By now, it’s safe to say that some of you might be harboring certain, shall we say, thoughts about the holiday season, and especially Christmas. Irritated thoughts. Cynical thoughts. Angry thoughts. Even—dare I say it—horrified thoughts.
If so, you might be in the mood for Chris Priestley’s Christmas Tales of Terror, where all kinds of terrible, nasty, awful things happen to adorable and not so adorable children on Christmas.
Set in some vague Victorian/Edwardian period (one aunt fondly reminisces about life in the Crimean War, but that’s about it for specific dates), complete with servants and governesses and kindly vicars and the occasional chamber pot, these tales provide a nice cozy feeling of Christmas terror. Yes, I said cozy. Sure, people get frozen to death, or mutilated by evil snowmen, or turned insane overnight by things that sound like they could be Father Christmas but really, really aren’t, or get surrounded by walking dead things, but still, somehow a nice cozy warm feeling pervades almost every tale, except the one about the carol singers, until the nasty twist ending.
Part of this, I think, stems from the protagonists: all children, all, for the most part, very relatable. They have Ideas about Christmas and other things, you see, ideas not often shared by the adults they are sharing Christmas with. Georgia, for instance, is perfectly convinced that yes, she is old enough to go to the Christmas Eve party that her parents are attending without her, and not at all pleased to be heading to Midnight Mass with her governess instead. I’m on her side. Aubrey can think of much better ways to spend Christmas than visiting poor parishioners, which is just awful, and he really thinks it’s a bit much for his father, a kindly Vicar, to be spending ten shillings on the poor and not on him. I’m a little less on his side, but still, I can see his point. Naturally they both suffer terrible and horrific fates, because Christmas.
Though if you’re worried that these stories are going to be a bit too noble and moralistic, based on that—no worries; some of the perfectly good and mostly innocent people suffer horrible fates too. Including that kindly Vicar. These are, after all, ghost stories. (Though, now that I think of it, the Vicar did tell a little white lie, and didn’t listen to warnings, so… maybe not as innocent as I was first thinking.) That said, although I was creeped out by the ending of Aubrey’s chilly tale (I live in the warmth of Florida for reasons), I have to say that the stories of certain people getting their just desserts might be just a touch more satisfying, if less horrific, particularly the story of a certain bully and a certain very very evil snowman.
The best story, however, is probably the story of some rather slightly choir boys who just happen to stand on top of a plague victim gravesite and sing. The lesson from the story: never do this. The other lesson: “In the Bleak Midwinter” is an even more horrifying Christmas carol than you thought it was when sung in the wrong context, which this definitely is.
A few of the stories also have a touch of social criticism. I’ve already mentioned the Vicar, but a significant part of what is going wrong in the first story is an argument regarding land use, and a dispute between the villagers and some of the new residents—and between supposedly educated and less educated and genuinely educated people. There’s an acknowledgement, too, of Victorian England’s labor issues in what certainly starts off as a nice cheery Father Christmas story, but explaining that would ruin the twist.
Granted, none of the stories will particularly surprise horror devotees, since with a couple of arguable exceptions, most are retellings of standard campfire ghost stories. And some readers might regret that only two of the stories feature girls, while the other four feature boys. But the cozy Victorian settings, the realistic child protagonists, and the creepy endings make this short collection something horror fans and Grinches alike can enjoy, though small children might get very upset. Older kids will be fine. Just don’t have “In the Bleak Midwinter” playing while you read it.
Mari Ness hopes everyone reading this has a wonderful holiday season with plenty of cookies and no rampaging evil snowmen.