Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a staple of holiday entertainment, so much so that we don’t think it odd anymore that a Christmas story has all sorts of ghosts and supernatural elements in it. But in the Victorian era, telling ghost stories was the thing to do to pass the hours on Christmas Eve, and at the time, A Christmas Carol was just one of many ghostly tales. A far cry from today’s traditions, these stories are a look at the supernatural and the surreal, and they go much better with a little eggnog and a toasty fire.
10. ‘The Stalls Of Barchester’ M.R. James
M.R. James is one of the most celebrated Victorian writers of the Christmas ghost story. A King’s College, Cambridge man, he spent most of his spare time cataloguing medieval manuscripts—a pastime that made itself heard in his stories. And his readings on Christmas Eve were something of an event, with new stories performed before a small, select audience in the dim firelight of the waning night. The tradition hasn’t been entirely lost thanks to the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas, which took James’s “The Stalls of Barchester” to the small screen.
“The Stalls of Barchester” begins with an obituary—a seemingly normal obituary for a Dr. Haynes—until the narrator skips the cause of death and starts talking about his work cataloguing manuscripts for the university Dr. Haynes had belonged to. During his work, he finds a dusty set of papers sealed in a box. After realizing the papers belong to the deceased, he decides to take them home.
In the middle of all the expected letters and journal pages, the narrator finds a story about the death of the archdeacon of Barchester Cathedral. The man had slipped and fallen down the stairs, and his maid was blamed for failing to replace a missing stair rod. Haynes was then made archdeacon, and he found that the cathedral’s daily affairs had been solely neglected for some time.
In addition to implementing all the necessary reforms, Haynes also began looking into the origins of three strange carved figures in the archdeacon’s office: a cat, a royal-looking figure with horns and pointed ears, and a monk whose cord belt is held tightly by a hand concealed by carved drapes. He also found the wood for the carvings came from a copse of trees that included one called the Hanging Oak.
As the story progresses, the writings in Haynes’s diaries get darker and more desperate. The narrator reveals that Haynes had begun dreaming that the carvings had a certain life. He’d started hearing voices, seeing shadowy, phantom cats in his home, and hearing strange knockings while he was alone. And then the narrator finds payments made to the maid who was expelled from the service of the previous archdeacon. Haynes’s guilt becomes clear, and we learn that the man met his demise in the same way as his predecessor, only with the addition of strange facial wounds indicating an animal attack.
The narrator goes on to track down the carved figures now missing from the church. However, he can only find the remains of a single carving—a handwritten curse that had been concealed in one of the statues—claiming that anyone who touches it with bloody hands will pay the price.