During the holidays, many book lovers find themselves wanting to read something that’s thematically connected to the season. But if you’re like us at Pop Mythology, you can also never get enough of fantasy, horror, the occult, the gothic and the supernatural. But what if you have limited time for reading? Well, the good news is that you can satisfy your craving for both the supernatural and the seasonal at the same time.
Christmas is actually just as appropriate a time for the macabre as Halloween is, and there’s an old tradition going back hundreds of years of telling ghost stories during the holidays. The great Victorian writer M.R. James, for instance, would write ghost stories that he’d read out loud for audiences on Christmas Eve. Then of course there’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which we typically think of as a Christmas story but which is every bit as much a ghost story (and quite an effective one too). Going back further, the Christian tale of the Nativity can be viewed as a supernatural tale of sorts (and we don’t mean “tale” in a way meant to offend). And going back even further than that are the pagan roots of Christmas which are deeply intertwined with the supernatural.
Thus, in the haunted holiday spirit we offer our list of ten books, in no particular offer, to read when the weather outside is frightful but the fire is so delightful.
Anne Rice has a deep love and fascination for all things Christmas—the holiday itself but also all the folklore and traditions surrounding and underpinning it—and it shows in this sequel to The Wolf Gift which she has called her only gothic Christmas novel. Originally titled Yuletide at Nideck Point, The Wolves of Midwinter resumes where its predecessor left off and takes place during the holiday season. Rice’s exquisitely detailed and loving descriptions of the Yuletide festival that occurs in the book are like nothing else we’ve read in recent memory. Enchanting. (See our full review here.)
This is actually a novella contained in the collection Different Seasons in the section entitled “A Winter’s Tale.” King, of course, has built his legendary career on exploring the grotesque, often in ways that are also spiritually redemptive or even overtly religious. But rarely has he managed to convey something both grotesque and redemptive in the exact same scene as effectively as he does in this wintry story of a woman determined to give birth to her child no matter what. And we do mean no matter what. If inclined to, one could perhaps even draw some parallels between this story and the Nativity.
Written by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, NOS4A2 gets our vote for the creepiest book on this list because of the way it gets under your skin and because of the way it involves children—a very sensitive topic for many parents, obviously. The novel’s Christmasland is like a twisted version of Neverland where Charles Manx is the Peter Pan out of your worst nightmares. Only here kids don’t age for the wrong reasons. Very wrong reasons. If you read this one, be sure to check out the equally effective comic book tie-in from IDW Publishing, Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland also by Joe Hill (click here to read our review of Wraith).
We’ve covered Stephen King and his son; now we’ve got to talk about Stephen’s buddy and sometimes co-writer (The Talisman, Black House), Peter Straub, who is equally adept at the ghost story. Indeed, one of his most representative novels is called just that, Ghost Story, and both the tale itself and its title are conscious winks at the tradition of the English-language ghost story as practiced by the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and M.R. James. Interestingly, the overarching frame narrative of a group of friends telling each other stories at Christmas Time is the same one that King uses in The Breathing Method. Straub actually used it before King but both borrowed the technique from the next guy below.
This quintessential gothic ghost story is the only long-form work of fiction by Henry James besides The Beast in the Jungle that I, for one, actually enjoyed. The actual story is nestled within the overarching frame of a ghost story being told on Christmas, a device that both Stephen King and Peter Straub use in the books of theirs we’ve included on this list. As with NOS4A2, the victims here are children but it’s all much more subtle. In fact, by today’s standards, the ambiguity of this story, not to mention James’s ponderous and baroque prose, can be frustrating to some. But this is required reading for a richer understanding of the American ghost story lineage.
Hands down, this is without a doubt one of our all-time favorite books in the supernatural genre. As stated in the intro to this post, M.R. James was a British scholar who wrote ghost stories on the side for fun and then read them to his friends at Christmas. You’d think that something that sounds so genial couldn’t possibly be scary. You’d think wrong. Some of the stories contained in this collection are, for our money, among the spookiest we’ve ever read (and we’ve read our fair share.) In particular, those jaded by the overly gruesome nature of much of today’s horror should read these stories and realize the truth behind the dictum, “less is more.”
The ubiquitous A Christmas Carol is known and loved by many, but Dickens actually wrote numerous Christmas books and it is interesting to note that all but one of them contained ghostly or supernatural elements. This collection brings them all together and, truly, brings new meaning to the term “Christmas spirits.” A Christmas Carol is still our favorite, perhaps for sentimental reasons, but the others in here are equally enjoyable and further illustrate our point about Christmas and the supernatural going hand in hand.
Returning to the modern age, we come full circle in the English ghost story-at-Christmas tradition with Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, yet another book that uses the framing device, albeit with a slight twist, of a group of people telling ghost stories at Christmas Time, in this case a retired man and his family. Thick with atmosphere and literary allusions, this has also been successfully adapted as both a popular stage play and a 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame.
Every list is entitled to at least one oddball choice, and as you can probably guess by the title, this isn’t straight up horror but rather a satire of Christmas classics with a generous heap of the macabre. A young boy named Josh Barker witnesses a guy in a Santa suit get killed by a shovel and thinks he’s the real Santa. The eponymous stupid angel is one Raziel, an archangel sent to Earth to grant Josh’s holiday wish which is to have Santa resurrected from the dead. Unfortunately, Raziel, being as stupid as the title suggests, resurrects not just the fake Santa but a graveyard full of hungry zombies with visions of sugar brains dancing in their heads. Mmm, braaaaains!
At once both succinct and ambitious, this book began as Mosse’s intended contribution to the UK’s Quick Reads campaign which was meant to encourage adult literacy though short yet entertaining books. Haunted in both the supernatural and historical sense, Mosse’s tale takes place during winter, years after WWI, as a bereaved young man travels to the French Pyrenees to seek solace but there finds more than he bargains for. We chose to close our list with this title for the way it links the ghosts of the present with the ghosts of the past, thus symbolically uniting the modern books on this list with the classic ones.
That’s it. We hope you’ll find something on this list that will fill you with Yuletide cheer even as it sends shivers up your spine. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good fright!There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago…
—Andy Williams, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”