Category Archives: books

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Christmases Long Long Ago: Ghost Stories and the Winter Solstice

While humanity’s mystic ties to the winter solstice may be as ancient as humanity itself, associations of this time of year with Christmas (and the birth of Christ as light returning to the world) are most decidedly an imposition of the Roman Church upon what was centuries of pagan tradition. That this time of year carried stories of darkness as well as light, however, still comes as a surprise to many. When Andy Williams sings “there’ll be scary ghost stories…” in “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year,” many stop to question why anyone would tell scary stories at Christmas? Isn’t telling ghost stories more appropriate for Halloween? or scouts gathered around campfires? The Victorians didn’t think so.

While not Victorian, “The Ghost – a Christmas frolic – le Revenant” by John Massey Wright (1814) shows the holidays can be a time for family fright (in this case, a prank)

The same group that gave us odd Christmas cards, Victorians are responsible for giving us many of the Christmas traditions we enjoy today. Including, perhaps, the telling of ghost stories. Generations have come to know the ghosts that plague Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (published in December 1843), but other tales of apparitions abound in England during what is considered the Victorian Period (from 1837 to 1901). Henry James’s famous gothic novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898), for example, contains a frame story that involves a group of men sitting around a fire telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. And one need only pick up The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories to find numerous tales of things that go bump in a cold winter’s night. Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852), for example, is among the best of them — with a ghostly child and creepy organ that spook the narrator, Hester, and her charge, Rosamund (mother to the child to whom Hester relates her tale) in the days leading up to Christmas.

“Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve,” writes nineteenth-century British travel writer Jerome K. Jerome, “but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” Taken from the introduction to his Told After Supper, an 1891 anthology of Christmas ghost stories, Jerome continues with “[Christmas] is a genial, festive season,” when “we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”

“So what is it about Christmas that goes so well with ghosts?” Jerome asks. “Such a question inevitably brings up the issue of why we celebrate Christmas in December at all.”

THE INFLUENCE OF ROME

Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) whose light began to return around the solstice, was adopted as chief God by Emperor Aurelian in the 3rd century; the feast day was December 25th. The church in Rome began formally celebrating Christmas roughly a hundred years later, in 336 AD. When they settled upon December 25, they likely wanted the date to coincide with existing pagan festivals not only honoring Sol (from whom we get “sol-stice”), but also Saturn (for whom Saturnalia, on December 17, was celebrated and named).

The influence of Rome upon Germanic / Scandinavian people (and these people upon Rome) may, however, be tied to why some things supernatural find their way into Christmas tradition.

Yule, for example — a festival celebrated by Germanic peoples dating back to long before Romans ever set foot in lands to the north — began in late November and ended sometime in early January, it was first referenced in the western historical record in the 5th century. Named for the God Odin (aka Jól), Yule (“Yule Time”) was closely associated with the Wild Hunt. And the Wild Hunt was an event played out across both land and sky, involving both the living and the dead. Also known as Åsgårdsreien, it is often depicted as being led by Odin himself, and, as the name implies, was a time when Asgard interacted directly with humankind. The afterlife — with beings both from Valhalla and Hel — come to earth, with beings both living and dead.

MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS AND MONTY JAMES

Orderic Vitalis, a Benedictine wonk writing in the 11th and 12 centuries, first mentions the “Hellequin’s Hunt,” and a procession of what can only be described as the medieval equivalent of THE WALKING DEAD (see a great in-depth article about The Wild Hunt and this procession of the damned on medievalists.net). Later, in what are referred to as the Peterborough Chronicle (from 1127), the Wild Hunt begins to take shape as it does in modern fantasy fiction as a thunder of hellhounds and spectral horseman. Scary stuff indeed!

The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1868)
The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1868) shows spectral figures in the sky.

Were the Victorians aware of the Wild Hunt from medieval manuscripts? Certainly, Norwegian artists of the period like Peter Nicolai Arbo grew up steeped in such folklore (see above or click here). But tying nineteenth-century interest in medievalism to the telling of ghost stories at Yule-tide is a specious argument. It may be enough to say that the dark days of early winter just lend themselves to a belief in a world beyond. The land of the dead. The land of ghosts.

One celebrated teller of ghost stories — especially at Christmas — was, indeed, a noted medieval scholar.

M.R. (“Monty”) James published most of his work at the very end of the Victorian period, and his tales very much show a Victorian sensibility. Considered to be one of the best writers of ghost stories of the early twentieth-century, he was known to particularly revel in telling these tales at Eton at Christmas. But this was long after the tradition began. James’ first book of ghost stories was not published until 1904. That said, his contribution to the tradition of “scary ghost stories” during the holiday season cannot be ignored, and M.R. James has gone down in literary history as a master of the ghost story.

BLAME AN AMERICAN?
Christmas Dinner Crusader
Illustration of the Crusader Knight portrait in Washington Irving’s The Christmas Dinner
(limited edition; privately printed for friends of Abbott Kimball, 1967)

Published over eighty years before James’ first collection of ghostly tales, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving (neither British nor a Victorian!) contains the curious Christmas Dinner where the narrator returns to a drawing-room to find his holiday party company sitting at a fire, listening to a parson who “was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country.” These included mention of a crusader whose portrait hung on the walls; turns out he was “the favourite hero of ghost stories throughout the vicinity.”

Irving doesn’t tell the tales in detail, as one of the guests, Master Simon, interrupts with “Christmas mummery,” taking the party in a completely different direction. But it seems pretty clear: the party-goers were about to be told a ghost story during a Christmas dinner. It’s interrupted. And Irving leaves it at that.

Curiously enough, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens struck up a friendship in 1840. It was short-lived, but was it just enough time for Dickens — who would publish A Christmas Carol just three years later — to become aware of Irving’s tale? We’ll never know. Some of their correspondence is believed to be lost, and no biographer has made mention of such a connection.

TRADITION AND HISTORY

Christmas traditions themselves can rarely be traced to a single source, In his Collected Travel Writings, Henry James — whose Turn of the Screw is mentioned earlier in this post — wrote that “it takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.”

Where did the tradition of telling ghost stories around the Winter Solstice begin? It doesn’t matter. What does is that it should perhaps continue and be carried on for generations to come.

So gather around the fire this year and tell tales of horror and the supernatural. Then get to sleep before the truly scary Santa Claus invades your home.

Bad Things Come in Threes: The Weird Sisters of Dracula

Three Fates. Three witches in MACBETH. Three brides in DRACULA. Omne trium perfectum. Everything in threes is perfect or whole. The primary colors. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Three little pigs. Of course, celebrity deaths also come in threes. Christ was tempted three times in the desert. And in WWI, lighting three men’s cigarettes on one match meant death for the third man, as it would likely draw the fire of an enemy sniper. Then in rhetoric, there’s a rule of three. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Veni, vidi, vici.  Stop, drop, and roll. Sets of three just seem to make sense to us. We’re hard-wired to respond to them.

Greg Hildebrandt's The Harem
Greg Hildebrandt’s gorgeous illustrations for DRACULA include this one entitled “Johathan (sic) dreams of the vampiresses” (Unicorn Publishing, 1985)

That Bram Storker deliberately chose to put three vampiresses in his 1897 novel DRACULA has been written about many times before. Some scholars point to the power of three, finding ancient symbolism in the number, or a mirroring of Lucy Westenra’s three suitors (Holmwood, Morris, and Seward) in the attraction Jonathan Harker feels toward them.  Some even argue that the vampires that tempt Harker represent an inversion of the Holy Trinity. But the truth behind Stoker’s choice to have three female vampires tempt Jonathan Harker may be as simple as this: Stoker worked in the theater.

SISTERS, DAUGHTERS OR BRIDES?

Introduced in the third chapter of DRACULA, the vampire brides, as they have come to be known — but are never mentioned in the novel as such — are referred to in the fourth chapter as “those weird sisters” (from Jonathan Harker’s Journal, June 29). Two are dark (hair presumably?), with “aquiline noses, like the Count.” The other was “fair as fair can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.”

As Leonard Wolf questions in his annotated edition of DRACULA, one wonders if the resemblance to Dracula of the first two suggest they may be related to him (sisters? daughters?). Of the three, the blonde, his apparent favorite, may be his wife. After all, the other two defer to her for right of first bite: “Go on! You are the first,” says one of the dark-haired sisters, “and we shall follow; yours is the right to begin.” Is she Dracula’s wife? Are the others his children? Is the Count a polygamist!

That they are called sisters by Harker (and later in the novel by Van Helsing) is telling. Nowhere in the book are they referred to as brides, though in popular culture, they have become to be known as such. In the taking of blood (or exchange, as when a transfusion of Holmwood’s blood temporarily aids Lucy), perhaps Stoker was suggesting a type of husband / wife relationship. Or a perversion of traditional marriage, perhaps.

This much is certain: the sexually suggestive aspect of the vampire that may well be born of the repressed fantasies and insecurities of an Irishment writing in the late nineteenth century certainly finds its most open expression of sexuality in the films of the twentieth.

AT THE MOVIES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

Filmic versions of the novel definitely suggest Dracula having a sexual relationship with the vampire women. Perhaps it is from the movies that the term “brides” comes. But the vampire women of Todd Browning’s 1931 production are definitely not the source of the label. These vampires are uncredited. And they are more ghostly than provocative. Ethereal. Creepy. Sexual in suggestion. But not in action.

In both DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA (1953) and Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the sex is there, but there are not three vampire women. Only one in each of these adaptations. And neither is called a bride.

Valerie Gaunt, in the latter, is credited only as “Vampire Woman.” And though Hammer would go on to make a sequel entitled BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) — originally scripted under the more appropriate title “Disciple of Dracula” — there are only two, not three, vampire women: Greta and Gina. Over a decade later, Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) — though bearing the title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE upon its release in America in 1979 — credits not three but four “vampire girls.”

Vampire Brides of COUNT DRACULA (1977)
The Brides — credited as such — of BBC television’s COUNT DRACULA (1977). Susie Hickford, Sue Vanner, and Belinda Meuldijk

Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, would reinstate the three brides in his made-for-television adaptation of the novel in 1974, with the three vampire women referred to as “vampire wives.” Close, but not exactly brides. Of course, none of them are referred to as “sisters” either. It is not until 1977’s production COUNT DRACULA starring Louis Jordan that we may have the first instance in film or on television where the vampire women are actually credited as “Brides of Dracula.”

The Three Sisters
The Brides of Dracula are referred to as such in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). From left to right are actresses Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu

Perhaps more famously, Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) also refers to the vampire women as brides as the end credits roll. It is in Coppola’s film that the brides are very definitely highly sexualized, and made to appear like women in a harem more than the ghostly figures of earlier productions. Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu are exotic, alluring, and layered deep with eastern-European garb and language.

As for Frank Langella’s turn at the titular Count in Universal’s 1979 “remake,” the vampire women aren’t even there (as it is based upon the Balderston / Deane stageplay).

STOKER, THE STAGE AND MYTHOLOGY

Regardless of how the label “brides” came to be, there’s still the issue of why Stoker chose to call the vampire women “sisters,” or, specifically (for Harker) “weird sisters” in the first place.

Working for the famous actor Henry Irving since 1878, Stoker would have been familiar with his employer’s repertoire ten years on. That year, 1888, saw Irving (who some suggest inspired certain aspects of the character of Dracula) purchase the Lyceum Theater. Among the first of performances was a revival of his Macbeth.

The Weird Sisters of Macbeth
G.J. Bennett, Drinkwater Meadows, W.H. Payne as the witches (1838) from the Folger Shakespeare Library

In Act I, Scene 3, the first of the witches that go one to prophesize Macbeth’s rise and fall, asks of the seocond: “Where hast thou been, sister?”

It might be as simple as that. Borrowing from the Bard, Stoker may have been intentionally drawing comparisons of his vampire women to the witches of Macbeth.

And Shakespeare? He most likely drew his inspiration from  Greek mythology: the Moirae — Lahkesis, Atropos, and Clotho — who dictate the destinies of humankind by spinning, drawing out, and cutting the threads of each life.

BACK TO THE POWER OF THREE

None of this is to say that the Greeks, the Bard, or Stoker didn’t subconsciouly make the choice of three women because the number itself holds some sacred or semiotic significance.

Across cultures, the number three is of undeniable importance. That it is applied to a group of vampire women is thus no great surprise. Literary critics have noted numerous supposed subconscious drives that led to Stoker to his choices — including the three vampire women. Whether it is us that only see the connections to the power of three, or Stoker (knowingly or not) who found significance in numbering his “sisters” as such, is immaterial in the end.

It would seem that putting anything together in sets of three is only natural — or supernatural — as the case may be.