What do you want for Christmas? How about something scary? That might seem peculiar to
holiday revelers today, but in Victorian England, the Christmas ghost story was a cherished
ritual of the season. Families would gather around the fire on Christmas Eve and listen to
terrifying tales. (Hey, it could be worse—
consider spending the festive occasion arguing with
relatives about the election results.)

Charles Dickens, for his part, may not have invented the concept, but he did more than anyone
to popularize it. His first excursion into the scary Yuletide story in chapter 28 of
Pickwick Papers
(1836) established an appealing formula—one that even the author himself
imitated seven years later with
A Christmas Carol. Yet today, long after the Christmas ghost
story has disappeared from view, only Dickens's short novel has survived to remind us
of this once flourishing sub-genre.

This mostly forgotten tradition exerted a
powerful impact on the evolution of horror
fiction. M.R. James’s
Ghost Stories of an
Antiquary (1904), one of the most popular
genre works of its era, is a compilation of
tales he read aloud to guests on Christmas
Eve.  In describing his 1898 short novel
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James noted
that "it was gruesome, as, on Christmas
Eve in an old house, a strange tale should
essentially be."  Even
H.P. Lovecraft set his
short story "The Festival" at Christmas time,
and as late as 1982 Canadian author
Robertson Davies published a collection
of ghost tales,
High Spirits, that he had
written to entertain students at an annual
Christmas party during his tenure as Master
of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

But Dickens did something even more
antiquated and charmingly out-of-date
A Christmas Carol. He managed to combine horror and sentimentality, and create a
terrifying tale that also conveyed an uplifting moral message. You won’t find that anywhere in
Poe, Lovecraft, or most other purveyors of horror fiction. Perhaps Richard Matheson came the
closest with his unclassifiable novel
What Dreams May Come, but he still couldn't capture the
wistful nostalgic tone that Dickens somehow managed to evoke in his ghost story. For better or
worse, Dickens created a type of gruesome yet beguiling narrative that no one even aspires to
write in the current day.

In many ways, Dickens was merely returning to the earliest origins of the ghost story.  The
oldest examples of these narratives are found in myths about a journey to the underworld, and
they have been told everywhere in the world. But when an ancient hero journeyed to Hades, it
was almost always for noble purposes, as part of a higher calling. In traditional societies, these
stories may have frightened some listeners, but the aim was never merely to scare. The tales
also served as sources of communal wisdom, cherished tradition and shared values. In other
words, Dickens wasn't that far removed from the shamanic belief systems and Orphic
worldview of ancient and folkloric storytellers.

Many readers nowadays probably dismiss
A Christmas Carol as too sentimental for prevailing
sensibilities and tastes. But I find both the premise and the execution compelling, and the plot
even more plausible—at least from the standpoint of individual psychology—than most of the
canonic stories in the genre. After all, wouldn't you want to learn something from any ghosts
you encountered? Wouldn't you ask questions, much like Scrooge does in these pages?
Wouldn't the experience change your life and behavior in the aftermath? Perhaps some people
would run away from a spook, but I suspect that many would follow Dickens’s lead and stay
around for a little conversation.

Yes, I like this Dickensian approach to the subject. If I
met a ghost, I’d like to benefit from the encounter. There's
a pleasing karmic balance in the notion that scary encounters
also bring with them compensating gifts. If Newton had
constructed a law of horror fiction, he would have insisted
that every frightening action inspires an equal reaction. That
is the logic of A Christmas Carol.

Is the plot of this story still familiar to most people, even those
who don’t pick up 19th century literature? Certainly the
character of Scrooge must still have a near universal name
recognition—although who know how many first encountered
the name via Donald Duck’s uncle, the stingy Scrooge McDuck?  
The name has even turned into a generic term for a
curmudgeonly miser.

Yet the name could just as easily symbolize the opposite. At the
end of this story, Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed by the visions
offered through the intermediation of his three spectral visitors. The Ghost of Christmas Past
has shown him long-forgotten scenes from Scrooge’s own youth. The Ghost of Christmas
Present has given him a glimpse the current-day misery caused by Scrooge’s cold-hearted
ways. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has revealed the circumstances of the
miser's forthcoming death, and the sorry legacy he will leave to the world. Scrooge is shaken to
his very soul by these sights, and implores the final ghost for the opportunity to alter this
looming destiny.

So why doesn't the name Scrooge signify a morally transformed person? Why is our
protagonist remembered for who he was, not what he became? Can I launch a Scrooge image
rehabilitation campaign?  Can we get him a statue or at least put his image on a Christmas

I note, in passing, that charitable donations rose in
England after the publication of Dickens’s book.
"More extensive kindness has been dispensed to
those who are in want at the present season than
at any preceding one,” announced
in 1844.  There are many examples from
other countries of readers inspired to extraordinary
acts of generosity on the basis of this short novel.  

I suspect that Dickens would have taken more pride in these socioeconomic results than in the
purely literary legacy of his work. When he founded the journal Household Words, he wrote to
Elizabeth Gaskell that its purpose was “the raising up of those that are down and the general
improvement of our social condition.” He lived up to that promise in his own work, even
courting the disapproval of those who reject or ridicule didactic fiction.  Dickens saw things
differently from them. He wanted his books to have an impact that continued long after the
readers put them back on the shelf. With regard to
A Christmas Carol, he wrote of his
audience: "May it haunt their houses pleasantly."

Perhaps the notion of a ghost who delivers revelations and second chances would fall flat in
the present day. I can’t imagine a literary agent even agreeing to read the manuscript, or
Hollywood studios bidding for film rights.  But I am convinced we could still learn something
from this old story—and I’m not talking about how to scare youngsters around a fire on
Christmas Eve. Maybe you should even buy a few copies and give them (as Christmas gifts, of
course!) to the Scrooges in your life.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: December 23, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood

Week 38
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

Week 39
The Other
by Thomas Tryon

Week 40
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

Week 41
Ghost Story
by Peter Straub

Week 42
John Dies at the End
by David Wong

Week 43
The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Week 44
The Cipher
by Kathe Koja

Week 45
Let the Right One In
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Week 46
The Nameless
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 47
by Grady Hendrix

Week 48
by Taichi Yamada

Week 49
World War Z
by Max Brooks

Week 50
Jurassic Park
by Michael Crichton

Week 51
Heart-Shaped Box
by Joe Hill

Week 52
A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

Charles Dickens and
the Christmas Ghost Story
Essay by Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.

All rights reserved.
Title page of the first edition of A Christmas Carol
I note that charitable
rose in England
the publication of
Dickens's book