‘Green Holly’ by Elizabeth Bowen

“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.

‘Souls Belated’ by Edith Wharton

Chosen by Catherine Taylor

“I didn’t know that we ran away to found a new system of ethics. I supposed it was because we loved each other.”

In Edith Wharton’s story, published in 1899, Old New York meets fin-de-siècle Europe as Americans Lydia Tillotson and Ralph Gannett, a younger writer for whom she has left her wealthy husband, run away together to the Continent – but instead of finding the freedom to pursue their relationship, society dictates that they pose as a married couple. We first encounter them on a train in Northern Italy, where all discussion around the ‘thing’ resting in a bag in the luggage rack is avoided – ‘the thing’ being  the divorce papers from Lydia’s husband which have caught up with them – and while Lydia is now free to marry her lover, the nub of this complex, emotional story is that she does not want to. 

She reasons that their love has opposed convention,  so why enter into a legal binding that defies, rather than defines, their feelings: “the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back gradually – oh very gradually – into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated.”‘Souls Belated’ is one of Wharton’s earliest and finest stories. I first read it when I was selecting  short fiction by 19th-century women writers for a Folio Society collection. It is intensely emotional, but also pragmatic, and neatly skewers the hypocrisy of a society which thwarts natural happiness, and wears down real love, while upholding the sham of status or protocol, as resonant this Valentine’s day as it was 120 years ago. 

From Roman Fever and Other Stories, Virago Press, 1998

Catherine Taylor is a critic, editor and writer. She has been a judge on prizes from the Guardian First Book Award to the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and is part of the team behind the Brixton Review of Books. You can read her full Personal Anthology and other selections here.

‘The Demon Lover’ by Elizabeth Bowen

August is a strange time of year, especially in the city. It is the listless countdown to the end of summer: leaves droop tired and tawdry on dusty trees; a whiff of something subtly off-key hangs in the air. School holidays bring exodus and an emptying out for a few weeks until a new, brisker season returns: on the Continent, the great urban destinations such as Rome and Paris sensibly shut up shop, ignoring hordes of tourists descending like greenfly onto roses. In culture, August gives a sense of playing truant from reality and from the self, such as in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Celine and Julie Go Boating, a cult classic about two young women who swap identities and tumble down a phantasmagorical rabbit-hole one languid Paris summer.

I first saw it at the old Renoir cinema in London’s Brunswick Square, the same August I started my first ‘proper’ job – at the British Library, then part of the British Museum on Great Russell Street. My job, as a researcher on a seemingly endless project to digitise the library’s vast holdings of 19th-century books, allowed me to wander freely among the book stacks and dust motes. Here, on stiflingly hot afternoons, I read prodigiously – and not only three-decker Victorian volumes. At some point I discovered the wartime writings of the Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen – The Heat of the Day, her superb novel of the Blitz and betrayal – and short stories of forsakenness shot through with horror. 

The most uneasy of these is ‘The Demon Lover’ (1941), in which the backdrop of a bombed-out London sets the scene for a fatal promise extracted during an earlier war. Bowen rapidly creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and menace: late one sultry August day, with the weather about to turn, a middle-aged woman, Mrs Drover, makes a brief foray to her family’s boarded-up London house in a quiet square to pack up a few essential items before returning to the country where they have been evacuated away from the bombs. Though Mrs Drover is alone, we and she sense that she is being observed by someone, or something: “a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs Drover’s return”. 

The emphasis here is on the ‘human’. Inanimate objects have taken on the suffering and disappointment of the war years and all is weirdly askew: “in her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up.” As “the unwilling lock” on Mrs Drover’s front door relents to her key, Bowen gifts us the entire arc of the story in the last, leaden sentence of its opening paragraph: “Dead air came to meet her as she went in.” The ensuing ghostly tale is as much about the psychological trauma of war (a period of “lucid abnormality” according to Bowen) and the passing of time, as it is conventionally supernatural. In the house – to which only she and a part-time caretaker have a key – a hand-delivered letter awaits Mrs Drover, apparently from the barely known soldier fiancé who has been missing presumed dead since they last set eyes on each other on a gloomy August evening in 1916, exactly twenty-five years before. It curtly reminds her of a promise made, an hour of meeting, an appointment which must be kept. 

In a 1944 postscript to the first publication of The Demon Lover and Other Stories,Bowen explains how in these “between-time stories” “the past discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetised and bewildered present.” The individual is all but smothered in an atmosphere of confusion and upheaval, where every positive has its reliably sinister negative. Thus Mrs Drover recalls “with dreadful acuteness” the “complete suspension of her existence” during the final days she had spent with her former lover, a passive deferment similar to the annihilating torpor of war. A long impasse has a way of turning against those who cease to be watchful: for, as it turns out most terribly for her: “You have no time to run from a face you do not expect.” 

First published in The Listener, November 1941. Collected in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945 and The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Vintage Classics, 1999. Chosen by Catherine Taylor, who is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she has been a judge on prizes from the Guardian First Book Award to the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and is part of the team behind the new Brixton Review of Books. She is writing a non-fiction book about the dark side of South Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s. You can read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology here.

‘The Tailor of Gloucester’, by Beatrix Potter

But it is in the old story that all the beasts can talk, in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning ….

I have to confess that I am not a huge fan of Beatrix Potter’s tales – Mrs Tiggywinkle scares me (especially as Theresa May seems increasingly to be morphing into her), Peter Rabbit had much to be fearful of in Mr McGregor’s garden,  and let’s not dwell on the fate of Tom Kitten for too long… but her beautiful Christmas story, the 18th century-set ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’, which appeared in my Christmas stocking (ok, then pillowcase: I was a greedy child) in the year 197-, has always brought a lump to my cynical throat.

The Tailor (a patron saint for freelancers everywhere), tired, poor and under pressure to complete an important commission for Christmas Day – a sumptuous cherry-red waistcoat to be worn by the Mayor of Gloucester on his wedding morning – is laid low by illness and the mendaciousness of his bad cat, Simpkin, who hides the last piece, or twist, of silk thread required to complete the tailor’s task. “No More Twist,” which the Tailor mutters repeatedly in his delirious sleep, is a phrase I find myself coming out with when I feel at a low ebb, or when I think about the consequences of a No Deal Brexit.

The Tailor is saved by a flurry of mice, who strive – secretly, magnificently – to complete the task, and the relenting of Simpkin, who turns out not to be so bad after all. It’s snowy, magical and IT WILL WARM THE COCKLES OF YOUR HEART, as my beloved mum used to say.

First published by Frederick Warne & Co, 1903

Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Catherine is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she is writing a memoir of Sheffield, is part of the team behind the new Brixton Review of Books, a judge on the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses and co-host of its monthly podcast.

You can read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology here

‘The July Ghost’ by A.S. Byatt

The story I’ve selected for the summer personal anthology series is not cheerful or with a holiday aspect, so apologies in advance. But it is set in London, during a very hot summer, and here I am, in London, and it is turning out to be a very hot summer.  The story is about a terrible loss, and the emotional paralysis that comes with it: all the more painful because it is set against a ravishing backdrop – a large, almost paradisiacal garden:

It was a lovely place: a huge, hidden, walled South London garden, with old fruit trees at the end, a wildly waving disorderly buddleia, curving beds full of old roses, and a lawn of overgrown rye-grass.

A man, an academic trying to write a paper on Hardy’s poems, “on their curiously archaic vocabulary” rents some attic rooms from a woman he has no connection with; her husband is mostly away. The initial set-up leads one to expect a foregone conclusion, but what follows is profoundly unexpected. The man has recently been left by his lover: he is bereft. Sitting in the garden each day his mind begins to recompose itself: and soon he has a companion – a silent boy of about ten with brilliant blue eyes and an extraordinarily trusting smile, swinging from the apple tree, or lying in the grass beside him.

When he asks the woman who the boy might be, and describes him, right down to his Chelsea football shirt, he taps into a wild grief. The woman’s only child, he discovers, had been killed two years before, knocked down by a car on a hot July afternoon (Byatt’s own son died this way: there is a personal heaviness to the writing). The woman cannot see the boy: she longs to. Neither the man nor the woman believes in ghosts: they agree that they appear to have crossed over into each other’s emotional currents: whether they can find mutual comfort through this is debatable.

The story seems to me to be very Jamesian (both Henry and M.R.) especially as it is a retelling with omissions – the man recounts it to a young American woman he meets later at a party. It is less contrived and curlicued than much of Byatt’s writing: there is a sense of urgent reflection about it. In our family, too, there is a lost child, and although she died in her early 20s, it is – sentimentally or perhaps so as not to dwell on the suffering which took her from us – that as a child I choose most often to remember her, an eternal child in an everlasting summer garden.

From Sugar and Other Stories, 1987, and also collected in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, ed. Susan Hill, 1990) Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Read Catherine’s Personal Anthology here

‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ by Angela Carter

‘It seemed December still possessed his garden. The ground was hard as iron, the skirts of the dark cypress moved on the chill wind with a mournful rustle and there were no green shoots on the roses as if, this year, they would not bloom. And not one light in any of the windows, only, in the topmost attic, the faintest smear of radiance on a pane, the thin ghost of a light on the verge of extinction’.

Not strictly a Christmas story, but for some reason fairy tales seem to have more resonance at this time of year. Angela Carter’s clever, sensual update of 18th-century French classic  ‘La Belle et La Bête’ from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber owes more to its (female) originators and popularisers than to any Disney adaptation. The story of the merchant (in Carter’s version, a debt-laden lawyer with a broken-down car) who steals the single white rose he promised his daughter from a mysterious wintry garden, incurring the wrath of its leonine owner, and a forfeit – a reluctant agreement that Beauty will become the companion of the Beast – has several troubling interpretations. In Carter’s hands, Beauty, rather than simply being a chattel of her father, responds to the strange, enchanted world of the dignified and passionate Beast and discovers her own emotional and sexual awakening in the process.

First published in The Bloody Chamber and other Stories, 1979. Also available in Burning Your Boats, Carter’s collected stories, Vintage Chatto & Windus, 1995. Chosen by Catherine Taylor.

‘Deux Amis’ (‘Two Friends’) by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve gone for Maupassant as my first choice. probably because this is the first short story I remember really sticking in my mind, and it’s therefore acquired a kind of nostalgic perfection.  To my great satisfaction  I was the only member of sixth form to receive a detention (I misremember the reason) and was locked by my A-level French teacher alone in a classroom for two hours one Friday afternoon. Before escaping via the window, I read this deceptively simple, gallant story of two old friends who meet again by chance during the Franco-Prussian war and the 1871 Siege of Paris. Reminiscing about the fishing trips they used to take together, the men obtain leave to do so one more time. Their excursion is interrupted by four Prussian soldiers and what ensues,  despite the patina of propaganda and nationalistic pride, is a story of quiet bravery, the desperate losses of war on both sides and the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(First published 1883. Also published in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2004. Translated from French by Sian Miles)

‘The Bloody Chamber’, by Angela Carter

The 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on Carter’s stories, had a big effect on me as teenager and led me to her writing. The opening salvo from her first short-story collection, published in 1979, is typical of her baroque, joyous subversion of the fairy tale – while also making significant points about the shifting balance of sexual power, desire, disgust and how the two often disturbingly collide. In this interpretation of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’, a young ingenue is married off to a rich Maquis, who, after their wedding night, leaves her alone in his isolated castle on France’s  bleak Atlantic coast  with a set of golden keys and one proviso – do not open THAT door. The prose is gorgeous, full of a perverse longing and indefinable sorrow: ‘Time was his servant, too; it would trap me here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a winter morning’. This being Carter, the ingenue is not so innocent of course, and has a gun-toting vengeful mother to boot. All the better to eat you with, my dear…

(From The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Vintage Classics, 1995)

‘The Lame Shall Enter First’, by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor died of lupus in 1964  at the age  of 39; this story was published posthumously a year later in the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge.Like William Faulkner , Carson McCullers and a host of others, O’Connor wrote in the Southern Gothic tradition, populating her work with grotesque characters, violent incident  and moral debate. I also have lupus; on diagnosis I identified as a shadowy Flannery O’Connor, one without the writing talent or the peacocks (she famously kept many exotic birds), an atheist in thrall to O’Connor’s rhapsodic Catholicism. In this story, a father refuses to empathise with the grief of his young son who has recently lost his mother. Instead, he offers his charity to a manipulative homeless teenager, with tragic consequences for the child. It’s unsettling, unsentimental and never fails to make me weep and rage.

(In Complete Stories, Faber and Faber, 1990)

‘Errand’, by Raymond Carver

As a Chekhov devotee it might seem odd I should choose a story about, not by, Chekhov. But in truth, I prefer his plays, and this, about Chekhov’s final moments and death by champagne is classic Carver – or classic Gordon Lish (Carver’s editor), as we might now be led to believe. Regardless of that, it has all the precision, sobriety and exquisite timing of Carver’s best work with an added Russian flourish, and is the last story in Elephant, the collection published in the final year of Carver’s life. (Carver died aged 50 in 1988). My best friend, Sonia Misak, with whom I’ve been sharing stories both real and imagined  for most of our lives, gave me my copy of Elephant at New Year 1990. Carver was quite possibly already terminally ill when he wrote ‘Errand’, but in it he is exploring Chekhov the writer rather than Chekhov the dying man; and reading it calls to mind that great line of Virginia Woolf’s: ‘I meant to write about death, but life kept breaking in as usual.’

(Originally published in Elephant. Also in from Where I’m Calling From, Harvill, 1993)

‘A Little Night Music’, by Jeanette Turner Hospital

The Australian author Jeanette Turner Hospital’s  collection Isobars is uneven in places but its themes of unreliable memory, fugue states and global connections are persistent and powerful. (An isobar, in meteorology, is a line on a map where linked points have the same atmospheric pressure occurring at a given time). All anxieties about flying are fully indulged in this brief ghost story, written about an eleventh-hour passenger who boards a plane at the last minute. The narrator of the story, a woman, is highly apprehensive, with good reason: the previous night a flight on the same route had been blown up by a suicide bomber: there were no survivors. Her seat companion for this flight is a young man who speaks little English and appears distracted and tormented. The woman seeks to comfort him. After they both fall asleep she is ravaged by terrible dreams; when she wakes to daylight, the man has gone. Not to be read on long-haul, unless you’re  a complete masochist.

(From Isobars, Virago Press, 1990)

‘Most Beloved’, by Tatyana Tolstaya

A descendant of Leo Tolstoy, Tatyana Tolstaya’s ravishingly bittersweet stories started appearing in 1983. (I would also point readers to her extraordinary dystopian novel The Slynx, published by NYRB Classics). In ‘Most Beloved’, from her second collection Sleepwalker in a Fog, originally published as part of Penguin’s International Writers series, the life and death of an seemingly unremarkable woman, Zhenechka, a fixture in the household which she serves as devoted housekeeper and governess is sketched in the form of impressions, dreams and wistful – but not whimsical – remembrances of her by those she loved, scolded and taught. It is a supremely Russian story of the Soviet era – yet all the perceived greyness and sterility of that period is transformed, under Tolstaya, into luscious Pushkin-like prose.

(From Sleepwalker in A Fog (Penguin, 1991), translated from Russian by Jamey Gambrell)

‘Secretary’, by Mary Gaitskill

Everyone familiar with the film of the same name should read the original story by Mary Gaitskill, whose tense accounts of New York in the 1980s are some of the best I’ve read, the written equivalent of photographer Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency series. Instead of the Hollywood version of ‘Secretary’ with shy but sexy Maggie Gyllenhaal and remote but irresistible James Spader hooking up in a BDSM happy-ever-after, this is entirely more grubby, unfulfilling and realistic. Introverted Debby is persuaded by her despairing family to take a dull job as typist for an unassuming, not particularly successful lawyer, who remains unnamed. When Debby makes a typing mistake, the spanking begins, to her terror and delight. It’s a study in social awkwardness and mutual loneliness with faultless sentences such as this: ‘It felt like he could have put his hand through my rib cage, grabbed my heart, squeezed it a little to see how it felt, then let go’.

(From Bad Behavior, Sceptre, 1988)

‘A Night at the Opera’, by Janet Frame

The New Zealand author Janet Frame is best known for the autobiographical trilogy published as An Angel at my Table, and the subsequent film by Jane Campion. It was Frame’s stories and novels, though,  which would prove a lifeline and her way out of rural poverty, family tragedy and mental instability. Frame was frequently admitted to psychiatric hospitals in her 20s and underwent electroconvulsive therapy following a diagnosis of schizophrenia. She was scheduled for a lobotomy, which was cancelled when, in 1951, her dreamlike first collection of fiction,The Lagoon, won one of NZ’s most prestigious literary awards, an almost unbelievably fated intervention. In this story, found among Frame’s papers after her death, a screening of the Marx Brothers’ classic film parallels the humdrum yet surreal routine of the residents of Park Lane Hospital, where ‘the weeks had no name, nor the months, nor the years’.

(Published posthumously in the New Yorker, 2008. Available online)