[The following is a reprint of a column which originally appeared in the December 15, 2005, issue of Hellnotes.]
For many people, Christmas isn’t complete without Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” – whether they read the story, go to the local theater to see a stage production, or watch one of the many movie versions. This is probably the best known and most popular ghost story in English literature. However, it is far from the only supernatural tale which Dickens wrote.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Landport, Hampshire, England, of John and Elizabeth Dickens. Around 1815, the Dickens family moved to London. A few years later, they moved to Chatham in Kent, and they later returned to London. Dickens was small and sickly, and his mother taught him to read to pass the time.
Dickens had an early exposure to ghost stories when his nanny, Mary “Mercy” Weller, who took care of him from age 5 to 11, regaled him with tales of murder, ghosts, demons, and cannibals. Though Dickens considered Mercy to be the greatest influence on his interest in the macabre, there were other factors as well. His grandmother also told him fantastic stories, and his home’s library contained many fantasy and supernatural books. During his teens, he read The Terrific Register, a popular “penny dreadful” magazine, which contained horrific stories, complete with ghoulish illustrations. Also an influence on Dickens was his environment: working class London of the mid 19th century, with its teeming impoverished masses, slums, smoke-filled air, and grimy factories, such as the shoe-blacking factory where Dickens worked as a child.
His writing career started in 1833 when his short stories and essays began appearing in magazines, some under his pen name, Boz. His collection Sketches by Boz and the novel The Pickwick Papers were published in 1836.
Many of his novels featured stand-alone stories within the main narrative. The first of his novels to contain ghost stories was The Pickwick Papers (serialized in 1836 to 1837), with five tales of the supernatural within its pages: “The Lawyer and the Ghost,” “The Queer Chair,” “The Ghosts of the Mail,” “A Madman’s Manuscript,” and “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton.” These were perhaps written originally as individual short stories but were added to the novel to help him meet the monthly publishing deadlines for the serialization. In a similar manner, the humorous ghost story “Baron Koëldwethout’s Apparition” haunted the pages of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839).
“The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” appeared in the Christmas 1836 installment of The Pickwick Papers, thus starting Dickens’s tradition of Christmas ghost stories. This story seems to be a forerunner of “A Christmas Carol” as the two contain several similar elements: a miserable loner, a Christmas setting, and an unearthly apparition who shows the loner the error of his ways. Dickens liked Christmas ghost stories because he believed that while Christmas was a festive season, it was also a time for re-assessment and perhaps change.
“A Christmas Carol” came out in book form in December 1843 and was an instant success, both popularly and critically. The first edition of 6,000 sold out within days, and second and third editions quickly followed. Within a year, over 15,000 copies had been sold.
This story started a tradition among publishers of issuing a special volume for Christmas. Dickens wrote five of these Christmas novellas. Only one other was a ghost story: “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain” (1848), which was also his last Christmas book. He continued to write special Christmas tales, but subsequent ones were short stories, three in the horror genre, which were published in magazines or in the women’s annuals that were popular in England at the time.
In 1850, the charming short story “A Child’s Dream of a Star” appeared. In this story, a little girl dies and becomes an angel, and she waits for her brother’s spirit. It is thought this story came from Dickens’s reflections on the happier days of his childhood. That same year saw the publication of “A Christmas Tree” in the December issue of Household Words. Though not entirely supernatural, this story has a section about the different kinds of ghosts that might be experienced at Christmas time. In 1852, the off-beat ghost story “To Be Read at Dusk” appeared in The Keepsake.
Dickens edited Household Words, later retitled All the Year Round, from 1850 until 1870, when his son took over. Dickens encouraged contributors, such as Lord Bulwer Lytton and Wilkie Collins, to write ghost stories for the Christmas issues. Dickens’s “The Ghost Chamber” appeared in Household Words in October 1857. Two years later, Dickens decided to start giving a special title to the Christmas issue, and that year it was The Haunted House. He solicited stories on the theme from his contributors, and wrote two stories himself: “The Mortals in the House” and “The Ghost in Master B.’s Room.”
The Uncommercial Traveller (1860), which collected 17 of the stories Dickens had contributed to his magazine, contained two supernatural stories: “Chambers,” reprinted as “Mr Testator’s Visitation”; and “Nurse’s Stories,” reprinted as “Captain Murderer and the Devil’s Bargain.” The latter was a retelling of stories Mercy had told him in his youth.
“Four Ghost Stories” was published in All the Year Round in September 1861. Dickens later discovered that his fictional account actually happened to someone, who, after reading the story, accused Dickens of stealing his idea. Dickens published the other man’s tale, “The Portrait-Painter’s Story,” in October 1861.
In the 1865 and 1866 Christmas special issues of All the Year Round were, respectively, “The Trial for Murder” and “The Signal-Man.” The latter is perhaps his second most famous ghost story and is thought to be based on an actual train crash in 1861.
After Dickens broke up with his wife, he moved to Gadshill in Kent. He died there on June 9, 1870.
“A Christmas Carol” is readily available in many editions. All of Dickens’s ghost stories have been collected in the out-of-print The Collected Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, edited by Peter Haining, which contains illustrations from their original publications.