A Ghost Story for Christmas

A Ghost Story for Christmas

By Julie Anderson

Enjoying a ghost story at Christmas is a longstanding tradition. Dickens certainly thought so and he wrote probably the most famous Christmas ghost story of them all, A Christmas Carol as well as his spine-tingling short tale The Signalman, published in a Christmas compendium. M.R.James created many of his scary tales specifically for reading to friends and students at Christmas time, as the fire crackled in the grate and the snow fell, silently, outside. So it’s time for me to recommend some tales of the supernatural or gothic which have been published more recently.

First, the most recent, The Murmurs by Michael J Malone (Orenda, £9.99) was published in September. A contemporary supernatural mystery about an orphaned young woman, Annie Jackson, who suffers a recurring nightmare. She is frightened further when she begins a new job at a care home and finds that she has an unusual ability – to sense the imminent death of people whom she meets for the first time. These premonitions, or ‘murmurs’, won’t go away and Annie must explore her own past to find out the source of her terrifying talent. This leads her back to an early nineteenth century curse and a remote cottage high in the hills. All the time, in the background, the murmurs continue, a warning, a commentary, as she uncovers unsettling truths about her own family. Then she discovers that the threat is not all in the past and her own life is endangered. Complex, gripping and set across three periods in time, this twisty mystery will keep you from your post-prandial snooze.

Second, The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola (Orion, £8.99, December 2022). It is set during the bitter winter of 1750 in Paris, 30 years before the Revolution, when a night outside on the streets could mean a frozen death. Children are going missing. We follow the fortunes of Madeleine Chastel, daughter of a hard-hearted and mercenary brothel keeper, who is placed into the household of Dr Reinhart, celebrated maker of ingenious clocks and automata, where she is forced to spy on behalf of the corrupt policeman, Dacier. She befriends Veronique, Reinhart’s daughter and insinuates herself into the confidence of the household, but soon begins to think that something is awry. Veronique has ambitions of her own; she wants to follow her father as a maker of automata and she meets the mysterious customer, Madame de Marinière – hers is the third narrative voice we hear, alongside Madeleine and Veronique ─ who is far more than a lady shopping. The characters and places are compelling and beautifully realised, from Louis XV and his sparkling, vicious court to the desperate poor of the streets. This enthralling book draws the reader in and will not let them go until the very last page.

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell (Bloomsbury/Raven, £8.99, 2021) also has a female protagonist, its narrator, Agnes Darken, a cutter of silhouettes, portraits in outline, in mid-nineteenth century Bath. Agnes is recovering from pneumonia when we meet her, living with and supporting her ailing mother and young nephew, son of her dead sister. Agnes starts work again, struggling to make ends meet, as she secretly pines for a lost love, but her customers and sitters are dying, found dead very shortly after she has made a portrait of them. To understand what is happening she seeks to contact them beyond the grave with the help of Pearl, a young spirit medium, but she and Pearl find more than they bargained for. The colour of this story is black, the black jet and tassles of Victorian mourning, the black silhouettes, or ‘shades’ Agnes cuts to make a living and the gravestones, black in the rain, of the graveyard where, we believe, the secrets of Agnes’ story are revealed. It’s a book full of ghosts too and genuinely spine-tingling. Read by candlelight if you dare.

The central character of The Binding by Bridget Collins (Harper Collins, £8.99, 2019) is Emmett Farmer, an apprentice bookbinder. The rich and expertly crafted world of the book is very close to our own world, at some time in the past, but with elements of magic. There, books are the receptacles of knowledge, as they are in our world, but in this world bookbinders can ‘catch’ a memory in a book as the book is being bound, so that the owner of that memory forgets it and the memory is forever stored in the book. Sometimes knowledge might be forgotten as an aid to recovering from mental trauma, but it can also be removed to salve a bad conscience or to exploit people, wickedly, as Emmett discovers when fate takes him to Castleford as a junior to wealthy bookbinder, De Havilland. It is a neat joke that in this world novels are regarded as mere ‘fake’ books, they don’t contain memories at all. In part about power and the power of storytelling, in part a gothic love story, this superbly imagined novel is immersive and heart-rending – truly spell-binding.

Some gothic and ghost stories for Christmas, I hope you enjoy reading them.

Julie Anderson is a Clapham-based crime writer. Her latest book, ‘Opera’ (Claret Press) was listed for the Crime Writers Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, 2023.