Nary has a Christmas gone by without my thinking of a string of years — in the late ’70s and early ’80s — when my then wife and I would prepare ghost stories or stories of the supernatural, at any rate, to be read to each other on Christmas Eve. It is one of several nostalgic dredgings I have set aside for smiling rumination in my dotage. Some of these stories wound up in print: places such as Weird Tales and Twilight Zone Magazine. The idea was not an original one; Victorian British weirdsmith M.R. James among others (Dickens) engaged in the practice. The supernatural has never been far from the roots of the holiday season, whether you’re talking about the pagan solstice or the birth of the deity. Only in the commercial juggernaut the day has become is the supernatural left to a tacit assumption that Santa may exist and can get down billions of chimneys or heating ducts in under 12 hours.
The winter light in December, against which such shadows pronounce themselves - or (think of it as) the background drone of, say, a cello note as there is a reckoning in the heavens and day and night are balanced - make me feel somewhat less morbid and possibly even mainstream in my slouching toward Bethlehem’s darker streets. That is to say, I feel less neurotic than I might about associating a season to be jolly with mystery and terror. I might have just spit that out, but I’ve been reading Wilkie Collins, another Victorian novelist (and friend of Dickens) who addressed Christmas with crime, ghosts, and horror.
I was propelled toward Collins by novelist Dan Simmons and his book Drood. The title comes from Charles Dickens’s final and uncompleted work-in-progress, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Collins and Dickens were friends and collaborators. The dust jacket also goes on to describe the former of the two, author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone, as a “Salieri-esque secret rival.”
Though the story spans several years from the 1860s to the 1870s, several Christmases play key roles, as do opium and laudanum. Oddly appropriate, maybe, in that I bought the nearly 800-page book in October before a long hospital stay. I thought to myself, “This would be a fine volume to take to bed for the winter, along with a large vat of laudanum.” Considering the amount of synthetic opiates I was given over the next few weeks, the combination of my buzz and debilitating pain and Wilkie Collins opium/laudanum dreams (or were they?) was a fortuitous and agreeable one. The repulsion, discomfort, and vague horror of plastic tubes of fluid issuing from just below my diaphragm was echoed by the unspeakable Drood introducing an Egyptian scarab into the same area of Collins’s torso, which burrows its way into his flesh à la Alien and invades the author’s brain. Capital stuff! If it seems I’ve said too much, you ain’t (Cockney enough and in keeping here) heard nothing yet.
This is all by way of recommending a great Christmas gift. You may still have a day or two, if you pick up the paper in time, for a twisted and literary friend, or a winter read for yourself in the new year — opium not strictly necessary.
The utility of horror fiction (films) is partially that they can effectively, if temporarily, deflect or diffuse the real-life horror never far from our door. A well-told vampire yarn could at least distract us from the prospect of our daughter getting addicted to drugs or knocked up by a sleazy boyfriend. It may at least derail us from punching the lad’s lights out. A haunted-house tale, done right, might seem like cracking good fun compared to the blood-chilling prospect of homelessness in reality. It is this latter fear that has me in its grip lately as I look for a two-bedroom for me and my son, only to be S.O.L. due to credit reports reflecting absurd medical bills. Any sympathetic apartment owners reading?
My first Christmas story, written in 1979, appeared in a Weird Tales paperback anthology. It was titled “Solstice,” but the editor changed that to “Compliments of the Season.” It was written in Brooklyn, when I was a bartender and my son was a year and a half old; my wife stayed home to be a mother as we agreed. Buying Christmas gifts for each other and friends was problematic. The story had to do with a man who receives an anonymous present of a feather quill and a vial of blood-red ink. Testing the gift, he finds himself compelled to write a detailed confession to a series of murders. The story was my gift to my wife. My friends seemed almost relieved to receive nothing.