“A sad tale’s best for winter” decides Mamillius, the ill-fated child in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
To which I would add, a ghost story’s best for Christmas.
The wartime stories of Elizabeth Bowen have a schizophrenic element to them; on the one hand, they are about the psychological betrayals and breakages that are part of war’s unforgiving sweep, on the other, the literal annihilation of cities, streets, people. They are dystopian in that the present and past seem to exist simultaneously, often as a simulacrum of the other. The year 2020 has seen much comparison with war, and with World War Two in particular – it has been suggested that the population invokes a “Blitz spirit” without ever really understanding the horrors of the actual Blitz itself.
Elizabeth Bowen lived through the war, and the Blitz, and carried out classified and still mysterious war work. Her own home in London was mostly destroyed in a bomb blast. The supernatural stories she wrote at this time often focus on everyday objects which are strangely askew in a world out of kilter. Frequently she uses the natural world as a symbol of menace. In ‘Green Holly’ a trio of intelligence workers – a woman and two men, both of whom the woman has previously been involved with – are awkwardly billeted together with other colleagues in a requisitioned house, once a grand mansion, over Christmas. The three seem to have dropped out of normal existence : “on the whole they had dropped out of human memory. Their reappearances in their former circles were infrequent, ghostly and unsuccessful; their friends could hardly disguise their pity, and for their own part they had not a word to say.”
Bickering and just a touch self-pitying, it is no surprise that they become prey to the attentions of the house’s resident ghost, a young, coquettish and adulterous lady dressed up for a festive ball which had taken place a couple of centuries before, and which had ended in disaster. “The tiles of the hall floor were as pretty as ever, as cold as ever, and bore, as always on Christmas Eve, the trickling pattern of dark blood.” The ghost is bored, as she had been in life, and latches on to the nearest available man to amuse her – no matter that he is alive, and she is not. The story is funny, in a cruel sort of way, vivid with spiky dialogue and the insistent undertow of disappointment and denial – both of the ghost and the three who must resist any contemporary re-enactment of that long ago, fatal Christmas Eve.
First published in The Listener, November 1941. Available in the Collected Stories, Vintage, 1999
Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Catherine is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she has been a judge on prizes including the Guardian First Book Award, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and Republic of Consciousness. She is part of the team behind the Brixton Review of Books. She is writing a non-fiction book, The Stirrings, (potential subtitle: The Sobranie Years) about the dark side of South Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s. If there was a light side, she’d love to hear about it. Read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.