, something about the cold weather of December can inspire a special affinity for tales of phantoms that haunt us in the night. In fact, for hundreds of years, the Christmas ghost story has been a ghoulishly beloved holiday tradition. We all know Charles Dickens’ indelible A Christmas Carol, but that’s only the beginning. The Victorian era, in particular, was populated with scores of ghost stories set at Christmastime. During the course of their varied careers, no less than Edith Wharton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott, M.R. James, and Algernon Blackwood all crafted Christmas ghost stories. Back then, it was practically a rite of passage for an author to try their hand at spinning a creepy Yuletide yarn.
Flash forward to the twenty-first century, and this ritual of gathering around the fireplace to share spooky stories has regrettably faded in popularity, but its power still lingers in the hearts of many horror fans. Because truly, what could be better than a little ectoplasm with your eggnog and gingerbread?
So where does this wonderfully horrific custom come from? As it often goes with folklore and oral tradition, it’s hard to pin down the exact history, but there’s speculation that it might not even be tied directly to Christmas, per se. In the pagan tradition, this week marks another turn on the Wheel of the Year, as Saturday ushers in the holiday of Yule in the Northern Hemisphere. This occasion, most commonly referred to as the Winter Solstice, marks the darkest day of the year, that last moment before the world tilts back toward the light. It only makes sense that we welcome the dearly departed closer to our hearts and our hearths when the gloom is already so near to us.
But our fascination with Christmas spirits is about more than just these darker days. With all the togetherness of the holidays, it makes us remember those who aren’t around anymore. While December can bring much celebration and joy to people of numerous faiths, this time of year can also be one of tremendous pain, a reminder of who and what we’ve lost or even what we’ve never had. And there’s nothing quite like a ghost to represent that grief.
Spirits are among the most potent symbols of literature; they’re the embodiment of the past, of our mistakes, of every dream we’ve had that didn’t come true. No matter who you are, this pain is something we unfortunately share. Because one way or another, all of us are haunted. There’s something—or someone—we’ve left behind in our lives. A blunder we’ve made or a love we’ve lost or that pernicious wound in our heart that’s just never quite healed. We don’t have to be ghosts to have unfinished business.
But perhaps there’s something more to it than that, something a little less doom and gloom. Maybe our love of ghost stories is also entwined with our unending hope that we become wiser in death. The spirits that greet Ebenezer Scrooge are sage enough to guide him through his errors, illuminating a better path for him before it’s too late. A didactic lesson to be sure, Dickens’ well-worn story might be its own kind of trope now, but it’s a perennial favorite for a reason: it speaks to that often latent hope in all of us. If only the dead can offer us the answers that have eluded us in life, then all of this suffering is worth something at the end of the road. It means we can be more than our worst selves. Even when the world is at its darkest and coldest, we might learn from the past and from our ancestors, and when the spring rolls around again, maybe we can cultivate something better. That’s the power of ghosts: to remind us of where we’ve been, but perhaps more importantly, where we still have left to go.
Here’s to wishing you many tales of spirits this holiday season, and may you find a bit of light in all this darkness.
Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; and the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at www.gwendolynkiste.com
The Invention Of Ghosts
It starts with rapping in the ceiling and spirit boards that know them a little too well.
Everly and her best friend aren’t your typical college students. Instead of raucous Saturday night parties, they spend their weekends conjuring up things from the beyond. Ectoplasm, levitation, death photography—you name it, and Everly knows all about it. But while this obsession with the supernatural is only supposed to be in good fun, the girls soon discover themselves drifting deeper into magic and further from each other. Then when one evening ends with an inadvertently broken promise, everything they’ve ever known is shattered in an instant, sending them spiraling into a surreal haunting. Now Everly must learn how to control the spectral forces she’s unleashed if she wants any chance of escaping a ghost more dangerous than all the witchcraft she can summon.
A tale of the occult, unlikely phantoms, and complicated friendships, The Invention of Ghosts is the latest strange vision from the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens.
Available now for pre-order from Nightscape Press.
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