One of the disadvantages to reading lots and lots of horror stories in a short space of time is that you start reading them for what they do and how they do it, rather than for the stories themselves. As I was reading ‘Red Christmas’ by Jim Steel, a part of my brain kept muttering that it was a reworking of ‘W.S.’ by L.P. Hartley. Fortunately, that part was very soon drowned out by the quality of Steel’s writing, and the depth and power of the story he tells.
‘W.S.’ is a ghost story about an author haunted by one of his own creations, periodically sending him postcards that come from locations that are progressively closer to where he is now. It’s a genre classic, and a great example of the building of tension out of tiny, non-threatening details. I think Jim Steel’s story is better.
‘Red Christmas’ takes the same central mechanism (the approach of, in this case, vaguely threatening Christmas cards), and weaves a world that is much brighter, more vivid, and deeper than Hartley’s.
Steel gives us a brief glimpse of the sights and sounds of a distant war. It is a glimpse that draws you in, and convinces utterly. Its world is wonderfully realised. He also gives us treachery, violence, and a killer Christmas ending.
Whilst Hartley’s story is certainly an interesting technical exercise, it is otherwise an author’s parlour game as he muses on his own creations. It has some nice notes of gentle savagery, and a horrible central conceit, but I never cared as much about the world of Walter Streeter as I did about Donald MacDonald, Harry, and Eric in ‘Red Christmas’. These are characters we can touch and feel and smell.
I like ‘W.S.’ a lot. I like ‘Red Christmas’ even more.
‘Red Christmas’ is a haunting tale. The unhappiness of its characters, the lack of forgiveness (with one notable exception) in its world, the inescapability of it all will stay with you.
As someone who generally prefers the classic to the modern; the ghost story to the horror story; it surprises me to say that I find this modern take to be so much more effective than its predecessor. ‘Red Christmas’ isn’t a reworking of a classic; it is a classic in its own right.
‘Red Christmas’ is in issue 16 of Supernatural Tales, the journal of ghostly stories edited by David Longhorn. There isn’t a weak story in this issue. Gary Fry’s ‘Night Watchman’ is suitable M.R. Jamesian; and I enjoyed Jane Jakeman’s nasty little tales. Ray Russell’s nightmarish ‘Company’ (another based on a visit to an elderly person for Christmas) was a highlight, and, although I thought it promised a little more in the way of explanation than it delivered, its waking dream is deliciously disorienting and horrifying. Bill Read (or his character) obviously felt much the same way about his school as I did, and he expresses it wonderfully; and Michael Chislett’s ‘The Coastguard’ has an atmosphere that will hang around the house for days…
Supernatural Tales #16 was exactly what I want from a magazine of ghost stories, and I shall certainly be subscribing in the New Year.
‘W.S.’ is available in Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, and is anthologised in other places as well…