‘The Holly Tree’ by Charles Dickens

This is perfect example of a not-so-great story laying siege to a young man’s mind. I first read it as a teenager in New Zealand, during a balmy Christmas holiday. I longed for the frigid joys of home and the prodigious, obliterating quality of snow.  The narrator is leaving London in a huff, thinking his fiancée loves another (this also struck a chord) heading North to Liverpool and a life of exile in America. The account of leaving London in a stagecoach at five in the morning in the pitch dark and bitter cold and gradually disappearing into a blizzard is Dickens at his descriptive best. The hot glass of purl (no idea, sorry), being ‘built up with straw to the waist’ to keep warm, and the rhythmic thrum of the wheels of the coach and the horses hooves seeming to play the chorus to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, still haunt me, especially if I’m driving North. Then there is the arrival at the eponymous Holly Tree Inn and the slow realisation that they are likely to be snowed in for days with insufficient reading material. Dicken’s brilliant solution to this is to have the narrator entertain himself by reminiscing over inns he has visited (“That was a good Inn down in Wiltshire where I put up once, in the days of the hard Wiltshire ale, and before all beer was bitterness”) and the wild stories he’s heard therein (“Upon which one of the dark men wrung the parrot’s neck, and said he was fond of roasted parrots, and he meant to have this one for breakfast in the morning”). Being snowed in. Pub stories by the fire. Quaffing “julep, sling or cocktail”. My sense memory fires up every time I read it. There’s even a neat and happy ending. 

First published in Household Words, Christmas Edition, 1855 and republished in Christmas Stories, Chapman & Hall, 1894 and available to read here

‘The Signal Man’ by Charles Dickens

In a word, I should have set this man down as one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity, but for the circumstance that while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did NOT ring, opened the door of the hut (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel. On both of those occasions, he came back to the fire with the inexplicable air upon him which I had remarked, without being able to define, when we were so far asunder.
Said I when I rose to leave him: ‘You almost make me think that I have met with a contented man.’
(I am afraid I must acknowledge that I said it to lead him on.)
‘I believe I used to be so,’ he rejoined, in the low voice in which he had first spoken; ‘but I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.’

I am not unique in being a ghost story writer highly influenced by BBCTV’s Ghost Stories for Christmasseries which was broadcast throughout the 1970s. The best of these were directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, and the best of those, adapted as it was by Andrew Davies (now notorious for ‘sexing up’ the classics), was The Signal Man (1979), boasting in its cast list Denholm Elliot, whose performance the director has described as “wound up like a coiled spring”. The Dickens story is no less taut or perfectly realised than its small screen cousin. Only a year before its publication, he himself had been involved in the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865, when his train jumped a gap and plunged off a viaduct, hanging in the void. Dickens had helped in the rescue of passengers, but it is said the experience had a traumatic effect on him – Peter Ackroyd opines it hastened him to his death in 1870 – and it is not hard to see panic disorder and horrific flashbacks pervading the short story that emerged from it. Dickens also knew that the best ghost stories operate not with unequivocal belief but with doubt as their engine. Is it true, or all in the mind? The Signal Man, then, is a struggle between rational thinking and the lure of the supernatural. It is tempting for us  to think of Dickens and M. R. James as writers of cosy, even quaint and innocuous terrors, but we should remind ourselves their times were not antiquarian, dusty and distant when they were writing. Their world was modern and real. A train wasn’t a symbol of nostalgia of a bygone age: to the Victorian imagination it symbolised death, the very real fear of disaster. Dickens was not only using the emblem of his trauma, but a contemporary fear of hurtling, out of control, technology – the same thing that inspires much contemporary fiction today.  

First published as part of the ‘Mugby Junction’ collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round; collected in The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, Wordsworth Classics 1998 It can be read online here

‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens

My first thought upon being asked to do this was, ‘Well, it has to be A Christmas Carol,’ and then I felt embarrassed for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on. THEN I looked it up and realised for the first time at the grand age of 41, that it’s (obviously) a novella not a shorty story. But, it would be wrong not to put it in here, because to me it had always been a short story.

It’s everything a piece of short fiction should be, when you’re eight, under your duvet, shivering with the pure brilliance of it, earnestly nodding at its meaning. I feel the same about it now though, and love it, without measure.  I love it so much, and reread it every year at Christmas, and can’t imagine life without it.

Also, whenever I stand near an open window at night I think of this: The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they wentSo, thanks for that, Dickens.

First published by Chapman & Hall on 19 December 1843, and now available from so many places, including online, you’d find it in seconds

‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens

Void of Dickens’s occasional lapses into sentimentality, this perfectly-structured piece is filled with other stories: the twisted nature of time, the uncanny effects of telegraphy, the hints of mental illness, the dissipation of a fixed narrative viewpoint, and spectrality and hauntology in all their forms run through it.

First published in All The Year Round, 1866. Read it online here