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In praise of - winter ghost stories.

"His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw," wrote Dickens in his 1866 short story The Signalman, about a railway worker who works night shifts in a haunted cutting.

"On either side, a dripping wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of the great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air."

The hulking, dank walls, the gloom, the deep atavistic fear of the silent black tunnel: The Signalman has all the elements of a good chiller and was published in the depths of winter as part of the author's Mugby Junction series of Christmas stories. Dickens knew that there was no better time of year to coax even the most unwilling imagination to give itself over to supernatural fancies (though he himself was a sceptic). His most famous ghost story may have been A Christmas Carol (1843), but he wrote about the supernatural many times, with several stories, including The Chimes and The Story of the Goblins Who Stole A Sexton, published at Christmas or dealing with a festive theme. The author MR James, writing between 1904 and 1928, continued the tradition by reading his own creepy compositions to friends on Christmas Eve.

The association of ghosts with the festive season is well established in Norway where in folk tradition, the ghosts of one's ancestors visit during the Christmas season and must be appeased with food and comfortable bedding. It shouldn't be surprising. In northern climes where winter twilight falls mid-afternoon and winter storms can cause havoc in hours, the season connects us to elemental fears, of the dark and of forces far more powerful than ourselves. So there's no better time to settle in an armchair and read a spooky story.

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