The 1991 anthology Haunting Christmas Tales is rooted in a British tradition that dates back to the Victorian age — telling ghost stories around the holidays. The nine authors here all pay homage to this creepy custom. From spirits with unfinished business to an ominous pair of dolls, every original story here delivers Christmas chillers that are also uniquely British.
Tessa Krailing opens the collection with “Jingle Bells,” a tale of unlocked memories and prevented misfortune. A farm family has had to recently move after the father’s back troubles stopped him from doing any physical labor. It’s an adjustment for the monosyllabic, grunting patriarch, but eldest daughter Anna enjoys their new surroundings. Her reason being, she no longer has to live with a ghost. Everything changes, however, when Aunt Jen comes to visit before Christmas, and youngest sister Becky hears what sounds like Santa Claus’ jingling sleigh outside. As the old saying goes: houses aren’t haunted, people are.
“Jingle Bells” is the start of a noticeable pattern among a few stories; the ghosts, typically those of young people, want to fix something about the past, or something being affected by what happened in the past. Anna is forbidden to go up to the attic (a similar rule pops up in another story) and then she discovers a long repressed memory (the same beat is repeated elsewhere). Garry Kilworth’s “The Woodman’s Enigma” raises the dead as well, though it’s a tad more sunny, despite the threat of a restless spirit hanging over two children’s heads.
In “The Woodman’s Enigma,” a pair of young and brainy siblings visits their uncle Giles, someone they’ve never met before. The uncle is a no-show at the train station, so Jill and Colin find their own way to his cottage. Giles finally arrives in time to tell his estranged niece and nephew about the spectral woodman who haunts his cottage. The man in question died on his way to a Christmas carol service; he was found dead in a spinney. The cause behind his demise is unknown, and unless Jill and Colin want to be forever haunted themselves, they have to solve his death. Because of its characters’ detective work, the second story has a “cozy mystery” quality to it. The twist at the end, however, is straight out of classic supernatural storytelling.
“The woodman’s ghost will return, night after night, and harass you until you’re half out of your mind with fear.”
The third entry by Robert Swindells has some things in common with “Jingle Bells,” and it’s also the first here to concern life interrupted by war. When Laura visits her grandmother in “The Weeping Maid,” she discovers the story’s namesake: the spirit of Alice, a 15-year-old house servant from around 1914. Alice, like so many others, was deeply affected by WWI, and her heartbreak led to a decision that impacted multiple lives. Alice then carried that deep pain with her into the not-so-sweet hereafter, but after meeting Laura, she has a chance to be forgiven. While “The Weeping Maid” is a lot more sad than frightening, it does end on a positive note.
David Belbin is known for his crime works, so it’s surprising to see the author included here, writing a supernatural story, no less. With its focus on paranormal researchers and video cameras, “The Investigators” may appeal to found-footage enthusiasts. A college student named Mark allows two young academics, Ian and Ruth, into his flat after they explain themselves; they’re following up on reports of paranormal activity at this location. Mark is skeptical, but he allows the two to set up their camera on his stairwell for several nights, hoping to catch a glimpse of a footless wraith. Although Belbin doesn’t land an entirely original conclusion, and the twist is downright hoary, he does manage to create a few bits of genuine tension.
Anthony Masters’ “The Cracked Smile” is another sullen yarn about a ghost trapped in an endless cycle of pain. Ian lives with his aunt, who asks her nephew to stay out of the attic. What does Ian do? Go in the attic, of course. The discovery of a broken doll only exposes family secrets and urges Ian to set things right. It’s not the most novel story, is it? Jill Bennett’s “The Other Room” is not only an improvement on the last tale, it embodies the book’s title. After having trouble finding a permanent living situation, Martin and his mother move into a flat where the son, and only the son, sees an extra room inhabited by a ghostly mom and her two kids. Martin becomes obsessed with this other family, seeing as his own mother neglects him. How “The Other Room” wraps up is shockingly bleak.
Ian Strachan went on to write the award-winning novel The Boy in the Bubble in 1993. Here he pens a straightforward “good versus evil” tale. In “The Chime Child,” a family, jaded by the commercialization of Christmas, rents a parsonage for the holidays. The daughter, Christy, soon gets caught up in an annual battle between two spirits, and only she can stop evil from winning again. It’s an adventurous, if not colorless, short with clear and defined stakes.
She found me crouched on the floor, staring at Crespian and Clairan, who were staring back at me. They did not skate anymore.
Next up is the story that the book’s cover art is inspired by; Joan Aiken’s “Crespian and Clairan” is the nastiest chapter of this whole omnibus. A loathsome, entitled boy becomes green with envy when his asthmatic and frequently ill cousin receives a pair of skating dolls for Christmas. Jealousy becomes wrongdoing, and the boy’s scheme to take the dolls for himself ends harshly. The penultimate entry, thought to be influenced by a piece of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow mythos, is refreshingly unpleasant from start to finish.
Susan Price concludes the book with the period yarn, “Across the Fields.” In a mining area, an impoverished brother and sister, Jon and Emily, find trouble as they fetch a goose for Christmas dinner. The region’s spooky lore comes to light as Jon is challenged to a wrestling match. The winner gets both the goose and the sister. Despite Emily’s protest, Jon accepts and loses (twice). It’s during the scuffle that Emily realizes the other spectators are in fact dead, including the infamous drowned ghost Grace. This final section of the anthology can be challenging at first, with its dialectal language acting as a small obstacle after the previous eight stories were a great deal more contemporary. Even so, “Across the Fields” is a graceful bow before the curtains close.
Haunting Christmas Tales aren’t exactly scary; they’re more cathartic than vengeful. The exceptions stand out as macabre and push the envelope further than expected (“The Other Room” and “Crespian and Clairan” come to mind), and an offering or two are, at the very worst, dull. As a whole, though, this anthology — later followed by Chilling Christmas Tales — is a satisfying source of seasonal scares.
There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.