Reading for a dark and stormy night…
Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night …
– from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589)
It’s all because of those long nights and the gloomy weather.
The origins of yuletide merrymaking were about making people feel better during the dark winter months, a long time before a religious feast was pegged on to the season.
The very cleverly-designed cards I’ve bought this year from the British Humanist Association read ‘Christmas’ if they’re turned one way and ‘Saturnalia’ if they’re flipped around.
So that may explain why, when we’re supposed to be thinking about tidings of great joy, lots of us still like a good old dose of horror, crime or some other literary representation of misrule.
The Victorians’ love of the Christmas ghost story is well-known, but it’s likely that the tradition went back much further than that – Shakespeare and Marlowe both reference the telling of frightening tales during the winter time.
For me, it all started with a book I read as a child: Nina Beachcroft’s Cold Christmas (1974), in which a girl is sent to a gloomy old house and makes friends with a ghost girl there. I think it was the first thing I read about Christmas that wasn’t completely saccharine.
I also started to watch the BBC’s ghost stories at Christmas, scaring myself silly with the likes of M.R. James’ The Ash Tree (1975) and the adaptation of Dickens’ The Signalman (1976).
I’m sure this had quite an influence when I set my children’s novel The Serpent House in the strange, dark days between Christmas and Twelfth Night.
It’s not only ghost stories that we like at this time of year. Christmas crime, I’ve only recently discovered, is what my teenage son would call ‘a thing’.
The golden age crime writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh all set mystery stories at Christmas, but now there is so much seasonal crime fiction that it would take Santa quite a few trips to deliver it all. Try putting ‘Christmas crime’ in a search engine and you will see what I mean!
The winter weather, of course, is a gift for writers: grey days, black nights, bone-chilling cold and wailing winds. My current work-in-progress is a crime novel for adults, set in the early 1990s and starting on New Year’s Eve. I’m probably one of the few people in the UK who’s looking forward to the unseasonal mildness coming to an end, so I can be more inspired.
I’m also looking forward to finding some of the excellent crime fiction from 2014 under the tree. I’m hoping for Louise Welch’s A Lovely Way to Burn, and Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm, for starters.
So what’s your seasonal scare, your holiday horror or your festive fright? What fiction are you hoping will see you through the winter? And what would you recommend?