Chosen by Andrew McDonnell
Is there a more wintery book than The Bloody Chamber? You can almost feel the hot breath from the beasts that drip blood across the snow as you flick the pages. There are many stories to choose from: the toxic masculinity of Mr Lyon, or the wolves circling in the snow in ‘The Company of Wolves’. For me, the one I come back to again and again is ‘The Werewolf’.
It’s an unusual story: barely 2,000 words long, yet split into two parts of equal length. The first part tells of a Northern country where cold people have cold hearts, and then there’s a switch to a narrative in the second part. We hear of a child taking treats to Grandma’s house on the other side of the forest. On her way she meets a wolf, and in self-defence chops off one of the wolf’s paws using her father’s hunting knife. It flees back into the forest. When she reaches Grandma’s house, she finds the old woman feverish. She’s also missing a hand. When the child pulls the wolf’s paw out of her pocket it has become a human hand. The girl calls for the neighbours who chase the old woman out into the snow and beat her to death. The girl inherits Grandma’s house and lives happily ever after.
Carter’s genius lies in her acute understanding of our complacency as readers. During the first part, the narrator addresses us in the second person, saying how these superstitious people are so unlike ‘you and I’, and distancing us from the storyworld. She draws a gross dichotomy between them and us. This is the clever part. When I have taught this story, students always transpose Little Red Riding Hood onto the second part. They never pause to think through the holes in the child’s story, nor to ask how come these ‘superstitious’ people essentially offer the child the keys to her grandmother’s house without question. The manner in which folk and fairy tales shape our consciousness is a currency Carter exploits hilariously. So, we are in the end, no different from the people in that Northern country. We are as superstitious and naive. Happy Christmas.
First published in The Bloody Chamber and other Stories, Gollancz, 1979. Also available in Burning Your Boats, Carter’s collected stories, Chatto & Windus, 1995. * Andrew McDonnell is a published writer of poetry and short fiction. His first collection of poems, The Somnambulist Cookbook, was published in by Salt in 2019.
Chosen by Trahearne Falvey
Like Dickens, John Cheever understood that Christmastime brings into focus the difference between the haves and have-nots, and at first this story seems to be a Carol-esque tale of employer generosity. Unlike Dickens, though, Cheever was a bitter alcoholic. His protagonist Charlie, an elevator operator and a hero to us all, sort-of-swindles his way into a multitude of roast dinners, and gets so messy-drunk at work he causes a rich woman to have a panic attack. In place of cheesy moralising, there are loads of martinis, lines like “I just scrambled myself some eggs and sat there and cried”, and a healthy dose of cynicism concerning the motives of philanthropists.
Cheever’s a kind of elevator operator himself, continually pulling the floor away so that by the end we don’t really know where we are or what’s happened, only that the third Old-Fashioned was, perhaps, too much fun. Read while hungover on Boxing Day, with a Bloody Mary.
First published in The New Yorker, 24 December 1949, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Vintage Cheever: Collected Stories, 2010. * Trahearne Falvey is a writer and teacher in South London. His stories have won the Aurora Prize and the Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize, and his criticism has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Review31 and Lunate, among other places.
Chosen by Nick Allen
You’re always thinking Frosti … sometimes it is fine to just be.
The final entry in Benjamin Myers’ short story collection Male Tears, ‘Snorri & Frosti’ is pure Beckett, told almost entirely through dialogue and wonderful for that. Two old brothers, living in a cabin in Northern Europe, chopping wood, shooting the breeze, “listening to the silence”, trying not to die. They make coffee. They philosophize: “The world is full of uncertainty, change and confusion but there is truth in an axe blade.” They bicker. They can’t decide whether to build a sweat lodge. Full of mordant humour, the type of pedantry that only plays between two people who have been together for years… and there is a story about the time Snorri left the village, repeatedly told over dinner.
“It is winter. It is cold. Frosti has a headache.”
First published as a limited edition chapbook by 3AM:Press, 2013. Also available as an ebook from Galley Beggar Press, 2013 and available to buy here. Collected in Male Tears, Bloomsbury, 2021. * Nick Allen has published one collection and three pamphlets of poetry, with a new pamphlet due in the Spring. He gets most of his sustenance from espressos and malt whisky
Chosen by Alanna Schubach
Shirley Abramowitz is a girl who knows how to project. Her booming voice grates on her mother, the grocer, the whole block of her New York City neighborhood, but at school, it’s treasured by Mr. Hilton, who is overseeing the Christmas play. Shirley is conscripted to narrate the production, despite knowing very little about the holiday. That she and her mostly Jewish classmates are performing the story of Christ’s birth stirs up a range of opinions among their parents—debate and argument being central, after all, to Jewish-American culture. Shirley’s mother laments that their family “came to a new country a long time ago to run away from tyrants” only for their children to “learn a lot of lies.” But her father sees Christmas as their holiday now, too: “What belongs to history,” he says, “belongs to all men.”
Like all great Christmas stories, ‘The Loudest Voice’ is full of warmth and good humor. Take, for instance, its hilariously defamiliarized rendering of the nativity:
It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd’s stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated. Eddie was too small for that and Mart Groff took his place, wearing his father’s prayer shawl. I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered round Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued.”
There’s poignancy, too, in how Shirley recounts this particular Christmas from a great distance, as an adult looking back, full of gratitude for her family’s attempts to understand their new world.
In my opinion, the best way to experience the story is to listen to Paley read it herself—ideally on Christmas morning.
First published in The Little Disturbances of Man, Doubleday, 1959 and can now be found in The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, FSG, 2007. * Alanna Schubach’s novel, The Nobodies, is out now. You can read her other contributions to A Personal Anthology here.
Chosen by Jason Jackson
Walking Out is not a Christmas story — it’s set in November — but it is resolutely a winter story. The first snow doesn’t arrive until a third of the way in, but by then the situation is already bad. The snow only makes it worse.
The air of the meadow teemed with white.
‘If it stops soon, we’re fine,’ said his father
There is a subgenre of American shorts stories about boys and their fathers going hunting, and ‘Walking Out’ is one of the best. As is often the case in these stories, we’re seeing things through the boy’s eyes, and as the hunting trip descends into chaos, what we feel most keenly is the difficult relationship the two share, the hard distance between them.
I know nothing about hunting, but I know fathers, and I know sons: I have both, and am also both myself. I’ve never met a grizzly bear, I’ve never fired a gun, and I’ve never waded eight miles through snowdrifts carrying the impossible weight of an unimaginable future on my shoulders. But I know what it’s like to love, what it’s like to be loved.
In the end, this a simple story about a father, his son, and an accident in the snow.
And love, of course.
First published in Blood Line: Stories of Fathers and Sons, Johnson Books, 1987. Collected in American Short Story Masterpieces, Random House, 1987). * Jason Jackson writes short fiction and takes photographs. Originally from the north east of England, he lives in the sourth west. His twitter is @jj_fiction.
Chosen by Drew Gummerson
David Sedaris’s ‘Santaland Diaries’ is every writer’s dream. Before it appeared on National Public Radio in 1992 Sedaris was relatively unknown, hanging out in IHOP every night, doing dead end jobs. ‘Santaland Diaries’ was his first big break. It became (almost) their most requested show and Sedaris’s distinctive voice was launched on the world.
I am a thirty-three year old man applying for a job as an elf.
Sedaris touched me not only because of his apparent failure in life – I’d worked in a factory putting cream eggs in boxes, on a production line for junk mail, folding and inserting tissues into little plastic bags to be given away free, quality checking Damart clothing (does each item have the correct number of sequins? In the right place?) – but also because he was gay and funny. I’d grown up during the time of Section 28. Gay literature was either hidden or, when it was available, ALL the characters would get AIDS and die.
The overall cutest elf is a fella from Queens called Ritchie. His elf name is Snowball… Yesterday Snowball and I worked as Santa elves and I got excited when he started saying things like ‘I’d follow you to Santa’s house any day Crumpet.’”
Here was a gay man talking about fancying other men. It was political and not. And that what I’ve always tried to be in my writing. Change the world by being yourself. And, hopefully, making people laugh at the same time.
Years later I wrote my own Christmas elf, department store, Santa story. It has yet to make me famous but writing ‘Troy and Me’ I felt a little of Sedaris in me. And that made me happy.
First read on NPR’s Morning Edition on December 23, 1992. Collected in Barrel Fever, Little, Brown, 1994, and Holidays on Ice, Little, Brown, 1997. You can hear the author read it here. * Drew Gummerson is the writer of The Lodger, Me and Mickie James and Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel. His work has appeared on BBC R4. He is a Lambda Award finalist, winner of the Leicestershire Short Story Prize.
Chosen by Anna Wood
I first read Rock Crystal, by 19th-century Bohemian writer Adalbert Stifter, a few years ago after I learned it was an influence on Thomas Mann. Now I re-read it for pleasure and also to try to work out how he does it. (I still don’t know how he does it.) In my edition, the whole first page is a tender clear-eyed appreciation of midwinter festivals and steady community, lovely long sentences of snow-crusted boughs and low winter sun, a bit like Proust if he was more robust and cheerier (in the author picture of Stifter he looks a bit like Les Dawson). Then a neighbourly, very slightly gossipy tour of our home village, Gschaid, and surrounding ice, pines, paths, meadows and glaciers turns into a deeply felt adventure for a young brother and sister visiting their doting grandma in the next valley. And, it is Christmas Eve – Holy Night. The simple-as-snow plot emerges almost without you noticing, like a train setting off very very gently while you’re busy in a daydream. All this in an extremely beautiful 1945 translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore which, to drop another beloved name, is like having WG Sebald telling you a bedtime story. And when it ends, it echoes and the echo does not stop.
(Now, if it’s not too crass and with zero vested interest, I’d like to point out that Pushkin Press have a gorgeous standalone edition for ten quid which has ‘perfect little Christmas present’ written all over it.)
First published in German as Bergkristall in 1845. First published in English by Lee M. Hollander in 1914. The translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore is available from Pushkin Press, 2001, and NYRB Classics, 2008. Anna Wood is author of the short story collection Yes Yes More More, Indigo Press, 2021.
Chosen by Mike Shallcross
There is something oddly Christmassy about Dracula. It might be the cold and darkness of Bram Stoker’s imagined Transylvania, the reminder of loss, or the sense of it being a thwarted journey to find the way home. But Christmas for me doesn’t feel complete without the Count, whether through a rewatch of the classy 1970s BBC dramatization or a burst of Hammer schlock.
The posthumously published Stoker story Dracula’s Guest is usually presented as a prequel to the novel proper, and is widely believed to have been an excised first chapter. But really it feels like a moodboard for the main event. Certainly many of its tropes are assembled here: the inscrutable innkeeper; the superstitious coachman who will travel no further; the necropolitan fairyland that exists outside the towns and cities; the ever-present wolves… in short the sort of Mitteleuropean orientalism that informs our notions of the gothic to this day.
The plot, such as it is, concerns an unnamed Englishman (presumed to be Jonathan Harker, but more wilful and reckless that the conformist, lawyerly character of the novel) who ignores the warnings of his guides and sets out to visit a deserted village on Walpurgis night. On the way he encounters an unseasonal blizzard, the spectre of a beautiful woman “with rounded cheeks and red lips” (in homage to Sheridan le Fanu’s more elegant and sexier vampire novel Carmilla), and finally a ghostly wolf who saves the Englishman from the elements.
As a Christmas ghost story, it is a little fleeting. But there is a pleasing chilling dreaminess to the Englishman’s journey to the cursed village, and the pay-off of the telegram which awaits him upon his return to the inn is quite delicious. Think of it as a bracing shot compared to the richer lingering claret of an MR James or Walter de la Mare. ”The dead travel fast” as the story says, but the journey can still be memorable.
First published in Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories, Routledge, 1914. Widely collected, and available to read here. Mike Shallcross is an editor and publisher specialising in healthcare by day, and a connoisseur of all things gothic by night. He has written for a number of publications including The Wire, GQ, Men’s Health and the Quietus.
Chosen by Hannah Piekarz
This is the perfect winter story – a horse-driven sledge ride through a snow blizzard, snug under layers of thick fur coats. The master, Vasili Andreevich, sets off during holiday festivities in order to get ahead with his business affairs, taking his man, peasant Nikita along for the trip. Little is spoken between them, other than discussion of where they think they are and the best way forwards. We’re treated to a moment-by-moment journey along icy tracks in fading light, as they double-back on themselves, twice. It evokes being lost in a landscape, decision-making and the endurance to continue until you encounter way markers to navigate yourself back onto the map. While the plot resembles most of my own rambles into the countryside, it is also an allegory of the speculative educated landowner versus the learnt intuition and sobriety of his worker. When the men are entirely lost, they are simultaneously isolated yet free. The cool crisp atmosphere sharpens the delivery of the story where the moral is found deep, blanketed under soft snow and warm insulation. These pages offer a restorative hug to your soul.
First published 1895. Collected in Master and Man and Other Stories, Penguin, 1977. Read it here. Hannah Piekarz writes science and for the screen, continuing the search for the universal in the specific (works in retail).