Classic horror: perfect for Christmas
A lot of Australians decry Hallowe’en as “too American”, as a cultural imposition, but I love Hallowe’en. The main reason I love it, I think, is because the traditional Christmas has been killed off by the American cultural impositions which are our Christmases now.
Christmas in Britain, and in Australia too, because those who came here tried with a strange and desperate will to hold onto their traditions, was a time for ghost stories. For spooks. For young people threatening to plow up your front garden if you didn’t give them a penny. All of this sound familiar? Sound a little Halloweeny? Well, it’s what we used to have, before the Coca-Cola Santa Claus and the iPad Christmas. People scaring each other silly is a traditional bit of the Victorian Christmas: more traditional than Santa in red. More traditional even than Christmas trees. It’s just a tradition we have forgotten because people don’t sell it to us each year. They used to – back in Dickens’s time they sold special books of ghost stories at Christmas.
I still have faint hopes for Australians to develop a new form of Christmas that suits us, because it reflects us. When I saw turkeys large enough to feed 30 people available in the shops from late November, I hoped they’d lose the supermarkets money. Who wants to roast a turkey in the middle of summer? I mean, sure I’m a vegetarian now, but even back in the day…cold chicken, a leg of ham and seafood, surely? I mean, no offence to those of you who want a turkey, but isn’t it essentially a larger, drier, less tasty chicken that’s a pain to cook and serve? Why not just buy a couple of kilos of precooked prawns like a sensible person? If you’re a vegetarian like me, just revel in the Season of the Stonefruit. Cherries at Christmas were considered an official miracle back in the northern hemisphere.
In the same way, as we build a distinctive way of doing Christmas here, I hope we go back far enough into the British tradition to include spooky stories. A good spooky story for Christmas should, you’d think, be brief, but Dickens seemed to make a living telling them on a pay-by-the-word basis, so his take ages. Ever read A Christmas carol? It’s a good book. You’d think it’d be weighed down with heaps of description, and have a twee moral delivered by the boy on a crutch, but actually it’s a good solid read. Also, Dickens takes no prisoners. Remember, when you are reading it, that he’s an author who is perfectly willing to gruesomely off his child characters if it makes a point about social justice. People think Dickens is a bit sappy: I blame the musicals for this, but actually he came from the workhouse, thought life was basically hard, and wanted to throw all his childhood suffering in the faces of the comfortably off. After watching him torture Little Nell to death, there’s an edge to watching him play with the life of Tiny Tim that you don’t get in the kiddie movie versions of the story.
Other classic horrors I’ve been listening to in audiobook, or watching on DVD are:
The legend of sleepy hollow, which has a great Librivox read and a quite passable Tim Burton film. It’s also novella sized, so it can be finished in a couple of commutes.
Dracula, in which we discover that Harker is not an action hero, unlike in the films, and responds with a perfectly normal case of post-traumatic stress when someone tries to murder him. We also discover that Mina Harker is a trainspotter, and that she’s in love with cutting edge technology, which in my mind marks her down as a steampunk heroine. I bought myself the Folio edition of Dracula in the British Library bookshop this year, and I treasure it.
The house on the borderland. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages. I’ve started it a couple of times. I even carried around a copy in the boot of my car for a while, because I was taking my old books to Lifeline and saw it on top and kept it for future reading. I can’t say it’s a great book. I mean, at the time, the vision of the solar system being consumed must have been right awful for people, but it’s a bit tame in terms of existential horror, and a bit simple as a creature feature. Also, the plotting is so slow I gave up three-quarters of the way through, on the basis that life’s too short to listen to dull audiobooks. Some books are more fun than a quick game of three-dimensional fetch with the cat. House on the borderland is not one of them.
Anyone else have some good horrors for Christmas? The other one I’m going to go through is The chimes, by Dickens, which apparently was really popular at the time.