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Archive for December, 2011

The Christmas Guest

There’s been many another performer who’s done this sweetly sentimental little recitation about a shoemaker who’s promised a visit from Jesus himself on Christmas, only to learn that Jesus doesn’t always appear in his own guise, but I like Grandpa’s best.

It reminds me of a story, though, of another kind of Christmas visitor altogether–

Bartholomew Rudd was a lifelong bachelor, but for all that he wasn’t a solitary man. He enjoyed the company of his fellow citizens, and was trudging home through a gentle dancing snow after a midnight carols service on Christmas Eve when his Christmas adventure began.

He would remember later that there was something strange about that snow. No matter how hard the flakes fell that night, they didn’t touch him: no dusting on his coat or hat, none melting on his gloved open palm.

Moreover, he could hear footsteps behind him–

but no one had left the church going in the same direction as him, and he had seen no one in the streets as he passed through them.

Disquieted, to say the least, he reached his little house. Before he went in, he turned around and took a look. The street was empty.

He went in and hung up his coat and hat and said “Merry Christmas!” to his old tabby cat Agatha, who yawned and then rubbed her head affectionately against his leg. “Come on, old girl. Let’s go into the study, by the fire.”

She accompanied him up the little flight of stairs, as far as the study door. When he opened it and stepped in, though, she turned and fled, for a voice came out of the shadows around the fireplace.

Barty!

A man was sitting in the rocking chair to one side of the fire. He rose and held out his hand. It’s been a long time, Barty.

The light fell full upon his face then.

Bartholomew said in delight: Andrew! Andrew Putnam! What brings you here on a snowy Christmas morning?

In the days of their boyhood, Bartholomew Rudd and the man standing before him had been the proverbial twin sons of different mothers, an inseparable pair full of hijinks and good spirits. Manhood had split them up though; Barty had remained in their hometown, while Andy had gone into business, then into politics. He had married and had a family, and had, at last accounting, gained a position in the Andrew Johnson administration in Washington, DC.

Andy never did give Barty a straight answer as to what brought him to their hometown this night, and Barty, in their exchange of news and reminiscences, forgot that vexed question altogether. He was hungry after his walk home in the snow, so he prepared a light meal for himself and his guest. Before they ate they toasted each other with a glass of good ale.

Andrew, when invited to go down to the dining room, flatly refused to leave the warmth of the fire. He added, rather apologetically, that he had walked from the train station and gotten a ferocious chill.

So they ate and talked into the wee hours.

Barty at last promised his old friend we’ll talk more in the morning, Andy and directed Putnam to the guest bedroom just off the study.

Other than to say Good night, Barty. Sleep well Putnam made no reply to that, simply going into the guest room and closing it behind him.

Barty Rudd woke at nine AM on Christmas morning to the sound of his housekeeper, the redoubtable Mrs. Fitzsimmons, knocking on his door and calling breakfast!

Barty dressed and went to wake Andrew Putnam.

His first hint that something had been strange about that visit in the night came in the study.

The little table at which he and Putnam had eaten and drunk ale in the chime hours still sat before the fireplace. He hadn’t cleared away when they parted to sleep.

Then, both plates, and both glasses, had been empty.

This morning, both plate and glass from which Putnam had eaten and drunk were full.

A minute or two later, he found that the room he’d given Putnam to sleep in was not only empty–it looked as if it hadn’t been disturbed in months.

Distraught, he ran down to ask Mrs. Fitzsimmons if she had seen his guest that morning.

She said, What guest?

It wasn’t until the morning after Christmas that the telegram came.

Mr Rudd (stop) Regret to inform you that Andrew Putnam Esq. passed away on the first of December 1866 (stop) We know you join us in mourning his passing (stop)

The cable was signed The family of A. H. Putnam.

This story comes from Beth Scott and Michael Norman’s 1985 book Haunted Heartland; it is apparently based on an item that appeared in an 1867 newspaper, detailing an odd occurrence in the little town of Fountain City, Wisconsin.

Gives a whole new meaning to I’ll be home for Christmas–just sayin’–

Merry Christmas!

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Imagine, if you will, a room like this:

Decorated for Christmas, it’s warm and cozy. Now then, imagine that over to the righthand side of the fireplace, there sits a man in a large armchair. He’s not a handsome man by any means, but his face is strongly marked by intelligence and humor—and he is about to work magic.

All stories are magic, but there are some that gain in the telling by being read aloud. So imagine, also, a group of students—all male, for this man is provost of a famous British preparatory school—seated in chairs or on the floor, coltish legs and sharp elbows pulled in, anticipating wonders.

We owe the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas mainly to Charles Dickens. Dickens’s most famous work in the genre, A Christmas Carol, is subtitled Being, a Ghost Story of Christmas. Dickens, as editor of various magazines in the course of his career, always put out a Christmas annual which consisted in the main of ghost stories, by some of the most famous writers of his day: Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Amelia B. Edwards, and of course Dickens himself.

The man who is about to read to his students was born too late to submit his stories to Dickens. Montague Rhodes James is, however, arguably the finest of all writers of fictional ghost stories.

Born the youngest son of a Sussex clergyman in 1862, he was also one of the unlikeliest. By profession a historian (mainly of medieval England), he lived out his life a bachelor, first as a Cambridge University chancellor and, for the last eighteen years of his life as provost of Eton. There would seem to be nothing in his background to account for his taste for the macabre.

In his spare time, however, he wrote ghost stories. At first he read them to his fellow Cambridge dons during the Christmas season; later, for his pupils at Eton.

In our own day, we are used to writers in the horror genre who use bloody menaces—serial killers, killer clowns, demons, rabid dogs, kinetically gifted teens (yes, Stephen King, I’m primarily, but not solely, talking about you)—to scare us witless. Not once does M. R. James resort to this type of over-the-top plotline, or, in King’s evocative phrase, go for the gross-out, yet James’s stories can scare one into turning on extra lights, and checking dark corners, strictly by the power of suggestion. In the preface to a collection of his stories called A Warning to the Curious, the author Ruth Rendell—herself no mean hand at creating uncanny atmospheres—gives a near perfect description of how James achieves these scares:

His stories begin quietly, often with a description of a place, a town or a country house or library, and his traveller to whom in a little while dreadful things will happen. There are—at first—no ghosts and demons, only a gradually increasing, indefinable, slow menace. And James’s characters bring trouble on themselves by such simple innocent actions, by being a little too curious, by merely examining an old manuscript or borrowing a certain book, by picking up an apparently harmless object on the beach. (A Warning to the Curious, pages vii-viii.)

The stories to which Rendell refers, in that final sentence, are, respectively, “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook“, “The Tractate Middoth,” (which is, unfortunately, not available online) and “O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad“, but the general idea holds true for all of James’s stories. Not to mention that these stories have influenced a good many writers—even Stephen King—who came after James; there is a scene in King’s 1977 novel The Shining that must have been inspired by one in James’s early story “Lost Hearts“, in which a young boy is frightened by a ghastly figure he sees in a bathtub.

It is astonishing, as well, that James’s influence should have spread so far when his output in the genre consists of no more than thirty-one short stories.

I suspect, though, that one thing that makes them so memorable is, simply, that James himself first read them aloud—and he must have been a wonderful reader, for none of the fellow professors or students who heard him read them at Christmastime ever forgot them. At least one of his pupils, the English actor Christopher Lee, has read James’s work on BBC radio, and shared his memories of hearing “Monty” in his youth. (James died in 1936.)

I frankly cannot do any sort of justice to James’s work; my powers of description aren’t equal to the task. However, his best stories are available online: to those linked above I would add “Count Magnus“, a terrifying tale of a medieval Faust figure and his familiar; “Casting the Runes“, in which a practitioner of black magic falls victim to his own wicked spell; “The Mezzotint“, a story of a strange engraving; and “A Warning to the Curious“, loosely based on the actual discovery, in 1687, of a Saxon crown buried on the eastern coast of England.

When I’m reading James’s stories, I make sure that my back is to the wall and the room is well-lit. Such is their dark magic.

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A Little Something for Mom

photo by Amanda Gamble copyright 2011

We haven’t hung anything on our front door at Christmas in donkey’s years.

This year, though, I got ambitious after finding a Christmas stocking consisting of crocheted granny squares in the November 29, 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.

This is the end result. I used a different granny pattern than what’s in the magazine, substituting a Neverending Granny for their square. The colors are Red Heart Ranch Red, Soft White and Medium Thyme, with a bit of a Victorian Christmas Gold metallic thrown in for bling.

Mom’s reaction, when she saw the finished product, is one I’ll treasure: without hesitation, she said, “That’s my Christmas present.”

🙂

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I really couldn’t tell you, one way or another, whether Evelyn Danzig and Jack Segal intended this gentle little tale of a little girl who prays

send, dear God, some scarlet ribbons
Scarlet ribbons for my hair

and a parent who is left bemused when out of nowhere scarlet ribbons turn up on the little girl’s bed to be a Christmas song, per se, when they wrote it in 1949.

Early recordings by Dinah Shore and Harry Belafonte, among others, didn’t make much impression. Then, in December of 1960, a trio of brother and two sisters–country music’s The Browns–released it. Their version went higher in the charts of the day than any other–

Okay, granted I get teary-eyed over little kids and puppies and kittens and etc. Still, there’s something especially touching about this tiny miracle.

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RIP

Born a decade too late to remember John Lennon in his Beatles days–

in keeping with that circumstance, I was a day late in hearing of his appalling death.

On December 9, 1980, I was in college: a freshman alto in the choir and working in the music department to earn tuition money.

That morning I was waiting in the foyer to the music department for the history class meeting down the hall in the choir room to turn out so I could go set up for a rehearsal when our accompanist/piano instructor came in and demanded abruptly, What do you think about what happened to John Lennon?

We had no television at home then, and no radio in the car, so I got all my news, in those days, secondhand.

Also, I wasn’t quite awake.

What happened to John Lennon? I asked.

You mean you haven’t heard? He was murdered last night!

That blunt. That cold. That unbelievably, sadly true.

Murdered when he was almost home, by a mentally disturbed man who sat down and read a copy of The Catcher in the Rye until the police came–who would later use Salinger’s novel as a “explanation” for Lennon’s death.

Mark David Chapman, the gunman, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to twenty years to life for Lennon’s murder. Denied parole, at last count, six times, he will likely die in prison.

We have Lennon’s music. That, Chapman could never take from us.

I remember this song every Christmas season.

Rest well, John Lennon. Rest well.

PS There are reports, by the way, of people who claim to have seen Lennon’s ghost in front of the Dakota, that immense gothic apartment building where he and Yoko Ono made their home in the last years of Lennon’s life.

Lennon’s spirit also figures in British author Phil Rickman’s brilliant horror novel December (1994).

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One thing leads to another. I’ve been listening to this Bill Monroe classic–written by Tex Logan and recorded by Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys in 1951–and it reminded me of a story from Ruth Ann Musick’s posthumous collection of West Virginia folklore Coffin Hollow and Other Ghost Tales (1977).

‘Tis the season, after all, that an old railroad man from Cottageville, WV, loved best. . .

The old man lived in a tiny house in the woods, a couple miles down the tracks from town. In his working life, he’d been an engineer on the Baltimore and Ohio line. He’d been notable, in those days, for his love of the Christmas season; come December he was always singing Christmas carols and buying candy to toss to the children living along the tracks.

One of the old man’s proudest possessions, in his retirement, was a phonograph: perhaps an oldtime windup Victrola, perhaps something a little more modern. Most of his records were of Christmas songs and carols. Anytime a visitor stopped by his little house during the Christmas season, the old man would insist that they come in to have coffee and listen to his records with him.

In the course of time, the old man died, and his little house was left standing empty; his phonograph and other possessions were taken away by family members. In 1968, the old B & O tracks that ran by his house were dismantled and somehow, in the process, the house was completely knocked down.

The old trackbed now was used mostly by hunters going into the deep woods, past the place where the old man’s home had stood.

One hunter got the shock of a lifetime when, two days before Christmas, years after the old man died and not long after the house was destroyed, he found himself stranded and hearing Christmas music in a place where there shouldn’t have been music at all. He was driving along the old trackbed when he first heard it; startled, he stopped his car to make sure he wasn’t just imagining things.

He wasn’t. He was hearing Christmas music, the like of which he might have heard on an oldtime phonograph, pops and crackles and skips and all, through the trees alongside him.

He almost lost it, though, when he tried to restart his car–and the motor refused even to turn over.

All at once, he noticed something he hadn’t seen before: a small house there among the trees.

What in the world?

He saw movement from the corner of his eye, along the trackbed.

A man was crossing the track bed–a man he’d never seen before. He was familiar with most everyone in the area, but this man was a stranger. . .

a stranger who walked up onto the porch of the little house that had loomed up amid the trees. The stranger walked into the front door of the house as the Christmas music grew fainter and fainter.

And, as the last notes faded, the house, and the man who had gone into it, vanished into thin air.

By now terrified half-witless, the hunter found that his car finally would start again. He hightailed it out of the woods. When he got back to town he told his tale to anyone who would listen; to his surprise, the older people remembered the old engineer, the little house he’d called home, and how, during the Christmas season, he’d insisted that anyone who came to visit must sit a spell and listen to his Christmas records with him.

Word gets around. Thirteen local boys got together, talked the matter over and decided they would go see if they could experience what the hunter had experienced. The following night,in three cars, they went out to the area he’d described, parked, and waited.

That night, by the way, was Christmas Eve.

They heard the music.

They didn’t see the strange man cross the tracks to enter the little house that seemed to rise from nowhere.

But their cars wouldn’t start until the music stopped.

They went back for a few nights after Christmas, but nothing happened on those visits.

The locals say the music can only be heard in the days leading up to Christmas.

After Christmas Day, the woods around the tracks are silent until another Christmas rolls around.

Dr. Musick collected this story in 1969, from one of the thirteen boys who went out in three cars to investigate the hunter’s story.

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