Warnings to the Curious – The Christmas Ghost Story

by Gary Budden

The ghost story, properly executed, is one of the finest forms the short story can take. Robert Aickman is famously quoted as saying the best ghost stories are ‘akin to poetry’. Writers of capital-L literature wrote supernatural fiction; Charles Dickens, Daphne du Maurier, Walter de la Mare, Guy de Maupassant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and many many more. Why does the ghost story hold such a tight grip on our collective imagination?

I don’t think it’s much of a revelation to suggest that the ghost represents the unpleasant memory we hoped we’d forgotten coming back with a vengeance. The ghost is our guilt taken spectral shape, our fear given form, our own incipient creeping madness. When people talk about being haunted by the past, they are. The ghost is unfinished business. 

And if they are hostile, that’s only fitting. No one ever hears about the ghost of a person who died comfortably, at the right time, in peace and in comfort. 

Perhaps this is why that Christmas, in Britain at least, is peak ghost season. The time of year when we take stock, plan for the future and look to the new year with hope. It can’t be coincidence that a time for celebration and moving forward is also time for unease about the past and our selves.

Between 1971 and 1978 the BBC broadcast an annual TV adaptation of a classic ghost story, reflecting the oral tradition of recounting supernatural tales at Christmas time. The series was then revived in 2005 and has been sporadically appearing ever since then – the last one to date being Mark Gatiss’ M.R. James adaptation, The Tractate Middoth, shown on Christmas Day 2013.

There are precursors to this 70s tradition. First was the astounding 1968 M.R. James Omnibus adaptation, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, directed by Jonathan Miller and now generally included in the series. Secondly there was Nigel Kneale’s classic The Stone Tape (a firm favourite of hauntologists and weird fiction fans ever since), broadcast on Christmas Day 1972 but largely left out of the series due to its (then) modern setting. 

M.R. James dominates this tradition. After Whistle and I’ll Come to You, five of the 70s films were James adaptations – The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ash Tree – and of the revival series, all four have been James adaptations, one even being a modern take on Whistle and I’ll Come to You starring John Hurt.

The BBC ghost stories fit perfectly with the 1970s, a period of fascinating innovation in British television. Alongside the aforementioned films, Kneale made a modern take on the ‘village witch’ story, Murrain, and the boundary pushing series Beasts (which includes Pauline Quirke and the ghost of a dolphin, if you need enticing). There was the series Dead of Night, featuring a Marxist class-conscious haunting. There were weird and frightening kid’s shows like Children of the Stones, that used Britain’s neolithic remnants to great effect. In 1979 there was an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken the Painter, and there was an ITV adaptation of M.R. James in the form of Casting the Runes (that had memorably appeared in cinematic form as Night of the Demon back in 1957). Much of this work fits into what now is loosely classed as ‘folk horror’, a term popularised by Mark Gatiss in his excellent 2010 series documenting the history of horror cinema.

It would be nice to see this weirdness back on TV and there’s certainly a surge of interest in these topics right now. The ghost story fits the format of the short story and the one-off TV special perfectly. It would be great to see the ghost story become a fully fledged Christmas tradition once more. The Observer have suggested the literary ghost story is back, and I hope TV follows suit.

What works in these films is the commitment to the material. There is subtlety. There are no sops to happy endings, no softened blows – just the grisly horror of the hurdy-gurdy music and missing organs of Lost Hearts, the oozing malevolent slime of Abbot Thomas or all the all-pervading sense of doom pervading The Signalman. Often the viewer is left to decide whether anything supernatural has manifested at all, or whether the hapless protagonist has been undone by their own deteriorating mental state. There is a poetic engagement with place and landscape, be it the bleak coastlines of East Anglia, the dank and dripping railway tunnels, the whisper of reeds in forbidding fens or the strangeness of church cloisters. No wonder we see writers discussing the alignment between landscape writing and our native horror and weird fiction traditions (the ‘English Eerie’ as some have called it). 

In the end, the ghosts remain unknowable. They are weird, ephemeral and hard to categorise; and as such very frightening. These films linger long after viewing.

All of the films mentioned are worth watching (and are all available as part of the BFI box set), but the following are my three essentials:

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

"Quis est iste qui venit?" ("Who is this who is coming?”)

If you haven’t seen this yet, go and watch it right now. It’s the perfect transference of the British ghost story onto TV, genuinely frightening and seeped in dread. The film is a simple tale of an eccentric and maladjusted Cambridge professor, played brilliantly by Michael Hordern, taking a solitary holiday on the desolate East Anglian coast. On one of his long solitary rambles in this unforgiving landscape, he finds a whistle unearthed from a grave being eaten away by the elements and falling into the sea. He blows that whistle, and it all ends in tears. 

(The 2010 version starring John Hurt isn’t bad either, though significantly different to the source text and in the end just not as effective.)

A Warning to the Curious

Another James adaptation, and another one set in East Anglia (specifically Aldeburgh, masquerading under the cleverly named ‘Seaburgh’). A Warning to the Curious concerns a treasure hunter seeking an Anglo Saxon crown – the crown of Anglia – allegedly buried in the area. After finding what he is looking for, he finds himself pursued by a mysterious and malevolent figure across the bleak Suffolk landscapes.

The makers of the film pleasingly changed the aspect of the protagonist from the original story, shifting him from the classic Jamesian upper-class maladroit, to a more savvy working class character played by Peter Vaughan (which makes his hunt for life-changing treasure more understandable and sympathetic). 

Again, it all ends in tears. 

The Signalman

"Look Out, Look Out, for God sake clear the way!”

This Dickens adaptation is based on the author’s short story that itself was informed by his own involvement in the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash.

Starring Denholm Elliott as the title character, The Signalman is a deeply unsettling tale of loneliness and isolation that uses its gloomy setting of a railway cutting to maximum effect. Repetition and foreshadowing are used to create a fatalistic narrative that can only end one way.