The Night Thread of Christmas Ghost Stories from The Keepsake (12/18/2019)

“I have heard it said, that, when any strange, supernatural, and necromantic adventure has occurred to a human being, that being, however desirous he may be to conceal the same, feels at certain periods torn up as it were by an intellectual earthquake, and is forced to bare the inner depths of his spirit to another.”
— Mary Shelley, “Transformation”

There is a tradition of winter ghost stories that is at least as old as modern English. Marlowe and Shakespeare speak of winter tales of “spirits and ghosts” and “sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era, with the relative explosion of literacy and interest in penny literature, that these stories reached a peak of being written down and published.

Of course, the most well known Victorian Christmas ghost story is “A Christmas Carol,” but many less well-known and less didactic pieces also exist. “Turn of the Screw” is introduced as being a tale told on Christmas.

While now we think of Halloween as the prime season for telling scary stories, during the Victorian era it was Christmas when people would gather around and tell each other ghost stories. The nights are their longest right before Christmas and there was little to do at night but sit around a fire. In middle and upper class families, boys would be off at school for most of the year but home for Christmas in the bleak midwinter. It was the ideal time to sublimate boredom and chill with tales of the weird and the impossible, which publications like “The Keepsake” collected and sold every year.

The first public edition of “The Keepsake” was the 1829 edition (published for Christmas 1828), and it included three tales of necromancy and ghosts by the famous Sir Walter Scott now collectively known as “The Keepsake Stories.” Full of skulls and reanimated corpses, they were the perfect companions to dark nights by a flickering fire. Mary Shelley also provided stories for this and later editions of The Keepsake, including “Transformation” which deals with inhuman beasts and “The Mortal Immortal” in which a man learns that immortality can be a source of horror.

Other recommended tales from later editions of The Keepsake include Conyngham‘s translation of Hoffman‘s “The Sandman” (1834) and “The Silver Lady” (published anonymously in the 1838 edition).  Leitch Ritchie, best known for “The Man-Wolf,” used the periodical to write stories like “The Novice, or the Convent Demon” which appeared to be supernatural but had natural (if far-fetched) explanations.


They were certainly not the first Christmas ghost stories ever told. But they were among the first widely distributed Victorian ghost stories, and as the publication put out a similar collection every year for a generation, it seemed to have an impact on tradition.

Dickens himself published a multitude of Christmas ghost stories, both by himself and others, in special Christmas issues of his own periodical “All the Year Round.” These issues often took the form of one large loosely connected work — such as “The Haunted House” where each chapter was written by a different author and described the ghost of a different room.

So tonight or this week, as the days creep shorter and shorter, find some ancient tome and regal yourself not with heartwarming stories of dancing reindeer and singing elves, but with cursed murderers and dark magic mirrors.

To whet your appetite, here is the beginning of “The Sandman,” a disturbing tragedy of physical torture, psychological trauma, and mutilated reality.



“The Sandman” is a gorgeous, disturbing work that could easily have its own thread and the Conyngham is just one of many available translations.  Here is a Horrorbabble production of a different translation if you are so inclined.  Horrorbabble is a great channel to find many other classic ghost stories as well.