‘Tis the season to be scared! With her Christmas ghost story, Mistletoe, now available in paperback, December seemed the perfect month to talk to Alison Littlewood about why we have such a love of ghost stories at this time of year.
What was the inspiration behind Mistletoe?
Having written two books set in Victorian times, I was very conscious of the tradition for Christmas ghost stories that grew throughout the era. I really wanted to write a novel that would fit into that tradition, though I decided to set it in contemporary times with the ghosts themselves offering glimpses into the past.
I’m also slightly obsessed with folklore, and early on I read about the lore surrounding mistletoe. It’s a plant that’s rooted in stories, if you’ll excuse the pun – from druids to Norse legend, Greek myth and beyond. There was also a belief that it could be used to contact the dead, which fitted my purposes perfectly.
I also started to read up on some of the older, darker midwinter festivals and traditions, and so Mistletoe began to develop.
Why Christmas in particular and not just winter?
Well, I do love winter in general – some of my favourite trips away have been to Iceland and the Swedish Arctic Circle, and I’ve set several short stories at that time of year as well as my first novel, A Cold Season. But this time, the ideas that began to twine together in my mind were really more specific than that. There are several seasonal traditions that found their way into the book that made it inextricably bound up with Christmas. When I set out to write a Christmas ghost story, I really wanted the time of year to be inherent in the plot and not just backdrop.
Ghost stories have always been associated with Christmas – why do you think that is?
I think the time of year naturally invites spooky tales. Shorter days and longer nights lend themselves to huddling around the fire, scaring each other with the thought of what might be wandering outside. As Shakespeare put it in A Winter’s Tale: ‘A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites…’
Of course the Victorians – who introduced many of our current Christmas traditions – deepened the link, with Dickens popularising seasonal ghost stories in magazines such as Household Words and All the Year Round. That famous purveyor of ghostly tales, M.R. James, continued the connection in the twentieth century; he held Christmas Eve gatherings where he would read out his latest ghost stories, telling of haunted artefacts that would have much better remained buried.
Atmosphere is vital to any ghost story, and eerie winter days are perfect for that, especially when snow has rendered the world silent and strange. In the end, they’re like another gift we give each other – we love to share ‘the fun of the shudder,’ as Edith Wharton put it.
Are the ghosts we see in Christmas stories any different to the ghosts we see at other times of the year?
Well, they can be as varied as ghosts at any other time of year, but when I think of archetypal Christmas ghosts, they tend to be about personal reckonings and making amends for wicked ways. Contrast that with Halloween, when graveyards were often said to yawn and give up their dead, an undifferentiated mass of rot and unpleasantness… Christmas is more personal than that, possibly because of the Christian ideology of the birth of a god concerned with salvation and the forgiveness of sins; or perhaps it’s to do with the rhythms of death and rebirth inherent in midwinter festivals that are older still. Or perhaps it’s simply the powerful influence of Dickens on the telling of ghostly tales at Christmas, and his Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future looming over the genre.
There’s also the connection of Christmas with the importance of family and goodwill to all men. Ghosts are, by nature, often concerned with family, representing unfinished business, skeletons in the closet, or ancestors who can’t lie quiet in the grave. Those aren’t concepts unique to Christmas ghosts of course, but perhaps it’s another reason why Christmas lends itself particularly well to ghost stories.
If you could recommend one good ghost story to be read at Christmas, what would you choose?
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is an obvious answer, but it’s so redolent of the season that I do enjoy revisiting it – and I loved last year’s dark, gritty BBC adaptation. The plot is so neat, with its three-part, almost fairy-tale-ish structure. Or perhaps some of the hugely creepy Victorian tales by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, who had the skill of making quite simple everyday things – a hand at the window, footsteps going down the stairs – incredibly creepy. Anything by M.R. James would be fitting, of course. There’s also a terrific story by Edith Nesbit called The White Lady, long lost but rediscovered by editor J.A. Mains in his anthology Remember the Dead at Halloween and Christmas. It’s delightfully shivery and fun and well worth seeking out. Then there are some contemporary novels such as The White Road by Sarah Lotz or Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter.
Sorry, that was more than one, wasn’t it! You can probably tell, I prefer words to numbers…
Alison Littlewood’s latest novel is Mistletoe, a winter ghost story. Her other books include A Cold Season, Path of Needles, The Unquiet House, The Hidden People and The Crow Garden. Alison’s short stories have been picked for a number of year’s best anthologies and she has won the Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction.
Alison lives in Yorkshire, England, in a house of creaking doors and crooked walls. She has a penchant for books on folklore and weird history, Earl Grey tea, fountain pens and semicolons. Visit her at www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk.