Haunted Holidays: Charles Dickens & Co.

Shakespeare talks about it, Andy Williams talks about it, even Washington Irving talks about it, so let’s admit it, ghost stories are winter’s tales. Although Hanukah has a touch of the supernatural about it, Christmas, which is pretty much a non-supernatural event in the Gospels (except for the whole star business) has somehow become the province of ghosts.

As Jerome K. Jerome said, “It is always Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.” Henry James’ Turn of the Screw is set at Christmas, as is Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, and the master of the form, M.R. James, always took a break from wrestling with the boys to tell his ghost stories at Christmas. But the man who made the Christmas ghost story literary is Charles Dickens, whose most famous work, A Christmas Carol, was one of the first great disasters in self-publishing, the novella that pretty much invented modern Christmas, and a sneaky protest book disguised as a dose of good cheer.

Oliver Cromwell, Britain’s Grinch, won the War on Christmas with his Anti-Fun Charter of 1651, but don’t get too smug, America. Before the mid-19th century, the holiday was barely more popular here, and Boston once outlawed Christmas, mostly because that’s when young punks celebrated by getting drunk, roaming the streets, trashing houses, and brawling. It was also generally considered a low class holiday, commemorated only by grubby Catholics.

But Christmas contained all the things Victorians loved: social license to make merry, complicated traditions of obligation and reciprocation, booze, food, and sentimentality. However, it took until 1843 for Dickens to figure out how to weaponize this Yuletide combo with A Christmas Carol. He’d warmed up in 1836 with a ghost story in The Pickwick Papers called “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” about a grumpy church sexton who insists upon working on Christmas. Goblins kidnap him, take him to an underground cave, and show him scenes of gentle humanity, and also beat him mercilessly. Either the pictures or the beatings change his heart and he becomes a better human being.

Resentful of his publishing contract, Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol figuring that if he owned the book he could keep more of the loot. But there’s a reason perfectionists who don’t believe in the theory of Good Enough never become publishers: they’re terrible at it. Dickens was disappointed in his book’s design, so he kept throwing money at his printer to add fancier endpapers and gold lettering on the spine, then he insisted on selling it for the super-low price of five shillings. The result: a super-popular book that returned super-low profits.

Capping it off, he got took on the pirate magazine, Parley’s Illuminated Library which had offered “condensed and re-originated” versions of Barnaby Rudge and Bleak House and now A Christmas Carol for a penny a copy. Dickens won the case, but Parley’s simply pulled a now-classic pirate vanishing trick and declared bankruptcy, leaving Dickens holding the bag on the court costs (almost $70,000 in today’s dollars), which he had to take out a personal loan to pay.

A Christmas Carol was insanely influential activist literature. Dickens had recently spent a lot of time slumming with the poor and was all het up over their plight. But instead of publishing a polemic he decided to fight for hearts and minds with Carol. His message was invincible:

  • Dancing, drinking, and partying were not frivolous frippery, but an essential component of being human.
  • Every human being, no matter how rotten and no matter how old, can always reform their ways and be welcomed back into the fold.
  • Poor people have it rough and it’s not always their fault.
  • If you want to be a better person, you need to help the poor. And to help the poor, you don’t have to start a charity or become a missionary, you can just go find some poors and buy them dinner.

Today this stuff is Activism 101, but at the time it was electrifying. Reading it today, once you scrape away the Muppets version, and the Bill Murray version, and the Bugs Bunny version, it’s still electrifying. Modern authors are, in the main, far less bold with their horror than Dickens, who took the silly trappings of the inconsequential ghost story and transformed them into a delivery device for a political message. The popularity of Carol launched a Dickens tradition of publishing a new Christmas story every year in his magazine, All The Year Round.

This culminated in 1859 with The Haunted House, an All the Year Round literary house party hosted by Dickens. He invited five of his most popular writers to contribute a story, and then he did the wrap-around, with the conceit that he had rented a haunted house and each of his guests would relate the tale of the particular ghost who haunted their room. The result was…mostly not ghost stories.

First up was his new discovery, Hesba Stretton, the pen name of the anonymously-named Sarah Smith who had published her first story for Dickens that March in his Household Words called “The Lucky Leg” about a woman with one leg who finds happiness when she meets a wealthy man who is legally compelled to only marry women with one leg (he’s run through two one-legged wives already). It sounds fun, but it wasn’t, because Hesba Stretton hated fun. The child of evangelists, she would go on to write wildly popular moralistic melodrama with titles like “Highway of Sorrow,” “Storm of Life,” and “The Thorny Path.” As you’d expect from an author whose books were frequently used as Sunday School prizes her contribution is snow covered drivel about a girl who finds true love when she learns astronomy.

Next comes a surreal story about a guy whose ague causes him to develop a twitch that ruins his life, written by world traveler and professional blowhard, George Augustus Sala. A writer who earned a mint, then blew it all and died penniless, Sala wrote anything that made money, including hatmaker’s manuals, cookbooks, newspaper articles, and pornography. He also pretended to be a young girl and wrote letters to Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine about riding powerful stallions while wearing a tight corset and how that made her (him) have funny feelings inside her (his) leather pants. Apparently that was a thing men did at the time, and the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine letter column consisted of nothing but mesbians recounting the “horrors” of being caned. Sala would later write the porn novel, The Mysteries of Verbena House, or Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving. His picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, as it should.

Next came a wretched poem by Adelaide Anne Procter, at the time the second-most-popular poet in England—right after Alfred, Lord Tennyson—and Queen Victoria’s favorite verse-slinger. Her long poem is about a nun who makes the mistake of leaving the convent and crawls back years later, all worn and bedraggled, like an old sock. Fortunately for her, she gets to die on the nunnery doorstep. Then came a nautical story from Wilkie Collins, the man who was currently re-inventing the sensation novel with his serial, The Woman in White. His story was about a sailor tied to a barrel of gunpowder, which was exciting, but decidedly not a ghost story.

Elizabeth Gaskell closes things out. Gaskell was famous for writing social novels and for writing in dialect. Dickens encouraged her to write a ghost story and so she turned in a social novel written mostly in dialect. It’s the kind of prodigal son story that would bring out the worst in Hesba Stretton, but Gaskell avoids easy sentiment and delivers an emotionally-nuanced heartbreaker that is, however, totally devoid of ghosts.

Dickens’ story is terrible (some kind of bizarre hallucination in which he imagines being a Muslim Caliphate) but his wrap-around remains among his best writing. Dickens beings his wrap-around mocking a trendy spiritualist he meets on the train, then he turns to mocking ghosts, which are very mockable. The spiritualism trend was just starting to cook, so his antipathy is understandable, then, suddenly, there’s this passage about his own experience with the uncanny:

“In the summer-time, I often rise very early, and repair to my room to do a day’s work before breakfast, and I am always on those occasions deeply impressed by the stillness and solitude around me. Besides that there is something awful in the being surrounded by familiar faces asleep—in the knowledge that those who are dearest to us and to whom we are dearest, are profoundly unconscious of us, in an impassive state, anticipative of that mysterious condition to which we are all tending—the stopped life, the broken threads of yesterday, the deserted seat, the closed book, the unfinished occupation—all are images of Death…Moreover, I once saw the apparition of my father, at this hour. He was alive and well, and nothing ever came of it, but I saw him in the daylight, sitting with his back towards me, on a seat that stood beside my bed. His head was resting on his hand, and whether he was slumbering or grieving, I could not discern. Amazed to see him there, I sat up, moved my position, leaned out of bed, and watched him. As he did not move, I spoke to him more than once. As he did not move then, I became alarmed and laid my hand upon his shoulder, as I thought—and there was no such thing.”

The rattling chains, the mysterious bells, the ghastly howlings, the spirit rappings, all the fictional trappings of the ghost story pale next to this simple, inexplicable, quietly profound image of his father, which bears great resemblance to the case studies of apparitions that were soon to be collected by psychical researcher Edmund Gurney and published as Phantasms of the Living. Based on thousands of reports of supernatural occurrences, it remains one of the largest surveys of its kind and the apparitions are all linked by their apparent pointlessness and complete lack of drama.

Besides popularizing the Christmas ghost story, Dickens contributed one other tradition to horror literature. In 1857 he had begun to write to friends that his wife, Catherine, was “fat,” “slovenly,” and “a donkey.” He took up with a young actress, and was enormously cruel to Catherine, forcing her to pay social calls on his girlfriend’s family. Things reached a head when he accidentally sent his wife a bracelet intended for his girlfriend. The year before The Haunted House was published, Dickens separated from Catherine, took custody of eight of his nine children, forbade them to speak to their maternal grandmother, took his wife’s sister with him as a housekeeper and assistant, then wrote several public letters complaining that his wife laboured under a mental disorder. Friends who tried to get him to chill out were unceremoniously dropped.

It’s a bizarre contradiction that a man who could be so remarkably generous to strangers could be so unfathomably cruel to his own wife and children. Dickens was a one-man social reform movement, and yet his separation from his wife was a study in malice. This behavior did not go unnoticed. In November 1859, Dickens’ close friend, Wilkie Collins, had begun to serialize in All the Year Round the novel that would make him a household name, The Woman in White. The story of a woman mistreated by her husband, drugged, and sent to an asylum, it helped popularize the archetype of the wife terrorized by her husband, which would appear again in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s small, perfect ghost story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and would also influence Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight. Dickens’ good works will live on, and so will A Christmas Carol but, thanks to Collins, part of him will also live on in every depiction of a bullying husband gaslighting his wife.

Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.


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