Need an uplifting sci-fi/fantasy/horror story this holiday? Or a depressing one? We’ve got you covered either way with this list of naughty and nice Christmas tales!
It’s not a complete list. (How could it be? Fiction is forever!) Just a collection of genre books about Christmas, or that take place around Christmas, or that play with the idea of Christmas, that we’ve found comforting when we’re feeling naughty…and when we’re feeling nice. Be sure to add your own favorites in the comments!
Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Knopf Doubleday)
At the age of 15, Tara Martin disappears, leaving behind a devastated family. 20 years later, on Christmas Day, she returns, having only aged six months and claiming that she was visiting the parallel world of the fae. Some Kind of Fairy Tale focuses in on the emotional impact of Tara’s return, and raises questions as to the fluid nature of memory when scarred by abuse. Has Tara fabricated a story about the fae to recategorize a painful experience? Or is she telling the truth? How do we treat people when we re-cast them as victims in our viewpoint? Joyce’s novel is a powerful tale, and while we can’t give away the ending, the questions that the book’s story raises puts it firmly in the Naughty pile. Read our review by Niall Alexander here.
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (HarperCollins)
Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 is fascinating in that it both does and does not take place during Christmas. By playing with this in-between space, Hill gets to have his cake and eat it, too, evoking Christmas while simultaneously gorging on Christmas until it loses all meaning. Our review of it by Alex Brown explains:
Nestled high in the mountains of central Colorado is a house of death with a hidden door to another world, Christmasland. It is a fantasy realm accessible only through the psychotic mind of Charles Manx and his malevolent Wraith, a 1938 Rolls Royce with the vanity plate NOS4A2. Charlie Manx lives for amusements and loves children (or, more accurately, loves their innocence and unconditional admiration) so boundlessly that everything else is drained away.
NOS4A2 is so nice that it turns inside out and becomes Naughty. Very naughty.
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (Margaret K. McElderry Books)
In the early 1970s, author Susan Cooper released The Dark Is Rising fantasy series, a five-book series aimed at young adults and which, much like the Narnia series, was meant as a stepping stone into heavier fantasy fare. (Mari Ness recaps and reviews the whole series right here.) The second book in the series, The Dark Is Rising, takes an interesting turn in that it uses the celebration of Christmas in the real world as the main source of hope for our fantasy heroes. Usually fantasy narratives are about restoring hope to an imaginary world in order to feel better about the problems in our own. In Susan Cooper’s series, that trope is reversed. This one’s definitely on the Nice list.
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Mark Helprin’s literary near-classic book Winter’s Tale can be very polarizing. (Get it? Because winter and polar and…I’ll show myself out.) It offers readers archetypes instead of legitimate characters, so when those characters push the plot forward it often feels as if their motivation comes out of nowhere. This kind of storytelling frustrated our reviewer Chris Lough, who wrote a personal essay reviewing the book, but even he had to admit that Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is a beautiful, gorgeous novel that should be required reading. Helprin’s prose makes you feel that blast of winter wind, that cozy Christmas day, that welling up of goodwill that makes your insides shake with joy. The plot makes no sense, but the book is essentially Christmas bound up into words. It’s very, very Nice.
Pet Semetary by Stephen King (Pocket Books)
It’s easy to forget that Stephen King’s classic horror tale takes place during Christmas, mostly because it’s kind of an insane book that was only published begrudgingly. Grady Hendrix digs through the novel’s bizarre history here:
On Thanksgiving Day a car killed his daughter’s cat, Smucky, leaving her so upset that King considered telling her that the cat had run away instead. Smucky was buried with full honors at the local pet sematary (misspelled in the original sign) maintained by a group of neighborhood children. The “sematary” had been created communally years before, it was located up a wooded path behind the King’s house, and it was so quiet that King would sometimes take a lawn chair out there to sit and write.
Christmas only really comes in because Pet Semetary wants you to know that safety is an illusion, and Christmas is possibly the safest life event around. Pretty depressing, eh? This one’s definitely on the Naughty list.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum (Penguin)
Did you know that the creator and chronicler of the Oz books once explained the origin of Santa Claus? It’s exactly what you’d expect, although Baum’s writing takes a decidedly more expository historical tone and eschews the whimsy that the author is classically known for. Just look at that cover on the Signet edition. This book is like taking a warm bath in Christmas with cookies for bubbles. It definitely goes on the Nice list.
Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom
Naughty. Naughty naughty naughty. Krampus lives to bring pain upon the naughty (and nice things to those who are truly nice, but most of the folks he finds aren’t nice, so…) and artist/writer Brom visualizes and expands his mythology with a terrifying exactness. Krampus is chilling, fascinating, dare we say it…thrilling. Mordicai Knode gets into the myth of Krampus here, if you want to know more.
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
This childhood classic deserves a spot on a gold-plated Nice list, no question. It’s charming without being condescending, a Christmas tale that’s less about what you believe than the power of that belief. If you don’t believe us, read Emmet Asher-Perrin’s piece on the existence of Santa and the significance of bells that don’t ring.
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (St. Martin’s Press)
With such a chilling title, you know this book is bound for the Naughty list. On the one hand, you have poor, bullied Oskar and his new friend Eli, who seems to understand him in a way no one else does. But as the two become friends, and Oskar learns about both the circumstances that turned Eli into a vampire centuries ago, as well as how Eli stays alive now, this story turns darker than fresh-drunk blood. The backdrop of snowfall and twinkling lights—the setting of Christmas, a time of family and forgiveness—is even more disturbing contrasted with the cycle of death that surrounds Oskar and Eli’s friendship.
“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Arthur Conan Doyle
John Watson would be remiss if he did not note that Christmas crime seems to instill a bit of the holiday spirit in Sherlock Holmes: Not only does he save an ex-con from serving time for a theft he didn’t commit, but Holmes also decides to spare the real thief, to save him from continuing in a life of hardened crime. And in one version of the story, the eponymous Blue Carbuncle goes toward setting up a trust fund for none other than the Baker Street Irregulars! This story is so Nice it even makes its characters that way. Read it here!
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Dickens’ classic carol has become shorthand for the tale of a man’s redemption, for giving “bah humbug” the power to transform into “God bless us, everyone!” But is Dickens’ tale so embedded in our culture that we forget the means by which Ebenezer Scrooge comes to reevaluate his life? We’re talking multiple ghost hauntings, a trip through all of his life’s regrets, and a future where the only reaction to his death is his debtors cheering that they get a few more days’ reprieve. When you have to kill a child—even in an alternate universe—to get your point across, it’s difficult to see that as entirely uplifting. A Christmas Carol is Naughty disguised as Nice.
The Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton
Not unlike The Polar Express, Burton’s poem-turned-unforgettable animated film holds the power of belief above what you actually do with that belief. Who says that a skeleton Pumpkin King can’t be Santa Claus one year? And just like Jack’s well-meaning but terrifying presents to children of vampire teddy bears, decapitated heads, and living wreaths, the film presents a touching message in a creepy package: the holiday spirit belongs to all of us, and the best way to celebrate is to make the night special for everyone else. Just listen to the original poem, narrated by Christopher Lee! The Nightmare Before Christmas is Nice disguised as Naughty.
The Bishop’s Wife by Robert Nathan
When are stories of interfering angels not uplifting? (Unless it’s that Nicolas Cage movie City of Angels. Pro tip: Most Nicolas Cage movies are probably not uplifting.) In Nathan’s book, bishop Henry Brougham prays to God for guidance in building a “great” cathedral for his parishioners, but what he gets is Michael, a handsome angel who takes up the position of archdeacon to help fulfill Henry’s goal. However, acting like a mortal has Michael experiencing some very human emotions: unease over manipulating wealthy parishioners, and a slow-blooming love for Julia. Yet despite these hurdles, the story is ultimately a bittersweet one, with an emphasis on the sweet: By the time Michael’s mission comes to an end, he’s changed the entire community for the better. It’s also universal enough that both Cary Grant and Denzel Washington have played the angel (called Dudley, which is already funnier) in the film versions. Nice like whoa.
Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins)
For his 20th Discworld novel, Pratchett turned his satire to Old Saint Nick, except in the Discworld universe he’s known as the Hogfather. When the Assassin’s Guild puts a hit out on this mythical, gift-giving figure, Death must attempt to take up his figurative and literal reins. But when Death starts taking children’s wishes too literally, his granddaughter Susan must step in, battle bogeymen that are invading children’s dreams, and set everything right. Just as the holidays can be equal parts depressing and joyous, Pratchett’s deconstruction of the Santa myth finds its humor in light and dark places. Appropriately, Hogfather is Naughty and Nice in offering readers a complete viewpoint on Christmas. We would expect nothing less from Discworld and the late, great Terry Pratchett.
Bridget McGovern, Emmet Asher-Perrin, Irene Gallo, Sarah Tolf, and Leah Schnelbach contributed to this article.