Dickensian Gothic: A Christmas Carol

The year was 1843, and English literature had witnessed the zenith of early Gothic horror in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). On the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe was reimagining the genre in such tales as The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1843). And in Britain, Charles Dickens was appropriating the Gothic tradition for his own stories; the conventions of the Gothic were to loom particularly large in late works such as Bleak House (1852) and Great Expectations (1860), but it was in a series of Christmas stories that he first explored the genre fully. The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848) are now forgotten by popular culture, but the first, A Christmas Carol (1843), continues to be read by millions and has been the subject of dozens of film adaptations.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol primarily to expose the horrors of real-world injustice, but he chose to hang his social commentary on a literary framework owing much to Gothic horror. It is easy to forget that in genre terms, the tale of Scrooge is primarily a ghost story; it was originally subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas. Its role in enshrining the traditional Victorian Christmas – trees, holly, candles and carols – has meant many who know the story only through other media forget that it is, at least partly, horror.

Certainly Dickens narrates A Christmas Carol with tongue firmly in cheek at times. He prefaced the 1843 edition of the book quite whimsically:

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it [from the saying “to lay the ghost to rest”].

The story itself begins with death, but the author treats it with a large dose of gallows humour. “Marley was dead: to begin with,” he writes, before a humorous diversion as he muses on why the simile is “dead as a doornail” rather than “dead as a coffin-nail.” But after this almost-silly – if macabre – opening, Dickens sets the scene outside Scrooge’s London offices some seven years after Marley’s death. Far from being a picture of cheery, greetings-card festivity, the scene is gloomy and haunting. No snow, no children playing, no Christmas carols. It is dark, and the fog – in fact a mostly industrial London smog – is so thick, the houses across the narrow street have become “mere phantoms.”

Ebenezer Scrooge is described in almost non-human terms: He exists in his own atmosphere, carrying “his own low temperature always about with him”; blind men’s dogs recognize him and try to warn their masters; Scrooge has the “evil eye” of ancient folklore. Nature itself is described in decidedly preternatural terms: “To see the dingy cloud come drooping down … one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.”

Dickens’s prose is littered with Gothic elements. There are shadows, flickering candles and dingy streets; there are Scrooge’s gloomy chambers, echoey and empty of humanity. One particularly curious Gothic reference is when the miser declares that everyone who wishes another a merry Christmas should be “boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart,” a curse that evokes both cannibalism and vampirism. Dracula was not yet written, but vampires were already firmly in the public imagination through works such as John Polidori’s The Vampyre. The imagery is certainly intended to be dryly humorous, but the modern reader easily overlooks how grisly it was. (Much too close-to-the-bone for Dickens’s audience at some points. For example, when Scrooge tells his nephew words to the effect of “I’ll see you in hell first,” Dickens can’t even bring himself to mention hell, referring to it euphemistically as “that other extremity.”)

With his dark, shadowy images of a fogbound London, Dickens has established a Gothic atmosphere long before we arrive on the doorstep of his house, where he first sees the image of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, in place of his doorknocker. The author describes the vision in terms that are as bizarre as they are wonderfully ethereal. Marley had a “dismal light” around him, “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” It was a face of “horror” and “livid colour,” and the wide-eyed ghost’s “hair was curiously stirred as if by breath or hot air.”

Once inside, Scrooge speaks face-to-face with the ghost, who has come to warn him of an impending visitation by three spirits. The narrative of this encounter is terrifying indeed:

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Film adaptations have not always succeeded in translating these details to the screen. In 1938, a Hollywood version that suffers from far too much whimsy and a disappointingly cartoonish portrayal of Scrooge (Reginald Owen), the chance for something genuinely frightening or haunting is squandered by uninspired direction and a banal performance by Leo G Carroll, an otherwise-fine character actor whose skeletal features might have seemed ideal for the role of a ghost. Even the 1935 version managed a more effective atmosphere in these scenes, despite not showing Jacob Marley at all. Three portrayals that really work, however, are those of Michael Hordern (1951), delightfully camp but accompanied by truly chilling shrieks; Frank Finlay (1984), who manages a literal jaw-dropping in comic but macabre fashion, and without the help of special effects; and Gary Oldman (voice only) in 2009. In this decidedly scary latter version, CGI-animated and produced by Disney, Marley’s jaw literally hangs from its hinges as if on a decaying corpse.

Horrors of Injustice

Dickens masterfully blends the twin horrors of the story’s Gothic, ghost-story elements and the injustices of Victorian society. As Marley’s visit comes to an end, for example, the sky is filled with moaning phantoms in chains, but an equal horror is one spectre’s piteous wailing at “being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step.” The phantoms’ misery, writes Dickens, was in wanting to help others, which they had never done in life, but realizing they had forfeited such power forever.

One particularly effective moment of Victorian social horror will come later, when the Spirit of Christmas Present opens his robes to reveal two children, Ignorance and Want. In their “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” state, they have become so animal-like, Scrooge mistakes their hands for claws. Dickens describes it vividly thus:

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Disney’s 2009 version of the story stands out for making much of this scene. In a nightmarish sequence that takes place in the shadow of a chiming clock, Ignorance is transformed into a knife-wielding, caged lunatic – Dickens’s book referred earlier to Bedlam, London’s infamous insane asylum – while Want becomes a prostitute who is strait-jacketed and dragged away by invisible hands.

Scrooge and the Numinous

Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghostly encounters exhibit another common element of Gothic fiction, namely an experience of what philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) later called “the numinous.” In his seminal work The Idea of the Holy (1917), he described the numinous as an experience of fear and fascination, dread and awe, such as that of encountering a deity. The effects of this mysterium tremendum include trembling, or shuddering (“grauens” in the original German). In discussing the manifestation of the numinous in culture, Otto linked it explicitly to ghost stories:

But even when [the numinous emotion] has reached its higher and purer mode of expression it is possible for the primitive types of excitation that were formerly a part of it to break out in the soul in all their original naïveté and so to be experienced afresh. That this is so shown by the potent attraction exercised again and again exercised by the element of horror and ‘shudder’ in ghost stories, even in persons of high all-round education. It is a remarkable fact that the physical reaction to which this unique ‘dread’ of the uncanny gives rise is also unique, and is not found in the case of any ‘natural’ fear or terror.

Scrooge’s three visitations increasingly display aspects of the numinous. When visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past, Scrooge finds its light so overwhelming, he eventually causes its departure by seizing on its extinguisher-cone (a feature not often seen in film versions) and literally snuffing out its flame-like existence. Dickens’s description of this spirit feels almost Lovecraftian:

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. … [The] figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.

Scrooge’s response to meeting the Spirit of Christmas Present is to hang his head and look upon him “reverently.” But it is the third encounter, with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, that is accompanied by a classic experience of the numinous. By its mere presence, the ghost seems to “scatter gloom and mystery” in the air around it, causing Scrooge to bend down on his knee. He cannot see the spirit more than vaguely in the darkness, but he senses it is “tall and stately” beside him:

Its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved. … Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

A Christmas Carol: The Films

Has any film come close to recreating the Gothic atmosphere of Dickens’s novella? The first sound version of the film, in 1935 (starring Seymour Hicks, who had already played the role in a 1913 silent, Old Scrooge), boasts perhaps the most effective opening, with an atmosphere perfectly capturing the dingy, almost-depressing air imagined by the author. The street outside Scrooge’s office, with snow on the ground, and fog, but no cheery, pretty snowflakes to create a picture-postcard scene, is bleak and claustrophobic. A small band of musicians plays the The First Nowell – badly. It sounds more like a funeral dirge than a Christmas carol, but the groaning notes perfectly suit the sombre setting.

The 1951 film – by far the most popular version, due mainly to a very memorable starring turn by Alastair Sim – achieves a sublime Gothic feel, thanks largely to the black-and-white cinematography of C Pennington-Richards. Never is this better-seen than in the image of Scrooge kneeling before the “spectral hand” of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come; the many layers of light, creating stark shadows and contrasts, give the image an astonishing depth. . (A hideously colourized version from 1989 robs the film of virtually all its visual power.) The film’s grimness may well explain why it flopped on its original American release, but it is testament to its faithfulness to the Gothic tradition.

The 1984 TV version, directed by Clive Donner, is also of note for an earnest attempt to accentuate darker elements of the tale. It’s also one of the few versions to be shot largely on location. The Shropshire town of Shrewsbury stands in for Victorian London, lending the film a pleasing authenticity; visitors can still see Scrooge’s gravestone, specially created for the film, in the churchyard of St Chad’s today.

Finally, Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) deserves a mention for being one of the few versions to go for actual scares – including decidedly modern “jump scares” – rather than purely atmosphere. The early scenes, such as that of Marley’s visitation, are executed fairly effectively, but they’re surely too scary for the film’s juvenile target audience. Unfortunately, the filmmakers later try to accommodate all ages by adding some very out-of-place slapstick action, including an arbitrary extended chase sequence featuring a shrunken Scrooge. By the time the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come arrives, the film is a bit of a mess.

Perhaps no cinematic version has truly matched Dickens’s original, but that’s unsurprising, for the author’s prose has a chilling and equally wry way of articulating the Gothic. How can an any celluloid image hope to rival such literary descriptions as “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar” and a spirit that is “now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body”? A Christmas Carol is a work of singular humour and atmosphere, and, as Dickens himself wished, may no one wish to lay its ghost to rest.

Knowsley’s Broken Democracy, Part 1: Knowledge Is Power

knowsley_council_democracyThe first in a series of opinion pieces by the editor

(Too long didn’t read? The gist: Knowsley Council provides information that no one can understand, and without information,you are powerless.)

A great philosopher – no one’s quite sure who, but Sir Francis Bacon seems to be the main candidate – once said that ‘knowledge is power.’ If you want to play a meaningful role in the world around you and make a difference but are denied information, you are left powerless. Those in the know hold the cards.

As a journalist who quite often has to navigate the murky maze that is knowsley.gov.uk, I can say with confidence that Knowsley Council’s website is a disaster for local democracy. This, in an age when the world wide web is people’s first port of call to find facts and public information. Whether by design or not, the Knowsley Council website does little to help people access information and lots to hinder it.

Knowsley’s Local Plan: A Communications Nightmare

Our case in point is the recent consultation on the Local Plan, which Knowsley Council voted through unanimously in the face of huge public opposition. The controversy stemmed from the fact it … [Read the full article on Prescot Online]

Review: The Haunting of Hill House

An Invitation to Terror: The Haunting of Hill House Reviewed
Liverpool Playhouse, 7 December 2015-16 January 2016

Chipo-Chung-Emily-Bevan-in-The-Haunting-of-Hill-House-at-Liverpool-Playhouse-©-Gary-Calton-sliderWhile you might leave behind one or two of the wordier scenes and the occasionally convoluted machinations of the plot, the warped, surreal benightedness of The Haunting Of Hill House – a new commission for the stage from Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse — will almost certainly follow you out of the theatre.

Originally published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s classic novel on which the play is based tells of four characters gathering at a New England mansion at the behest of a paranormal researcher to observe alleged ghostly activity. It was memorably made into a film — The Haunting — in 1963, directed by Robert Wise — whose eclectic resumé also included The Curse of the Cat People, The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story and The Sound of Music — and again in 1999, in a version by Jan de Bont (featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Liam Neeson) best consigned to the vaults. Now it is on stage for the first time ever, in an adaptation co-produced by Hammer; the company most famous for the Gothic horror films it produced from the ‘50s through to the ‘70s.

Emily Bevan (The Casual Vacancy, In the Flesh) plays Eleanor – Nell — a New England woman tormented by the memory of her late mother. She is the first true star of this adaptation, taking an even more central role than did Julie Harris in the brilliantly executed film version. We experience almost everything through her, being moved at times to amusement at her foibles; sympathy with, perhaps pity at, her neuroses; and unearthly dread as she finds herself increasingly terrorised by Hill House, a place that both tortures her and fulfils her dreams. Like her, Hill House does not appear to have escaped its … [Read the full review at The Double Negative]

Undercover Doctor: Cure Me, I’m Gay

gaycureIn Tuesday night’s Channel 4 documentary ‘Cure Me, I’m Gay,’ telly doc Christian Jessen explored the world of ex-gay therapy. Viewers in the UK can catch up on 4oD here.

I’ve researched and written about the ex-gay movement for the best part of a decade, so in response to this latest programme, I wanted to collate a few relevant links to some of my articles.

First, a couple of thoughts on the show. The flaws usually present in mainstream TV documentaries these days are all there, so I won’t go into detail with those. Suffice it to say, it was bitty, broad and overall gave a mere surface glance at the subject. Such seems par the course for docs these days.

It didn’t reveal a great deal of new stuff. The usual suspects appeared – David Pickup, Richard Cohen, Mike Davidson. John Smid, the former director of Tennessee-based ex-gay programme Love In Action,  gave a rundown of the crazy techniques he used to employ to turn his gay clients straight.

Bizarrely, several media reported in advance that Smid was presently advocating these methods, where in fact it’s well-known that he renounced the practices several years ago and admitted he was still as gay as he ever had been.

What the Jessen documentary did very well was to delineate quite clearly the different methods. Reports of this sort often conflate the varied approaches into one supposed whole, but this made an earnest attempt to show that there were many theories and treatments out there, such as the addiction model (12-step style), reparative therapy (distant father, overbearing mother), deliverance and exorcism.

So, on to the articles. First, Mike Davidson of Northern Ireland-based Core Issues Trust, an organization that effectively brings NARTH’s reparative therapy approach to the UK. All these date to April 2012:

Ex-gays, anti-gays launch London bus ad campaign
‘Traditional Christian teaching’: Exposing an ex-gay myth
Core Issues director Mike Davidson removed from professional association
Core Issues’ Mike Davidson on being ex-gay

David Pickup is an odd character. One of the main ways he keeps himself straight is to solicit the company of muscular men to admire. To attract them, he posts his stats to bodybuilding message boards, and boasts of his great shape and how he looks ten years younger than his age. I kid you not:

Jayson Graves, David Pickup and the Exodus connection (May 2008)
Pickup contradicts himself to support reorientation therapy (August 2008)
UK: Dubious ex-gay therapists Pickup, Pilkington headline ex-gay conference (June 2011)

As for John Smid, he found himself in a helluva lot of controversy when a teenager called Zach Stark was forced into a residential programme at his ministry. He has since apologized:

Former ex-gay leader Smid can no longer condemn gays (October 2010)

Finally, a few of my pieces on the ex-gay/conversion therapy movement not directly related to those who appeared on the programme. These relate to Frontline, a large evangelical-charismatic church in the Wavertree district of Liverpool, who for about a decade have run a ministry based on a dangerously outlandish American ministry called LIFE:

LIFE: Behind Liverpool Frontline Church’s extreme ex-gay connections (November 2011)
Liverpool Frontline Church’s ex-gay-ministry: Backstory (July 2011)
How Liverpool’s Frontline Church struggles with homosexuality (The Guardian‘s Comment is free, July 2011)

In another Guardian piece, I respond to an article from The Times (UK) by Patrick Muirhead:

‘Ex-gays’ side with prejudice (The Guardian‘s Comment is free, January 2010)

Finally, one of my earliest articles on the subject, which I wrote for Third Way magazine in 2006:

Out and Cowed (PDF)


Interview with Jonathan Harvey, Author of Beautiful Thing

jamie_ste_beautiful_thingI interviewed writer Jonathan Harvey (Gimme Gimme Gimme, Coronation Street) about the 20th anniversary production of his play Beautiful Thing. I saw the dress rehearsal for the London run at the Arts Theatre, Leicester Square, and I’m deliriously excited to see it again this evening at the Liverpool Playhouse.

I’m perched on the toilet, paperback in hand. I don’t have an audience – as far as I’m aware – but if I did, they would see the widest smile ever break across my face. I’ve just reached the end of Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 play Beautiful Thing, the Liverpool-born writer’s sweet tale of teenage love in inner-city London.

Channel 4 filmed it in 1996, with a screenplay by Harvey, and a quick Google search reveals that the stage show has hardly been out of production in recent years. Indeed, any time of the year, there’s a Jamie and a Ste discovering each other somewhere on the planet.

In Beautiful Thing, it’s 1993, and sixteen-year-old Jamie Gangel lives with his feisty mother, Sandra, on the Thamesmead council estate. Classmate and next-door neighbour Ste flees his …

Read the rest at The Double Negative.

(I’ve also been added to the Little Black Book, the The Double Negative’s directory of contributing freelance writers and creatives.)

Charles Moore on ‘Relatively Less Important’ Areas of the UK

Today, on the day of Lady Thatcher’s funeral, former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore spoke to Radio 5 Live’s Nicky Campbell. His comments about “relatively less important” parts of the country caused some controversy.

Here’s a video of the entire interview, followed by a transcript of the relevant portion (4:44 onwards), for context:

There are certainly parts of the country that are more anti-her than others, but I think they tend to be the parts – and this extends my point about where the left might go – they tend to be parts that have become relatively less important. It doesn’t mean their feelings are not to be respected, but it does mean that if you think of how you’re trying to lead a political party in the twenty-first century, you have to find the places that are rising, where opportunity is spreading, and be able to speak to those people rather than simply speak to those who live in areas that are declining, where populations are falling. I think that’s important. You need to think about those left behind, but you shouldn’t merely be the party of those left behind, because if you are, you, too, will be left behind.

Room for One More?

Sod the Walt Disney Company and its Haunted Mansion, with its big budget and shiny new CGI technology. Give me the old-fashioned British ghost train experience, where not knowing whether the rattling, rusty screws will hold your carriage together till the end of the ride is just as frightening as the badly painted ghouls and goblins leaping out at you.

As a child who never passed up the opportunity for a cheap scare, I always made my way directly to the ghost train on entering the fair, whether it was the theme park or the travelling fairground. Roller coasters were not enough. This eighties Liverpool lad preferred the musty smells, dark turns and gaudy thrills of a ride through hell in a carriage for two.

You stepped on board and braced yourself for the jolt as the car, after a bit of a push from the ride-owner, set off along the track and bumped its way through the double doors and into the darkness. The crescendo and …

[Read Room for One More? Boarding the British Ghost Train at Bedlam]

How to Become a Professional Writer

fountain penA step-by-step guide to the basics of becoming a published writer

(Republished from 2010)

Do you write, even if just for your own pleasure? Congratulations: You are already a writer. But perhaps you are thinking about taking it a step further, sharing your work with others, getting published and establishing yourself as a professional writer. This short guide will take you through the essential steps towards fulfilling your writing goals.

Step One: Write

It sounds obvious, but always dreaming and never accomplishing is easily done. The editor and best-selling novelist Sol Stein said that a writer is “someone who cannot not write.” Write regularly, setting aside even 15 minutes or half an hour a day, for example. You may want to carry a notebook with you, so you can jot down notes and scribble out bits of writing at any time, as events grab your attention, or new ideas seize your imagination. Keep a private journal, or set up a blog, where you can post short articles as frequently as you like for others to read online and comment on. Continue reading “How to Become a Professional Writer”

The Play, by David L Rattigan (Montreal, Oct 26)

I’m rather delighted to see my name alongside those of Stephen King, Clive Barker and Alexander Pushkin on this poster for a Halloween event. Montreal playwright and director Michael Mitchell invited me to write a short script for this reading of Macabre and Supernatural plays, taking place at McGill University on October 26. Although I’ve been experimenting writing plays since I was eight (read the sorry saga of how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera overshadowed my own adaptation here), this is the first time I’ve had something performed as an adult.

My short horror play — titled simply The Play — concerns a husband’s nocturnal habits and his wife’s novel proposal to rescue their troubled marriage.

Bedlam: A Journal of Horror & the Macabre

Robert JE Simpson and I have established a successful creative partnership as editors of Diabolique magazine, which we regrettably left in July. We are, however, pleased to announce a new horror publication: Bedlam is a journal of horror and the macabre, and its first issue will be out in digital and print format in January, 2013.

In the meantime, visit the Bedlam website to find out more. And if you are a writer or creative with a passion for exploring life and culture’s darker realms, click here for our submissions guidelines.