Saturday, December 9, 2017

Thurlow’s Christmas Story

John Kendrick Bangs (1862–1922)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

“Face to Face,” “The Demon Vanished,” and “Look at Your So-Called Story and See.” Three drawings by American illustrator Arthur Burdett Frost (1851–1928) that accompanied “Thurlow’s Christmas Story” when it appeared in the 1894 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly.
For most of the nineteenth century—and in some places well into the twentieth—Christmas was the occasion for telling scary tales. “No one quite knows why winter, and Christmas more specifically, became the time of ghost stories,” writes Judith Flanders in her just-published book, Christmas: A Biography. The prevailing belief is that the combination was a natural outgrowth of the long winter nights and the pagan rituals linked to the winter solstice. As Prince Mamillius announces in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, “A sad tale’s best for winter; I have one / Of sprites and goblins.” The novelist Paul Theroux describes the tradition as “a revolt against sanctimony—Christmas pulls one way, pagan skepticism the other, and the result is frequently a blend of the pious and supernatural.”

The most famous Christmas ghost story is, of course, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1842), but the custom of telling such tales at Christmas—and of writing supernatural Christmas stories—predates Ebenezer Scrooge by centuries. Jon Kaneko-James, a researcher specializing on supernatural topics in literature, summarizes the frequent mention of revenants at Christmastime in medieval Icelandic sagas. Flanders identifies a book from 1658 (the snappily titled An history of apparitions, oracles, prophecies, and predictions with dreams, visions, and revelations and the cunning delusions of the devil, to strengthen the idolatry of the gentiles, and the worshipping of saints departed) that “includes five tales that link ghosts and ghostly happenings to the holidays.” The late David Parker, who was the curator of the Charles Dickens Museum, claimed that the first book devoted entirely to supernatural Christmas tales may have been the popular Round about Our Coal-Fire: or, Christmas Entertainments (c. 1730), which went through several editions in the decade it first appeared and which featured tales about ghosts and ogres, including “The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean,” an early version of Jack and the Beanstalk.

In 1820 Washington Irving described in “The Christmas Dinner” the festivities at the “old-fashioned” Bracebridge Hall in the English countryside. After a lavish meal and children’s games, the parson sits in “a high-backed oaken chair” in the drawing room and relates “strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country.” Most of the tales shared by the parson and by others in the company concern a crusader whose crypt is in the nearby church; “the gold and jewels buried in the tomb, over which the spectre kept watch”; and “all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies” associated with his legend.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Christmas ghost story had become so ubiquitous that in 1891 the British humorist Jerome K. Jerome would grouse:
Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet around a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders and blood.
And so in 1894, when John Kendrick Bangs, the humor editor at Harper’s Weekly, had to write a piece for the magazine’s Christmas number, he slyly submitted “Thurlow’s Christmas Story,” about a writer haunted by phantasmal visions while struggling to come up with “the usual ghostly tale with a dash of the Christmas flavor thrown in here and there.” As the deadline for the story looms, a mysterious visitor arrives and presents a Faustian opportunity to publish the masterpiece that will ensure the writer’s literary reputation long after his death. Bangs himself never seemed to suffer from writer’s block; during a career lasting four decades, he published dozens of books and hundreds of stories and sketches. Virtually everything he wrote is now forgotten, and his name has become an arcane footnote for his creation of “Bangsian fantasies,” a subgenre in which famous figures from literature and history are characters in an otherworldly afterlife. Although (as far as we know) Bangs made no Faustian bargain when he wrote “Thurlow’s Christmas Story,” it seems fitting that out of his entire oeuvre this frequently anthologized tale is the work for which he is most remembered a century after his death.

Note: On page 171, Bangs namechecks a quartet of nineteenth-century authors who inspired many of his own stories, as well as the “masterpiece” written by the visitor in this story. In addition to Edgar Allan Poe, he mentions E.T.A. Hoffmann, a Prussian writer of Gothic horror; Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, the German writer most famous for his fairy tale Undine; and Fitz James O’Brien, an Irish American story writer and poet whose various fantastic tales are regarded by literary historians as important precursors to science fiction.

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I have always maintained, my dear Currier, that if a man wishes to be considered sane, and has any particular regard for his reputation as a truth-teller, he would better keep silent as to the singular experiences that enter into his life. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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