Anthology of old ghost stories, edited by Tara Moore and published by Valancourt Books in 2016.
Americans may think it strange that ghost stories at Christmas were A Thing in the United Kingdom, but as Moore notes in her introduction, the Victorian period in England was a bit of a perfect cultural storm for ghosts. While Americans in the mid-to-late 1800s were focused on the Civil War and Westward expansion, the Brits were obsessing over corpse photography, picnicking in cemeteries, and spiritualism. And while Americans preferred their ghost stories told on Halloween or around campfires, the English liked their ghost stories when the nights were longest, darkest, and coldest. Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is the best known example of the literary Christmas ghost story, but many magazines and periodicals devoted their Christmas issues to ghost stories.
One of Valancourt Books' specific interests is reprinting rare, lost, and out-of-print works, particularly those from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and Moore has put together five different volumes of this series -- I've only read the first, so that's the only one I'll be covering here.
The stories in this volume include:
So what are we getting out of this?
Are these some of the great Christmas ghost stories? Well, no, they are not. Only a couple are set around Christmastime, with more set in winter or late autumn, but there are stories set at all times of the year.
Are we getting great ghost stories? Well, no. Several are legitimately wonderful, a number are entirely middling, and some are just bad. Not all of them are even supernatural tales -- several feature people creating fake ghosts, either as a prank or as part of a criminal plot.
I would like to emphasize here that I really like older, turn-of-the-century ghost stories. I'm used to the archaic style of the time, with paragraphs that take up more than a page, and setting descriptions that are even more detailed than that, with minimal characterization, stilted dialogue, far too much sexism and racism, and scares that are in no possible way scary. I'm used to this kind of story and can easily spend a decent chunk of my pre-Halloween time reading and enjoying these kinds of old stories. But even then -- some of these stories are just absolute crap.
"The Tapestried Chamber" is clumsily written, with a courageous military hero whose supposedly terrifying encounter with a ghost happens almost entirely offstage and is eventually revealed to have involved an old, ugly woman with a mean expression. And "Horror: A True Tale," despite having one of the best titles in the book, essentially boils down to "Pity me! Once I was a pretty girl, then I saw a ghost so scary, it made me ugly, and now everyone hates me and I pray for death!" That's not a spoiler -- it's essentially the first paragraph. And then the second paragraph and third paragraph. And every page or so after that.
But "Old Hooker's Ghost," "Jack Layford's Friend," and "How Peter Parley Laid a Ghost" are complete fucking garbage. "Old Hooker's Ghost" is a Christmas soap opera with a Scooby Doo plot plugged in. "Jack Layford's Friend" is the same, but with a worse and more racist soap opera. And the "Peter Parley" story is an extremely preachy children's story with a general message of "Now now, children, I know you are not so foolish as to believe in ghosts! Only low-quality people believe in ghosts!" And the only decent response to that is "Fuck you, old man! I'll believe in whatever I want!"
But several other stories are quite good. "The Old Nurse's Story" has some genuine scares. "The Lady's Walk" is a fright-free soap opera, but it has a touching story with real tension. "The Captain of the Pole-Star" is an excellent nautical tale with strong characterization of the unbalanced captain and ongoing suspense about the ship potentially getting icebound. And "The Doll's Ghost," by far the best story in the book, has an excellent and humorous beginning, modest tension, and a lot of eerie weirdness. There are very few horror writers of that era who could match F. Marion Crawford, and it's too bad the book wasn't entirely filled with his work.
Do I recommend it? Well, probably not, unless you've got a lot of interest in Victorian ghost stories of varying quality. I'm glad it exists, partly for editor Moore's commentary and scholarship, partly because it's nice that there's still a place for old stories that'd be impossible to find otherwise. But again, unless you really love old stories like this, you may want to give this one a pass.