The most famous Christmas story, besides the Biblical one, is without a doubt A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens distilled the holiday spirit down to its essence with his tale of the miserly Scrooge who reforms his ways just in time for Christmas dinner. I love reading the actual story at Christmas, and watching my favorite* film version:
I mean, think about it: it’s a horror story, with genuinely scary ghosts (I defy anyone to not get a shudder from the Ghost of Christmas Future), a protagonist who advocates imprisoning children for debt, and its most sympathetic character (Tiny Tim) dies for lack of health insurance (okay, maybe not exactly that, but I stand by the analogy). Who puts all this in a Christmas tale?
A genius, that’s who.
Whatever his inspiration (and I’ve never researched it to find out), Dickens understood something basic about storytelling: the importance of balance. If his ultimate aim was to tell a heartwarming story for the holidays, he knew he had to even that out by adding dark, sometimes twisted elements that would balance the sweetness.
(You know who else understands this? David Lynch. In his best work–Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, even Twin Peaks–he balances the genuine affection the characters feel for one another with horrific violence and bleakness. But if there was only one element without the other, his films would be just like everyone else’s.)
How important is balance in a holiday story? Watch any Lifetime or Hallmark Christmas movie and see how insipid it is when it’s all sweetness and warmth. Without the darkness, there’s nothing to make the light stand out.
When I set out to write “A Ghost and a Chance,” one of the stories in my holiday collection Time of the Season, I had a simple conceit: I wanted to drop my own Victorian/Edwardian Spiritualist character, Sir Francis Colby, into Dickens’ tale. Since I wrote about Colby in a faux Victorian voice, I thought it would be fun to use actual text from Dickens, and see if I could hide the seams between that and my own stuff. And it was fun. But it also made me recognize just what a gigantic accomplishment Dickens had managed. He gave us both a classic Christmas tale, and a legitimate horror story. He combined two genres that shouldn’t work together at all, and made them both complement and enlarge each other.
And it takes a genius to do something like that.
Want to see if you can spot the Dickens in my story? You can find it, along with two other holiday tales, here for only $2.99!