2016: A Year’s Review of Books

By the end of every year, I am exhausted. I’m tired from too many celebrations. I’ve eaten too much sugar and drank too much wine. I’m wishing that darkness didn’t begin to fall at 4 p.m. Usually, I’m eager to put the holidays behind me and get back to my “real” life. But the prospect of a new year also brings excitement. 

 

I love getting to review my past year and, yes, make plans for the next. Every year, I try to read 50 books, though I rarely make it. This year, I finished 33; if I count the six that I’m in the middle of, then I’m at 39, and I didn’t do so poorly. Of course, there’s always 2017 to beat that record. 

 

The Haunted Man and Other Tales for Ghostly Christmas Reading

By Mel

I’m an incurable lover of ghost stories, and I’ve always thought they were most enjoyable in the colder months, so I agree with Lisa that it’s too bad Victorians had all the ghostly Christmas fun. I hope that our December 20 episode on Charles Dickens and the Christmas ghost story and these further recommendations might help get us all in a spooky mood for the holiday.   

If you listened to the Dickens episode and found yourself craving some Dickensian haunted fare but not wanting to revisit A Christmas Carol, I have a suggestion for you. Check out Dickens’s final Christmas novella The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). I mentioned it briefly in our Dickens episode when we were discussing horror aspects of Dickens’s Christmas fiction. The haunted man in question is a chemistry professor named Redlaw, who is tormented by dark memories that he incessantly ponders, particularly during the holiday season. Using the supernatural more as a technique of psychological representation rather than a simple phantom, Dickens has Redlaw haunted by the specter of his own cynical and angry side. This ghostly double lurks behind Redlaw and focuses his memory on his sorrows and family traumas. The bargain the ghost makes with Redlaw is that he will remove the professor’s negative memories. Wanting to be blissfully ignorant of his past, Redlaw accepts, not realizing the consequences of such an act of memory erasure. This is darker fare than Carol as it addresses how our memories shape our personalities, and there is a homeless child who has been rescued by one of Redlaw’s servants. Unlike Tiny Tim, however, this child lacks all sentimentality, having become accustomed to a world of violence and crime. This novella still focuses on the hope and loving spirit of Christmas that Dickens was known for, but it also shows the darkening turn his fictional portrayal of Christmas would make in the late 1850s and the 1860s.      

If you want some good old-fashioned short ghost stories, check out Elizabeth Gaskell and M. R. James. Gaskell was a popular writer of the Victorian period who wrote ghost stories for Dickens’s magazine Household Words. She shared his interests in writing fiction influenced by social issues of the day and in the ongoing debates about the relationship between the “supernatural” and the individual’s subjective perception. Her tale “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852) is often suggested for supernatural Christmas reading. Following on the heels of the Victorian era, M. R. James was a fiction writer and medievalist scholar, who remains best known for his supernatural fiction. Although he didn’t write stories that were overtly connected to Christmas, every year he would host friends at his college chambers to celebrate Christmas Eve, where he would read his latest ghostly tale to the gathering. I recommend any of James’s ghost stories, but one that is truly creepy and gets the most attention is “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1904). 

It’s the holiday season. Tell a few ghost stories. 

Shirley Jackson Centenary: A Voice for the Outsiders

Shirley Jackson Centenary: A Voice for the Outsiders

It’s no secret that Shirley Jackson is a favorite writer of mine. I first read her in high school, quite by accident. I don’t remember what the assigned reading for my English class was for that day, but I remember that I was bored and flipping through the big textbook when I happened upon a story called “The Lottery.” And the rest as they say is history.