The thing about the Christmas season that I enjoy the most is that out of any other time of the year it is the most backwards looking. There is no other time of the year (at least for Americans) outside of extremely regional cultural heritage festivals and perhaps Easter that things from yesteryear are brought back into the public consciousness and it actually be paid attention to in such a big mainstream manner. Classic film, swing jazz and big band, Old Hollywood glamor, ballet and all things “antique” or vintage and Victorian frilled are suddenly very important for 5 or so weeks and onto New Years. Suburban homogeneity is punctured with yesterday or even the ghosts of suburbia past come to visit just the same.
The sheer paganism of the traditional customs, decorations and foods of the season is enough to send my heart a flutter but the season’s various “styles” of nostalgia; Colonial, Victorian, 1920’s and 30’s Christmas and 50’s-60’s Christmas and now 80’s and 90’s era “Age of Nintendo” type nostalgia provide a “pick your yesteryear” type of holiday.
One of my favorite types of Christmas, which is common in Britain and the UK but not so prevalent in the warm and fuzzy “Santa Claused” (since the 1930s) USA, is the “Gothic” side of Victorian Christmas traditions. A Christmas Carol ring a bell? Unlike the US where Halloween is the season for ghosts and spirits and telling spooky tales; Christmas is actually the “time to scare” and Victorian Christmasases with their obsession with the supernatural often had lots of fortune telling parties (pouring hot lead into kettles of water to tell fortunes) and ghost stories among other little things amidst their Christmas party frivolity.
In the spirit of all things “sort of” creepy and the macabre and charming I will be offering three great “antique” reads still published by NYRB in case you have some hankering for things a bit less sweet;
A Schoolboy’s Diary by Robert Walser
That quirky, aloof and contemplative charm and degree of weaves in and out through most of the works; particularly the opening pieces “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”; a collected handful of essays written by a fictional and unfortunately deceased school-boy named Fritz Kocher. A personal favorite from Fritz; “From The Imagination” hits all of my personal buttons when it comes to good fiction. A very unique writer and while not “scary” his prose is beautiful quirky and contemplative enough to warrant a reading by the Christmas tree with a cup of tea.
The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf
His story delves into a tale of the area where long ago poor and desperate villagers, tormented and tortured by their local baron, a former Teutonic Knight, are tempted by the Devil to help complete the impossible tasks the baron has ordered of them. There is, of course, a catch; a unbaptized baby (what else?). The villagers; including all the men flee and run from the offer. All but one, a farmer’s wife named Christine stands up to the Devil and considers the offer if only to save them all. She makes the deal with a kiss upon her cheek; but as the villagers have babies and instantly baptize them; a a mark in the shape of a spider starts to appear where the kiss was planted upon her cheek. Then come the spiders. Forewarning; heavy Christian symbolism and it’s not terribly feminist though I do think this story and the actions of the main character, Christine could again with a bit of a revisionist feminist stance and re-write could really transform this old parable. But it’s still worth reading if you enjoy some creepy crawly action.
Autobiography of A Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Russian short stories. If that doesn’t prepare you in knowing it’s going to be strange then I’m not sure I can adequately prepare you. Magical realism meets surrealism dunked in the special Eastern European sensibility and aesthetic and a heavy dollop of “SCIENCE! PHILOSOPHY! MATH!” sour cream; the fingers of an acclaimed pianist’s hand decides to bolt and spend the night roaming the city, a story about a man whose lifelong dream is to bite his own elbow, stories about eccentric mathematicians and fairytales about cracks, The Land of Nots. The whole kitchen sink (well not really but that’s what it feels like)
What makes these gleefully macabre and matter-of-fact is the precise delivery of Sigizmund’s prose. It’s eccentricity and sense of self really shines through. I can’t say recommend it enough for a fun, but in a very literate manner.
Short, sweet, wonderful prose for stockings that like a little bit of bite. Check them out!
Have a GREAT holiday!