The winter holidays are upon us once again, with their unique combination of nervous energy, disquieting winter atmosphere, change in the seasonal flavors at our favorite coffee and drinking establishments, and long-standing holiday traditions. But while there are a whole bunch of those, from gelt to mistletoe to whether one opens their presents in the morning or at night, there’s one lesser-known Christmas tradition that should be of interest to horror fans especially: reading ghost stories on Christmas. While it existed for a long time as an offhand line in “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and countless older stories, there’s been talk of bringing the tradition back. Since Ellen Datlow and Saga Press just dropped Echoes, an absolutely massive anthology of ghost stories, it seems like the perfect time to pick out some of the more wintry offerings; the chilly, quiet sort of horror that pairs well with this time of year. With that in mind, here are six to get you well on your way:
“Linger Longer” by Vincent J. Masterson
Stories have temperature as well as moods, and it’s important when picking ghost stories for a holiday that you get the right atmosphere and theme. Masterson’s unnerving tale of depersonalization, mental illness, strange ghosts, and a cabin in the woods hits all the right notes, leaving an unnerving chill in its wake. “Linger Longer” follows Lori, a woman with an unspecified mental condition who goes on vacation with her boyfriend and his two friends from school. Upon entering the cabin, Lori finds a strange woman in a blue dress who asks to tell her a story, stands there for a moment, and then wanders off down the road away from them and vanishes. What happens after that blends psychological horror (as Lori struggles with her own mental issues), unusual ghost stories, and surreal horror (as strain is put on the vacationers and the possibility emerges that the ghost Lori saw might be trying to replace her in the world of the living). “Linger Longer” might not be one for quiet dread, but the slow escalation and chilly atmosphere make this one a must-read for the winter holidays.
“The Upper Berth” by F. Marion Crawford
It wouldn’t be a Christmas ghost stories list without at least one of the old classics, and Echoes includes two such stories. While “The Medium’s End” isn’t without its charms, though, “The Upper Berth” perfectly nails both the feeling of telling unusual stories on a cold night with its opening of gentlemen doing just that with cigars, and its central mystery of why people keep vanishing from the cabin on a passenger ship. While its final moments might leave as many questions as the story itself answered, it’s still an incredibly unusual tale that keeps its cards close to its chest and its central mystery concealed until absolutely necessary, a ghost as chilly and unusual as the atmosphere that permeates through every part of Crawford’s haunting account.
“About the O’Dells” by Pat Cadigan
There’s the sense of the traditionally gothic to Pat Cadigan’s suburban ghost story. There’s a ghost that’s something of a buried secret for the small suburban street, a grisly murder, and a life forever changed by an obsession with a woman’s horrifying death. But the story, which concerns a young woman dealing with both the breakup of her family and the repressed trauma from a gruesome murder that happened in the middle of her street goes much further than that, creating a complicated portrait of anger, trauma, and violence all tied to a single recurring haunting. But what brings the story its depth, apart from the way the plot quietly unfolds around the central point of Lily O’Dell’s murder in the middle of the street, is the way Cadigan shows the way it affects the street personally, from the old man power-washing the street because he keeps seeing Lily’s ghost and the murder’s stain, to the cops interrogating Gale’s parents about the murder being yet another crack in their marriage and eventual divorce, leading to a downbeat and unnerving ghost story perfect for a quiet night in.
“Deep, Fast, Green” by Carole Johnstone
In some ways, Johnstone’s story set in modern-day Edinburgh is a traditional one, a man haunted by the ghost of a doomed submarine and its ill-fated crew years after he escaped its final voyage, telling the story to a younger relative. But it’s also much more than that presence. Pinky, Johnstone’s narrator, is trapped in her grandfather’s haunted house, a place where the lights constantly flicker and black out, where Pinky finds her thoughts and senses overwhelmed with the memories and sensations of the final moments of her grandfather’s submarine. But rather than cloak it in metaphor, Johnstone foregrounds the tension between the past and the present with Pinky constantly fighting against the old house and her desire to leave, Gramps’s guilt over the fate of the Torque and its crew, and the way being stuck in the past is tearing her family apart. It’s a story with just enough tradition that it feels of a piece with the classics, and just enough of the more modern sensibilities and grounding in personal relationships to feel somewhat new, making it a welcome addition among other more gothic ghost stories.
“Puppet Motel” by Gemma Files
While not exactly a “colder” story, Files’s unusual and haunting story of a room tone that causes unusual and disturbing behavior around it is perfect as a winter ghost story. The action takes place almost entirely in lonely, liminal spaces centered around the titular apartment, a place that reminds Loren, the narrator, of “a Laurie Anderson song.” For the bulk of the story, though, that’s all there is, a malevolent-seeming space that slowly grows more and more unsettling, a room tone, and the protagonist’s own disturbed thoughts, sometimes interacting with other people who seem alienated by Loren and the strange AirBnB room she finds herself taking care of. It also perfectly captures the idea that a space itself can lend itself to a certain toxicity, as Loren finds herself trapped in a psychologically toxic situation, telling herself her situation is only temporary as her phone goes nuts and she finds herself sleepwalking. The atmosphere is unnerving, the portrait of being stuck in a hopelessly emotionally taxing situation is incredibly true to life, and the story itself is the sort of quiet, liminal horror perfect for a winter night when everything feels eerily empty and sounds echo louder than they should.
“The Ghost Sequences” by A.C. Wise
Wise’s nested ghost stories within ghost stories opens with four artists’ exhibits at a gallery’s art show, each description of the artwork followed by a “studio session” where the narrative portion kicks in and shows how the artists’ fateful attempts to try and contact a ghost influence their work. But the studio sessions are then broken up by stream-of-consciousness interludes where one of the artists has an internal monologue about her deceased sister, tying back into the main narrative of ghost stories and contacting spirits, which tie back into the artwork. It does something very different with the form of a ghost story, building its narrative with calls backward and forward to the four art pieces (a painting series, a set of photographs and a film, a sculpture, a performance piece) until finally everything falls into place with a sudden decisive click, ending on a small, simple, but nonetheless unsettling image at the very end of the piece. It might not be a cool, quiet story, but it’s so unusual and transfixing in the way it goes about its business (and let’s face it, I have a disturbingly large soft spot for found-document stories) that it’s worth reading.
Echoes, edited by Ellen Datlow
Everyone loves a good ghost story, especially Ellen Datlow—the most lauded editor in short works of supernatural suspense and dark fantasy. The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories is her definitive collection of ghost stories.
These twenty-nine stories, including all new works from New York Times bestselling authors Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Hoffman, Seanan McGuire, and Paul Tremblay, span from the traditional to the eclectic, from the mainstream to the literary, from pure fantasy to the bizarrely supernatural. Whether you’re reading alone under the covers with a flashlight, or around a campfire with a circle of friends, there’s something here to please—and spook—everyone.