Chris Priestley is a writer, illustrator and painter. Ever since he was a teenager he has loved unsettling and creepy stories, and he hopes his own books will haunt his readers in the way other writers from Edgar Allen Poe to Ray Bradbury have haunted him. Chris's most recent books are Mister Creecher and The Dead of Winter. Here he writes about Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.
Chris Priestley on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
A Christmas Carol was read to me, when I was about eight, by a teacher. It was the 1960s and my father was serving in the British Army and we were stationed in Gibraltar. We lived in an apartment with a balcony that looked out across the Mediterranean to the Atlas mountains of Morocco. It was far removed from the Victorian London setting of A Christmas Carol with its freezing fog and dark cobbled streets, but I think it struck me all the more powerfully there, separated as I was from the snowy olde worlde Christmas I imagined back in England. It was about this time that I remember telling my teacher that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Dickens certainly played his part in that wish.
It has one of the best opening lines in literature. 'Marley was dead: to begin with.' Who would not want to carry on reading after that? It is full of wonderful descriptions: Scrooge's house looked as though 'it must have run there when it was a young house, playing hide and seek with the other houses, and forgotten the way out again.' Dickens's voice is there too - boldly, as though telling you the story personally. Scrooge is as close to the first spirit 'as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.' Yes, Dickens can be horribly sentimental and that tendency is much in evidence here, but it is also tempered by a fierce sense of injustice and a clear desire to put the frighteners on his audience.
Because A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. Or at least it is a story with ghosts. But is it scary?
Well, I remember being deliciously disturbed by Marley's Ghost, rising up from the cellar with his clanking chains. When I heard the description of that scarf being untied my heart sank as swiftly and as surely as Marley's jaw does when it drops to his chest, his mouth gaping open like a grave.
But A Christmas Carol reaches a new level of dread when it reaches the section with the silent, cowled figure of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He is often seen as Death, because he shows Scrooge his own grim and friendless end, and I am struggling to see where that black-hooded Death figure that so haunts our imagination ever appeared before A Christmas Carol.
The same can be said of the giant Ghost of Christmas Present who seems more Bacchus than Santa Claus and yet is clearly a stage on the route to the jolly, red-faced Father Christmas figure we know so well. Yet even he is not without threat, as the feral children Ignorance and Want emerge from under his robes. Children always relate to other children, and I remember finding them particularly disconcerting. I remember the spirit's words - as true now as they were when Dickens wrote them - telling Scrooge to 'beware them both' but to beware Ignorance most of all.
Dickens alerted me to social injustice. When the charity men ask him for money, Scrooge asks if the workhouses are still in operation. When they say that they are but many would rather die than go there, Scrooge replies, 'They had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.' Scrooge is not just a grumpy old rogue, he is 'hard and sharp as flint'. Dickens pulls no punches in making him bad before he redeems him. There is a lot of anger in that depiction. Scrooge still colours our vision of 'greedy bankers'.
A Christmas Carol has shaped our view of what Christmas should be, but seldom is. If we ever catch ourselves feeling guilty as we survey the pile of presents under the tree or as we tuck into that seventh turkey sandwich, it is because of Charles Dickens. He brought guilt to the feast, because we are all too aware that few of us know how to 'keep Christmas' in the way that the reformed Scrooge did in later life.
Works of fiction are often described as 'capturing the public's imagination'. Very few really do. A Christmas Carol most definitely did. And still does.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]