The Nightmare Before Christmas

Imagine, if you will, King’s College, Cambridge, almost one hundred years ago…

Every Christmas Eve has its ritual. Those invited make their way for the appointed time, out of the darkness, where the Master waits.

Montague Rhodes James, provost of King’s, scholar, antiquary, and writer of ghost stories.

A Ghost Story for Christmas with Christopher Lee, 2000

So begins the ominous introduction to the limited series A Ghost Story for Christmas with Christopher Lee (2000), * in which Lee portrayed M.R. James presiding over a candlelit study walled in leatherbound books, recounting spooky stories to an enthralled audience of pasty male privilege. But long before Lee’s series or indeed even James’s stories, the ghost story for Christmas was a grand British tradition begun by no other than Charles Dickens, author of “A Christmas Carol,” the one Christmas ghost story to rule them all. Dickens kept the ghoulish Yuletide theme up in magazines he edited for a number of years before finally relinquishing the custom in 1868, complaining to a friend he felt that he had murdered Christmas and was pursued by its ghosts. Perhaps he was, but there was no shortage of other Victorian writers all too happy to take his place, falling on Christmas like Caesar’s assassins. By the time M.R. James became provost of King’s, a man of letters at least two generations on from Dickens, he had just published his collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and, like the narrator at the beginning of Henry James’s (no relation) The Turn of the Screw, could think of no finer way to pass Christmas Eve evening than good company, a fire, and a creepy manuscript. I bet James would have loved him some Unsolved Mysteries.

Now, imagine, if you will, cathode ray TV sets in British households, almost fifty years ago, the fire dim, the children abed, if not asleep, tensed for the sound of reindeer hooves, but instead widening eyes to screams from the final five minutes of that year’s A Ghost Story for Christmas bleeding through their bedroom wall. While James’s work persisted in the public sphere for decades, television cemented his celebrity and the place of his stories among ordinary people, making Christmas Eve appointment television decades before such a thing as Doctor Who Christmas specials. It’s particularly interesting because, unlike “A Christmas Carol,” James’s ghost stories, particularly those chosen for Christmas adaptations, have little to do with seasonal trappings. Die Hard is much more a Christmas story than the James Christmas stories. 


James’s stories are wonderful diversions on their face–neat, mannerly tales that draw you in with a little fusty, companionable chatter, only to sneak up behind with an icy revelation at the ultimate moment: Creepshow, but make it turn of the century Cambridge. James’s stories are also safe scares, first hemmed in by a plot as solid as ironwork, then leashed by a strong moralistic sense that bad ends belong only to transgressors–if not bad men, then at least careless ones. Like Dickens’s Christmas spirits, James’s ghosts are here to make wrong things right. They just lean a bit more toward revenge rather than redemption. 

They also follow a pattern, something of which will be familiar to fans of Lovecraft, of an academic, cleric, some man of high estate and learning and the rational world coming into conflict with ancient powers. They are, essentially, folk horror pieces, an element that the 1970s adaptations particularly play up, and this may be the reason they feel obscurely Christmassy. After all, Christmas is a Christian holiday built on pagan graves, its symbols repurposed and recontextualized but not changed. In much the same way, James’s ghosts reach their unhappy quarry through antiques and the landscape itself–things and places that seem benign in their modern context, but reference unseen and all-but-forgotten powers–the buried crowns of ancient Celtic kings, an ash tree used as evidence against a condemned witch, a dead boy’s folk tune played on a hurdy-gurdy. “The Stalls of Barchester” may take place almost entirely within church grounds, as the new archdeacon is haunted through his lodgings, but note that the parts of the church that trigger the haunting–namely carved figures in the titular stalls–were harvested from the wood of a hanging tree, their power more occult than holy. These are not Christian specters and the stories are not usually set in the winter–one of the most disturbing is actually set at Halloween–but these restless souls hunting a clouded conscience to its doorstep still brims with Christmas energy. Or maybe it’s better to say solstice energy.

The TV adaptations began when James’s short story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” in which a young professor unwittingly triggers a sort of Victorian It Follows, became a surprise hit in 1968. By 1971, the BBC was bringing James’s ghosts home for the holidays every year with A Ghost Story for Christmas, beginning with The Stalls of Barchester, one of James’s best, and most adapted, stories of hidden sin and fatal ambition. It has everything: creepy houses, creepy stairs, creepy wooden figures, creepy cats that absolutely shouldn’t be there. The original series ended in 1978, after the winding away from James adaptations to Dickens’s The Signalman, then two original screenplays that haven’t survived well in public memory. But in the time it takes a generation of happily traumatized kids to grow up and get jobs at the BBC, the series was revived, first in 2000, with the Christopher Lee series, and then in 2005, starting with A View From a Hill, with new entries airing alongside episodes from the 1970s.

James’s stories do adapt well to the medium. They’re brief enough to be dramatized in a tight 30 minutes, or an hour if you want to add a humanizing modern subplot. They’re not gory or sensational, but they are intense character pieces–add a Sacha Dhawan or Rory Kinnear and you’ve got a riveting hour already. And James’s delicate, deliberate preference for suggestion rather than detail–a narrator comes upon “a quantity of bones” instead of making an inquest log–lends a lot of room for dramatic interpretation. This is where some of the post-2005 versions can be at their best and their worst. The decision to make the haunting in Whistle and I’ll Come To You (2010) partly about a husband’s (John Hurt) grief for his institutionalized wife is inspired; adding an explanatory subplot to The Mezzotint (2021) that implies a kind of destiny for the doomed new custodian of a creepy artwork (Rory Kinnear) opens a plot hole rather than closing one. 

While it isn’t difficult to find glad remembrances of the 1970s Ghost Story for Christmas series, and of course, the more contemporary interpretations earn their own notices, my personal favorite of these series is the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee. Other adaptations might stage the stories as happening in real time or insert a different narrator framing device, like a librarian finding a diary, but as I mentioned, this series takes the rather bold approach of adapting the tales for television simply by…televising the tales. That is, with  only the stingiest interpolation of cutaways into the environments of the stories–a shot of a winding staircase here, a slow pan over a close-written diary there. The substance of these episodes just shows us Lee as James himself, and…he tells us the story. That’s it. It’s reminiscent of the opening of the Granada Holmes series, when some desperate soul begins relating their misfortunes to Holmes and Watson, segueing naturally into a flashback. It’s much the same here, except it never cuts away into the dramatization we are trained to expect. 

I trust I am not fangirling too hard when I admire that Lee invests his recitation with multiple dimensions. Even though he is portraying James telling the story, when the story calls for its protagonist to be charming or dismissive or bug-eyed terrified, he is fully playing that character, too. It’s a treat, and it makes vivid what a lesser actor would simply recite. And if one were to look at these episodes and wonder what the difference is from an audiobook–and the BBC did release these as an audiobook, too–the ambience, the shadows and the leatherbound spines on wall shelves, the sense of engagement and history taking the stories this way, is unique. Also, I think confronting the visible context of this super privileged, super white world from which the tales were drawn doesn’t go amiss either. Here is a blasphemous little secret party for young men who can rightly expect to go on and rule the world after graduation. I love that the modern BBC adaptations star actors like Sacha Dhawan and Nikesh Patel, who might not have even been allowed in those same paneled rooms for James’s ritual, but it doesn’t hurt to appreciate a mirror of the original context when we listen to James’s cautionary tales where men die simply for going where they don’t belong. It’s absolutely possible to look at the folk horror of James’s ghost stories and derive from their cursed soil an anti-Empire narrative, but it’s more faithful to acknowledge the willful blindness of James’s characters would have been likely shared by the boys in that room on Christmas Eve. And of course, James himself.

There is something else that the Lee versions preserve that no other adaptation, no matter how faithful or inventive, can claim: the language. James’s narrative voice is wonderful, witty and conversational. It’s very easy to be drawn near to his fire. He is the voice of reason and education and trustworthiness, cast in the letters of a world that doesn’t really exist anymore. But his language use is a trap all on its own, as the many clauses, the careful distance the narrator places between the reader and himself, much less the poor victims of the tale, and the gentlemanly refusal to linger on gory details only appears safe and sedentary; there’s something with teeth softly stalking down all those oblique hints and diffident asides. That trick, and the pleasure of James’s telling, is something that must be sacrificed to a true dramatization. These episodes are better viewed than listened to, I think, just for the charm of their ambience and their evocation the stories’ original context, but either way, they let James speak from beyond the grave, and that is a delight. He is the ghost in the Ghost Story for Christmas, invoked through his own magic words like the revenants in so many of his tales.

As an introduction to the curious, I would recommend the whole Lee series, which is only four 30-minute episodes, but my personal favorites are “The Ash Tree” and “The Stalls of Barchester.” From the Beeb TV adaptations, I recommend A Warning to the Curious and Lost Hearts from the 1970s series, plus The Mezzotint, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, and The Tractate Middoth from the 2000s revival series. But really you can’t go wrong with any of them. 

All the 1970s and 2000s adaptations are available on Britbox. The Christopher Lee episodes are only available in NTSC countries via audiobook or on YouTube.

*Also called Ghost Stories for Christmas and Christopher Lee’s Ghost Stories for Christmas


This holiday, Angela also would love to remind people that Christopher Lee used to wear a special hat on Christmas because Vincent Price wore that same hat every Christmas and left it to Lee in his will.

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