As a lifelong lover of ghost stories, I was thrilled when I learned that authors were being sought for Spirits of the Season, a collection of stories set at Christmas and featuring ghosts and romance. Ghosts have played a role in two of my Victorian Gothic suspense novels, Nocturne for a Widow and Sea of Secrets, and my geeky little heart was delighted at the challenge of creating a Christmas ghost story.
Anglophile that I am, I knew already that Victorian Britons traditionally shared ghost stories at the Christmas season—a fine tradition, to my mind. After all, what is cozier than gathering with friends to be deliciously frightened? In particular, I was intrigued by the idea of creating a ghost story that ended on a note of hope and optimism. Some of the most memorable classic ghost stories, of course, are bleak ones (think of “The Beckoning Fair One,” “The Judge’s House,” and “The Monkey’s Paw,” for a start), but for a Christmas theme I wanted to offer readers something more hopeful and uplifting—without sacrificing spookiness.
In the story I went on to write for the collection, “Upon a Ghostly Yule,” 18-year-old Felicity Reginald, a supporting character from my gothic romance Sea of Secrets, attends a Christmas house party in 1856 that goes from merely miserable to actually perilous. Because of her scandal-ridden family, Felicity is treated as an outsider, so she is all too willing to fall in with a rash scheme concocted by her only friend: masquerading as the ghost of an 18th-century belle, Lady Garnet, who died tragically young after a wasting illness and has purportedly haunted the family ever since.
Borrowing the identity of a ghost, as any reader of supernatural stories could have told Felicity, is of course a Very Bad Idea. During her impersonation the real spirit of Lady Garnet latches on to her, eager to experience the life that was denied her, and the specter exerts more and more control over Felicity until she is in danger of being completely subsumed into Garnet’s personality. With the unexpected help of a onetime suitor, Sir James Darrington, Felicity is ultimately able to cast off the spirit’s possession—as well as the sense of isolation and paralysis that had been holding her back from living fully.
When I started to plot the story, I approached it by thinking about two of my favorite classic ghost stories: Algernon Blackwood’s “The Woman’s Ghost Story” (1907; listen to it here) and E.F. Benson’s “How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery” (1911; read it here). Both authors were masters of the ghost story. Blackwood was an acknowledged influence on H.P. Lovecraft and had an exceptional gift for creating an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension, as in “The Empty House” and “The Willows.” “The Woman’s Ghost Story,” in which a bold young woman determines to spend the night alone in a haunted house, is one of his gentler tales.
Benson is perhaps better known today for his comedic Mapp and Lucia novels, but his reputation as a prolific and extremely talented writer of spooky tales is beginning to reassert itself. Among the vast number of those he wrote, it is difficult (if not futile) to try to single out particularly fine examples, but his skill at chilling the reader’s blood is particularly evident in the vampire tale “The Room in the Tower” and the grisly “The House With the Brick-Kiln.” “How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery” was reportedly his personal favorite among his stories, and it is nothing short of masterly in the way it travels from lighthearted country-house comedy to increasingly tense supernatural suspense verging on outright terror... and from there to a breathtakingly poignant epiphany at the climax. Then he returns to a welcome touch of comedy at the very end to bookend the tale.
These two stories, both superb, are quite different in plot and tone but are united by the crucial roles played by empathy and compassion. I’m not certain if spoiler alerts are required for works more than a century old, so I’ll just come out and say that in both tales a woman’s compassion toward the specter brings about a joyous outcome. In one case this is the unhappy spirit’s release; in the other, it is a seismic shift in the nature of the haunting from tormented and vengeful to peaceful and benevolent. The poignancy with which these stories portray the power of compassion makes them particularly memorable to me, and I decided that for a Christmas story, a redemptive plot arc resolved by a moment of transcendent compassion would be ideal.
During the writing, however, the story mutated (as stories tend to do), and the climax took on a form rather different from what I first envisioned. The role of compassion ended up being hidden for most of the story, and for that reason the influence of the Benson and Blackwood stories may be difficult to detect. But empathy, which one might call the mother of compassion, is very present in Felicity’s feelings toward the tragic Lady Garnet. Felicity feels the same frustrated loneliness and sense of being an onlooker in her own life that Garnet experienced as an invalid. Initially this sense of connection on Felicity’s part appears to have negative consequences, because it essentially opens a conduit between the two that allows Garnet’s spirit to take possession of her. Without giving too much away, however, I think I can say that the empathy is not felt solely by Felicity, and that is what ultimately makes this story a joyous one—and one that captures some of the Christmas spirit of benevolence and goodwill toward men (and, of course, women).
If you enjoyed this glimpse behind the scenes, I hope you’ll add “Upon a Ghostly Yule” to your reading list and that you’ll find it a fun addition to your holiday—whether that holiday is Christmas or Halloween!