In the spirit of the season, I want to talk about one of the classic pieces of literature tied closely to Christmas. But this is a horror appreciation site, which limits my options but also presents me with a great one.
Today, I am going to talk about A Christmas Carol.
Holiday cheer and ghosts, what more could you want?
Written by Charles Dickens and published in 1843, A Christmas Carol is the story of Scrooge, a miserly chap whose sole focus is money. He cares not for anyone around him be they friend, family, or any part of his community. Then one Christmas Eve Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, the ultimate self-help team, who turn his perspective on its head. By the end of the book he realises that worth is not in money but in people.
While today we think of Christmas Carol as being all about Christmas, when it came out it was not seen that way. This is because at the time Christmas was a very religion focused holiday, unsurprisingly. A Christmas Carol took the focus away from religion and made it the far more the humanitarian holiday we know and love today. Odd for a story about ghosties.
Admittedly this is one of those instances where I saw the film before reading the book, what with there being a lot of film versions (FYI The Muppets Christmas Carol is one of the best ones and everyone should watch it, while not a perfect adaptation it’s got Michael Kane singing with puppets so…yeah).
The story begins on Christmas Eve in London, seven years after the death of Jacob Marley, who is Scrooge’s business partner. The story goes to lengths to show you examples of Scrooge being a miserable old git, refusing to help the poor, being unpleasant to his workers and refusing to spend the holiday with his family. Dickens really hammers this point home.
After work Scrooge returns home, where our first ghost is foreshadowed in the form of a haunted doorknocker. It is then show that despite all his wealth Scrooge lives poorly. He has a big house but its cold and baren.
That evening after dinner, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, decorated with chains and big heavy boxes. Marley explains to Scrooge that the chains and boxes were created during his lifetime through acts of greed and selfishness and if Scrooge does not sort himself out then his chains and boxes are going to be even bigger and heavier than Marley’s. Marley then warns that Scrooge will be visited tonight by three other spirits, who will try and help Scrooge turn his life around and this is his last chance to do so.
Scrooge, naturally, thinks this is all a figment of his imagination brought on by madness or food poisoning. So he goes to bed.
However, he is indeed visited that night by three ghosts. The first, the ghost of Christmas past, reminds Scrooge of his lonely childhood, his young adult life with his sister, employer, and wife-to-be. His fiancée, however, leaves him as he clearly loves money more than her. They visit her as an adult, and hear her describe Scrooge now, its not favourable and Scrooge is hurt by how she sees him.
The ghost of Christmas present follows, he shows Scrooge his worker, Bob Cratchit, and his family. They are poor and they have an extremely ill child, Tiny Tim, but they are ultimately a lot happier than Scrooge is. Showing him that money is not what makes people happy. Then the ghost ruins the happy by saying that Tiny Tim is going to die and then shows Scrooge that he has had terrifying little ghost kids under his cloak the whole time. It’s grim.
The last ghost, the ghost of Christmas yet to come, shows Scrooge the time shortly after his own end and how no one cares that he has died. People he employed steal from his corpse, and people he rented homes to celebrate that they will not have to pay rent as soon as they would have had to otherwise. Scrooge asks to see tenderness associated with death and the spirit shows him Bob Cratchit mourning Tiny Tim.
This whole experience effects Scrooge so strongly that he agrees to sort his life out.
The end of the story has Scrooge waking on Christmas morning a changed man. He sends Cratchit a turkey and spends the day with his own family. The next day he returns to work and gives his workers a pay increase and apparently becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim, I assume he also gets doctors involved as Tiny Tim does not die.
My initial thought was that it was difficult to see this story as a horror story. In my view it has always been story about the ability of a selfish man to redeem himself and thus improve the lives of those around him, particularly the poorer members of his community.
But therein lies the horror.
While the ghosties are a bit spooky at times, the first one is described as a creepy candle who Scrooge basically kills, the ghost of Christmas present with his weird skeletal kids and Christmas yet to come with his focus on death and loss. Despite this they are not the horror in this story.
The opening line ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’ both strikes a proper spooky atmosphere and foreshadows Marley’s return. But again, even Marley with his tale of a horrible fate awaiting Scrooge and the vivid imagery around him, is also not the horror in this story.
The real horror in this story is social.
The horror lies in the treatment of the poor and vulnerable members of society, the way we view them and their inherent powerlessness.
Charles Dickens wrote about the treatment of the poor in a lot in his stories and A Christmas Carol is no different. Dicken’s attitude towards the poor was, largely, different to the common view. In this story the poor are portrayed, not as slovenly, stupid, or lazy, they are not people who have brought their own downfall through moral failings. Money or the lack thereof is not tied to morality.
Cratchit is hard working, morally upstanding and his family is shown as wholesome and loving. Their situation is tragic, undeserved and almost inescapable. Had they not received the sympathy of a benefactor then they could not have helped themselves out of poverty.
The real horror in this book is the social constructs that allow children like Tiny Tim to perish solely because he was born poor. The kid literally only survives because he has the sympathy of a wealthy man. Money saves him.
The purpose of this story is to make people think and be more aware about the society they live in and how it views and treats its most vulnerable members.
The ghost of Christmas present says it best when he reveals his skeletal children named Ignorance and Want. He warns against ignoring them and not thinking of their welfare. These are not real children, obviously, they are a metaphor for people ignoring, or being ignorant of the world around them and the suffering of others.