Winter’s Tales

[Editor’s Note:  The following is an encore presentation of one of Michael Dirda’s first  Library Without Walls columns; it originally ran on December 24, 2007.]

Christmas ghost stories. Books to drive away the doldrums of long,dark nights. Is there a better time for cozy and spooky reading thanright now? As Sir Philip Sidney noted centuries ago, this is the seasonof the year for “a tale which holdeth children from play, and old menfrom the chimney corner.”

For a long time now, A Christmas Carolhas been, deservedly, our favorite cozy classic of the holiday season.But there are many other wonderful books perfect for reading in anarmchair by the fire or under goose-down covers in bed, while the snowfalls outside. A mug of hot chocolate or a warming toddy should beclose at hand.

E.T.A. Hoffmann: Tales of Hoffmann. One of Hoffmann’s tales, “Nutcracker and Mouse King,” provided the basis for Tchaikovsky’s ever popular, and seasonal, Nutcrackerballet; but another, “The Sandman,” inspired Freud to write hiscelebrated essay on “The Uncanny.” Alchemists, clockwork automata,haunting music, strange lenses, mesmerism, other worlds — all theseare repeated themes in these marvel-filled stories, often told in asurprisingly jaunty voice. In “The Golden Pot” — one of the greatfantasies of the 19th century — a young man finds himself torn betweenthe prosaic life of everyday Dresden and a bizarre faery realm ofsalamanders and seductive serpent-maidens. Full of wonders, the storyincludes a terrifying witch, a midnight invocation of satanic powers, amagic mirror, good and evil shape-shifters and an angst-ridden momentwhen its enchanted hero finds himself trapped inside a glass bottle.

John Meade Falkner: The Nebuly Coat. Inthis brooding Victorian novel — half mystery, half gothic thriller –a young architect-engineer named Westray travels to a small Englishtown to restore its medieval church. From the first, Falkner builds upa sense of wrongness, hinting at ghostly revenants, unsolved crimes,the return of the long repressed. Why is the local inn called,ominously, The Hand of God? On windy nights the church’s stone archeseven seem to moan, and Westray grows convinced that its tower may beshifting. There are mysterious circumstances surrounding an inheritance– and in the shadows, one can almost glimpse something moving,something grasping a hammer. Gradually, it would seem that the past isincreasing its pressure upon the present, that people and buildings canno longer prop up their unstable outward appearances, and that all thatlooks sound and reliable may be mere illusion. But are we dealing withillusions only? Or something all too real?

Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island. There’snot a word wasted in this novel, arguably the greatest “boys’adventure” of the 19th century. Every pirate, each with just the rightname, is indelibly there before our eyes. Just think of them. CaptainFlint, who hid the treasure and — to make sure none knew itswhereabouts — coldly murdered the six men who helped him bury it.Billy Bones, slowly drinking himself to death on rum at the AdmiralBenbow Inn. Black Dog, with his chilling, unctuous talk of “my mateBill.” Blind Pew — a vision of nightmare — slowly tapping his waydown the twilit road to deliver the Black Spot. The half-mad Ben Gunndreaming of cheese, “toasted, mostly.” The coxswain Israel Handsclimbing the mast toward young Jim Hawkins, waiting for the moment tothrow the knife hidden behind his back. And, above all “to be sure,”that immortal and greatly dreaded “sea-faring man with one leg,” LongJohn Silver. Try reading this great classic aloud:

The barsilver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buriedthem; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropeswould not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worstdreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about itscoasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flintstill ringing in my ears: “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”

M. R. James: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories. Formany aficionados of the genre, these are the finest spooky tales in theEnglish language. Written by a donnish antiquarian, who would read themaloud as Christmas treats to his friends at Cambridge or to the boys atEton, they tell of middle-aged scholars who stumble across somethingfrom the past — an old diary, an enigmatic inscription on a tomb,puzzling symbols in stained glass, or even an 18th-century maze inwhich one never feels quite alone. Just the titles evoke the sense ofancient menace: “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” “A Warning to theCurious,” “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” “The Mezzotint.” Nothing grossor gruesome is described; it is only hinted at. Instead, James willdeliver a quiet phrase that sets the reader on edge: “The boots wasjust collecting shoes in the passage, or so we thought: afterwards wewere not so sure.” “What he had been touching rose to meet him.”

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Thestories of the great detective and Dr. Watson are wonderful mysteries,as any 12-year-old can tell you. But to grown-ups they are also quietrefuges from our crowded lives, places of cozy comfort where the fogrolls in, a hansom cab awaits at the door of 221b Baker Street, and itis always 1895. Not only are Holmes and Watson immortal, but so aretheir friends and enemies: Irene Adler (“of dubious and questionablememory”); Colonel Sebastian Moran (“the second-most dangerous man inLondon”); that human computer, the sedentary Mycroft Holmes; and, ofcourse, the mathematician turned fiendish criminal mastermind,Professor Moriarty. And think of the evocative phrases scatteredthrough what Sherlockians call the Sacred Writings: “They were thefootprints of a gigantic hound!” “The curious incident of the dog inthe night-time.” The tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, one of thosecases “for which the world is not yet prepared.” Here, then, is readingbliss — and “The Blue Carbuncle” is even a holiday story set justafter Christmas.

Lord Dunsany: The Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens.

The talk hadveered round to runes and curses and witches, one bleak Decemberevening, where a few of us sat warm in easy chairs round the cheeryfire of the Billiards Club.

“Do you believe in witches?” one of us said to Jorkens.

“It isn’t what I believe in that matters so much,” said Jorkens; “only what I have seen.”

And off we go.Lord Dunsany published five compilations of these addictive tall tales,and any anthology of his elegant and witty short fantasies will containat least a handful. (Night Shade Books reprints them all in threevolumes.) Not so long ago, very queer things might happen in theworld’s quiet corners and backwaters. Once, for instance, Jorkens foundhimself surrounded by fierce African warriors who were dressed ….Well, let him tell it:

“Eighty-fivemen with spears, of a tribe that I did not know, and every one of themin evening dress…. White ties, white waistcoats,” said Jorkensquietly. “In fact just what you are wearing now, except that they hadrather heavier watch-chains, and they all wore diamond solitaires.”

After allowing this image to take hold for a moment, the storyteller quickly adds:

“And thefirst thing I thought was that I need hardly expect the worst, becausehowever nasty the spears looked, anything like cannibalism wasimpossible in decent evening dress, such as they were all wearing. Iwas wrong there.”

That last sentenceshows the typical Dunsany touch. If you’ve never listened to Mr. JosephJorkens relate one of his youthful adventures — about ancient curses,mermaids, or travel to Mars — you’re in for a treat.

Isak Dinesen: Seven Gothic Tales; Winter’s Tales; Last Tales. ThisDanish noblewoman, the Baroness Blixen, wrote a stately, formalEnglish, altogether appropriate to her stories of dissolute cardinalsand demon-haunted prioresses, foppish counts, impotent princes, anddiabolical actors. No matter how dark their deeds, all of Dinesen’scharacters display complete self-possession and suavity, an almostglacial correctness even in the face of death. Cross-dressing, incest,rape, and murder are just some of the elements in her Gothic Tales,most of them set in the 18th or early 19th century. It’s not surprisingthat Dinesen once said that she had sold her soul to the Devil inreturn for the power to tell stories.

John Dickson Carr: The Three Coffins.This is the greatest of all locked-room mysteries, that genre in whicha murder is committed under seemingly supernatural circumstances. In The Three Coffins,there are actually two impossible crimes: in the second, an apparentlyinvisible killer shoots a man at point-blank range, “in the middle ofan empty street, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him,and no footprint appeared in the snow.” That’s freshly fallen snow, bythe way. This thrilling and playful mystery features a professor whodabbles in the supernatural, a strange magician, an empty grave, ahollow man, and one unexpected development after another. The detectiveis the corpulent Dr. Gideon Fell, who actually delivers a chapter-longlecture on the “general mechanics and development of that situationwhich is known in detective fiction as the ‘hemertically sealedchamber.’ ” This, in itself, is a tour de force, but then so is theentire novel. If you’ve read this Golden Age mystery classic, go on toCarr’s equally imaginative The Crooked Hinge — or, if you dare, to his controversial account of modern witchcraft, The Burning Court.