Punch and Judy from the Royal Museums

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance by M.R. James

It’s not every author who gets two kicks at the can in our advent collection of Christmas Ghost Stories, but M.R. James is a special case. Indeed, he, more even than Dickens, popularized the phenomenon of the Christmas ghost story, and he wrote some real creepers, as we’ve seen from the previously-featured Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. In fact, compared to Dickens, whom I find unspooky and quaint, he’s practically Lucio Fulci with his quotidian ash trees and crumpled linens transformed suddenly and irrevocably into things of horror.

I won’t walk under an ash tree, even now. Thank god I live in the piney wastes, eh?

This, The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance, is truly one of his most memorable, even if one can never remember the damn title. And one of his most seasonal, too, as it not only takes place over Christmas, but also features a Punch and Judy show.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Punch and Judy show, but they’re hella creepy. I don’t know who first put those things together and thought that would be a suitable entertainment for children, but a) they clearly hated children b) I guess the history of LSD goes back farther than we expected.

Oh, and since we were out late with family yesterday and skipped posting a story then, we’ll get you a bonus story before midnight. And then, tomorrow, The Big One You’ve All Been Waiting For! Which isn’t A Christmas Carol. It’s better, I promise.


The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance
by M.R. James

Punch and Judy from the Royal Museums

Punch and Judy from the Royal Museums

The letters which I now publish were sent to me recently by a person who knows me to be interested in ghost stories. There is no doubt about their authenticity. The paper on which they are written, the ink, and the whole external aspect put their date beyond the reach of question.

The only point which they do not make clear is the identity of the writer. He signs with initials only, and as none of the envelopes of the letters are preserved, the surname of his correspondent—obviously a married brother—is as obscure as his own. No further preliminary explanation is needed, I think. Luckily the first letter supplies all that could be expected.

LETTER I

Great Chrishall, Dec. 22, 1837.
My Dear Robert,—It is with great regret for the enjoyment I am losing, and for a reason which you will deplore equally with myself, that I write to inform you that I am unable to join your circle for this Christmas: but you will agree with me that it is unavoidable when I say that I have within these few hours received a letter from Mrs. Hunt at B——, to the effect that our Uncle Henry has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared, and begging me to go down there immediately and join the search that is being made for him. Little as I, or you either, I think, have ever seen of Uncle, I naturally feel that this is not a request that can be regarded lightly, and accordingly I propose to go to B—— by this afternoon’s mail, reaching it late in the evening. I shall not go to the Rectory, but put up at the King’s Head, and to which you may address letters. I enclose a small draft, which you will please make use of for the benefit of the young people. I shall write you daily (supposing me to be detained more than a single day) what goes on, and you may be sure, should the business be cleared up in time to permit of my coming to the Manor after all, I shall present myself. I have but a few minutes at disposal. With cordial greetings to you all, and many regrets, believe me, your affectionate Bro.,

W. R.

LETTER II

King’s Head, Dec. 23, ’37.
My Dear Robert,—In the first place, there is as yet no news of Uncle H., and I think you may finally dismiss any idea—I won’t say hope—that I might after all “turn up” for Xmas. However, my thoughts will be with you, and you have my best wishes for a really festive day. Mind that none of my nephews or nieces expend any fraction of their guineas on presents for me.

Since I got here I have been blaming myself for taking this affair of Uncle H. too easily. From what people here say, I gather that there is very little hope that he can still be alive; but whether it is accident or design that carried him off I cannot judge. The facts are these. On Friday the 19th, he went as usual shortly before five o’clock to read evening prayers at the Church; and when they were over the clerk brought him a message, in response to which he set off to pay a visit to a sick person at an outlying cottage the better part of two miles away. He paid the visit, and started on his return journey at about half-past six. This is the last that is known of him. The people here are very much grieved at his loss; he had been here many years, as you know, and though, as you also know, he was not the most genial of men, and had more than a little of the martinet in his composition, he seems to have been active in good works, and unsparing of trouble to himself.

Poor Mrs. Hunt, who has been his housekeeper ever since she left Woodley, is quite overcome: it seems like the end of the world to her. I am glad that I did not entertain the idea of taking quarters at the Rectory; and I have declined several kindly offers of hospitality from people in the place, preferring as I do to be independent, and finding myself very comfortable here.

You will, of course, wish to know what has been done in the way of inquiry and search. First, nothing was to be expected from investigation at the Rectory; and to be brief, nothing has transpired. I asked Mrs. Hunt—as others had done before—whether there was either any unfavourable symptom in her master such as might portend a sudden stroke, or attack of illness, or whether he had ever had reason to apprehend any such thing: but both she, and also his medical man, were clear that this was not the case. He was quite in his usual health. In the second place, naturally, ponds and streams have been dragged, and fields in the neighbourhood which he is known to have visited last, have been searched—without result. I have myself talked to the parish clerk and—more important—have been to the house where he paid his visit.

There can be no question of any foul play on these people’s part. The one man in the house is ill in bed and very weak: the wife and the children of course could do nothing themselves, nor is there the shadow of a probability that they or any of them should have agreed to decoy poor Uncle H. out in order that he might be attacked on the way back. They had told what they knew to several other inquirers already, but the woman repeated it to me. The Rector was looking just as usual: he wasn’t very long with the sick man—”He ain’t,” she said, “like some what has a gift in prayer; but there, if we was all that way, ‘owever would the chapel people get their living?” He left some money when he went away, and one of the children saw him cross the stile into the next field. He was dressed as he always was: wore his bands—I gather he is nearly the last man remaining who does so—at any rate in this district.

You see I am putting down everything. The fact is that I have nothing else to do, having brought no business papers with me; and, moreover, it serves to clear my own mind, and may suggest points which have been overlooked. So I shall continue to write all that passes, even to conversations if need be—you may read or not as you please, but pray keep the letters. I have another reason for writing so fully, but it is not a very tangible one.

You may ask if I have myself made any search in the fields near the cottage. Something—a good deal—has been done by others, as I mentioned; but I hope to go over the ground to-morrow. Bow Street has now been informed, and will send down by to-night’s coach, but I do not think they will make much of the job. There is no snow, which might have helped us. The fields are all grass. Of course I was on the qui vive for any indication to-day both going and returning; but there was a thick mist on the way back, and I was not in trim for wandering about unknown pastures, especially on an evening when bushes looked like men, and a cow lowing in the distance might have been the last trump. I assure you, if Uncle Henry had stepped out from among the trees in a little copse which borders the path at one place, carrying his head under his arm, I should have been very little more uncomfortable than I was. To tell you the truth, I was rather expecting something of the kind. But I must drop my pen for the moment: Mr. Lucas, the curate, is announced.

Later. Mr. Lucas has been, and gone, and there is not much beyond the decencies of ordinary sentiment to be got from him. I can see that he has given up any idea that the Rector can be alive, and that, so far as he can be, he is truly sorry. I can also discern that even in a more emotional person than Mr. Lucas, Uncle Henry was not likely to inspire strong attachment.

Besides Mr. Lucas, I have had another visitor in the shape of my Boniface—mine host of the “King’s Head”—who came to see whether I had everything I wished, and who really requires the pen of a Boz to do him justice. He was very solemn and weighty at first. “Well, sir,” he said, “I suppose we must bow our ‘ead beneath the blow, as my poor wife had used to say. So far as I can gather there’s been neither hide nor yet hair of our late respected incumbent scented out as yet; not that he was what the Scripture terms a hairy man in any sense of the word.”

I said—as well as I could—that I supposed not, but could not help adding that I had heard he was sometimes a little difficult to deal with. Mr. Bowman looked at me sharply for a moment, and then passed in a flash from solemn sympathy to impassioned declamation. “When I think,” he said, “of the language that man see fit to employ to me in this here parlour over no more a matter than a cask of beer—such a thing as I told him might happen any day of the week to a man with a family—though as it turned out he was quite under a mistake, and that I knew at the time, only I was that shocked to hear him I couldn’t lay my tongue to the right expression.”

He stopped abruptly and eyed me with some embarrassment. I only said, “Dear me, I’m sorry to hear you had any little differences: I suppose my uncle will be a good deal missed in the parish?” Mr. Bowman drew a long breath. “Ah, yes!” he said; “your uncle! You’ll understand me when I say that for the moment it had slipped my remembrance that he was a relative; and natural enough, I must say, as it should, for as to you bearing any resemblance to—to him, the notion of any such a thing is clean ridiculous. All the same, ‘ad I ‘ave bore it in my mind, you’ll be among the first to feel, I’m sure, as I should have abstained my lips, or rather I should not have abstained my lips with no such reflections.”

I assured him that I quite understood, and was going to have asked him some further questions, but he was called away to see after some business. By the way, you need not take it into your head that he has anything to fear from the inquiry into poor Uncle Henry’s disappearance—though, no doubt, in the watches of the night it will occur to him that I think he has, and I may expect explanations to-morrow.

I must close this letter: it has to go by the late coach.

LETTER III

Dec. 25, ’37.
My Dear Robert,—This is a curious letter to be writing on Christmas Day, and yet after all there is nothing much in it. Or there may be—you shall be the judge. At least, nothing decisive. The Bow Street men practically say that they have no clue. The length of time and the weather conditions have made all tracks so faint as to be quite useless: nothing that belonged to the dead man—I’m afraid no other word will do—has been picked up.

As I expected, Mr. Bowman was uneasy in his mind this morning; quite early I heard him holding forth in a very distinct voice—purposely so, I thought—to the Bow Street officers in the bar, as to the loss that the town had sustained in their Rector, and as to the necessity of leaving no stone unturned (he was very great on this phrase) in order to come at the truth. I suspect him of being an orator of repute at convivial meetings.

When I was at breakfast he came to wait on me, and took an opportunity when handing a muffin to say in a low tone, “I ‘ope, sir, you reconize as my feelings towards your relative is not actuated by any taint of what you may call melignity—you can leave the room, Elizar, I will see the gentleman ‘as all he requires with my own hands—I ask your pardon, sir, but you must be well aware a man is not always master of himself: and when that man has been ‘urt in his mind by the application of expressions which I will go so far as to say ‘ad not ought to have been made use of (his voice was rising all this time and his face growing redder); no, sir; and ‘ere, if you will permit of it, I should like to explain to you in a very few words the exact state of the bone of contention. This cask—I might more truly call it a firkin—of beer——”

I felt it was time to interpose, and said that I did not see that it would help us very much to go into that matter in detail. Mr. Bowman acquiesced, and resumed more calmly:

“Well, sir, I bow to your ruling, and as you say, be that here or be it there, it don’t contribute a great deal, perhaps, to the present question. All I wish you to understand is that I am as prepared as you are yourself to lend every hand to the business we have afore us, and—as I took the opportunity to say as much to the Orficers not three-quarters of an hour ago—to leave no stone unturned as may throw even a spark of light on this painful matter.”

In fact, Mr. Bowman did accompany us on our exploration, but though I am sure his genuine wish was to be helpful, I am afraid he did not contribute to the serious side of it. He appeared to be under the impression that we were likely to meet either Uncle Henry or the person responsible for his disappearance, walking about the fields, and did a great deal of shading his eyes with his hand and calling our attention, by pointing with his stick, to distant cattle and labourers. He held several long conversations with old women whom we met, and was very strict and severe in his manner, but on each occasion returned to our party saying, “Well, I find she don’t seem to ‘ave no connexion with this sad affair. I think you may take it from me, sir, as there’s little or no light to be looked for from that quarter; not without she’s keeping somethink back intentional.”

We gained no appreciable result, as I told you at starting; the Bow Street men have left the town, whether for London or not I am not sure.

This evening I had company in the shape of a bagman, a smartish fellow. He knew what was going forward, but though he has been on the roads for some days about here, he had nothing to tell of suspicious characters—tramps, wandering sailors or gipsies. He was very full of a capital Punch and Judy Show he had seen this same day at W——, and asked if it had been here yet, and advised me by no means to miss it if it does come. The best Punch and the best Toby dog, he said, he had ever come across. Toby dogs, you know, are the last new thing in the shows. I have only seen one myself, but before long all the men will have them.

Now why, you will want to know, do I trouble to write all this to you? I am obliged to do it, because it has something to do with another absurd trifle (as you will inevitably say), which in my present state of rather unquiet fancy—nothing more, perhaps—I have to put down. It is a dream, sir, which I am going to record, and I must say it is one of the oddest I have had. Is there anything in it beyond what the bagman’s talk and Uncle Henry’s disappearance could have suggested? You, I repeat, shall judge: I am not in a sufficiently cool and judicial frame to do so.

It began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether indoors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light. I was “strung up” to a high degree of expectation and looked every moment to hear the pan-pipes and the Roo-too-too-it. Instead of that there came suddenly an enormous—I can use no other word—an enormous single toll of a bell, I don’t know from how far off—somewhere behind. The little curtain flew up and the drama began.

I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face—it was yellowish white, I may remark—peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch. To others he was polite and carneying—particularly to the unfortunate alien who can only say Shallabalah—though what Punch said I never could catch. But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the footboard and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the usual house front, but something more ambitious—a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural—in fact, I should say a real—moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head—what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch, who still sat back to it; and by this time, I may remark (though it did not occur to me at the moment) that all pretence of this being a puppet show had vanished. Punch was still Punch, it is true, but, like the others, was in some sense a live creature, and both moved themselves at their own will.

When I next glanced at him he was sitting in malignant reflection; but in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near. Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with a whitish bag.

The chase which now began lasted I do not know how long, now among the trees, now along the slope of the field, sometimes both figures disappearing wholly for a few seconds, and only some uncertain sounds letting one know that they were still afoot. At length there came a moment when Punch, evidently exhausted, staggered in from the left and threw himself down among the trees. His pursuer was not long after him, and came looking uncertainly from side to side. Then, catching sight of the figure on the ground, he too threw himself down—his back was turned to the audience—with a swift motion twitched the covering from his head, and thrust his face into that of Punch. Everything on the instant grew dark.

There was one long, loud, shuddering scream, and I awoke to find myself looking straight into the face of—what in all the world do you think? but—a large owl, which was seated on my window-sill immediately opposite my bed-foot, holding up its wings like two shrouded arms. I caught the fierce glance of its yellow eyes, and then it was gone. I heard the single enormous bell again—very likely, as you are saying to yourself, the church clock; but I do not think so—and then I was broad awake.

All this, I may say, happened within the last half-hour. There was no probability of my getting to sleep again, so I got up, put on clothes enough to keep me warm, and am writing this rigmarole in the first hours of Christmas Day. Have I left out anything? Yes; there was no Toby dog, and the names over the front of the Punch and Judy booth were Kidman and Gallop, which were certainly not what the bagman told me to look out for.
By this time, I feel a little more as if I could sleep, so this shall be sealed and wafered.

LETTER IV

Dec. 26, ’37.
My Dear Robert,—All is over. The body has been found. I do not make excuses for not having sent off my news by last night’s mail, for the simple reason that I was incapable of putting pen to paper. The events that attended the discovery bewildered me so completely that I needed what I could get of a night’s rest to enable me to face the situation at all. Now I can give you my journal of the day, certainly the strangest Christmas Day that ever I spent or am likely to spend.

The first incident was not very serious. Mr. Bowman had, I think, been keeping Christmas Eve, and was a little inclined to be captious: at least, he was not on foot very early, and to judge from what I could hear, neither men or maids could do anything to please him. The latter were certainly reduced to tears; nor am I sure that Mr. Bowman succeeded in preserving a manly composure. At any rate, when I came downstairs, it was in a broken voice that he wished me the compliments of the season, and a little later on, when he paid his visit of ceremony at breakfast, he was far from cheerful: even Byronic, I might almost say, in his outlook on life.

“I don’t know,” he said, “if you think with me, sir; but every Christmas as comes round the world seems a hollerer thing to me. Why, take an example now from what lays under my own eye. There’s my servant Eliza—been with me now for going on fifteen years. I thought I could have placed my confidence in Elizar, and yet this very morning—Christmas morning too, of all the blessed days in the year—with the bells a ringing and—and—all like that—I say, this very morning, had it not have been for Providence watching over us all, that girl would have put—indeed I may go so far to say, ‘ad put the cheese on your breakfast-table——” He saw I was about to speak, and waved his hand at me. “It’s all very well for you to say, ‘Yes, Mr. Bowman, but you took away the cheese and locked it up in the cupboard,’ which I did, and have the key here, or if not the actual key, one very much about the same size. That’s true enough, sir, but what do you think is the effect of that action on me? Why, it’s no exaggeration for me to say that the ground is cut from under my feet. And yet when I said as much to Eliza, not nasty, mind you, but just firm-like, what was my return? ‘Oh,’ she says: ‘well,’ she says, ‘there wasn’t no bones broke, I suppose.’ Well, sir, it ‘urt me, that’s all I can say: it ‘urt me, and I don’t like to think of it now.”

There was an ominous pause here, in which I ventured to say something like, “Yes, very trying,” and then asked at what hour the church service was to be. “Eleven o’clock,” Mr. Bowman said with a heavy sigh. “Ah, you won’t have no such discourse from poor Mr. Lucas as what you would have done from our late Rector. Him and me may have had our little differences, and did do, more’s the pity.”

I could see that a powerful effort was needed to keep him off the vexed question of the cask of beer, but he made it. “But I will say this, that a better preacher, nor yet one to stand faster by his rights, or what he considered to be his rights—however, that’s not the question now—I for one, never set under. Some might say, ‘Was he a eloquent man?’ and to that my answer would be: ‘Well, there you’ve a better right per’aps to speak of your own uncle than what I have.’ Others might ask, ‘Did he keep a hold of his congregation?’ and there again I should reply, ‘That depends.’ But as I say—yes, Eliza, my girl, I’m coming—eleven o’clock, sir, and you inquire for the King’s Head pew.” I believe Eliza had been very near the door, and shall consider it in my vail.

The next episode was church: I felt Mr. Lucas had a difficult task in doing justice to Christmas sentiments, and also to the feeling of disquiet and regret which, whatever Mr. Bowman might say, was clearly prevalent. I do not think he rose to the occasion. I was uncomfortable. The organ wolved—you know what I mean: the wind died—twice in the Christmas Hymn, and the tenor bell, I suppose owing to some negligence on the part of the ringers, kept sounding faintly about once in a minute during the sermon. The clerk sent up a man to see to it, but he seemed unable to do much. I was glad when it was over. There was an odd incident, too, before the service. I went in rather early, and came upon two men carrying the parish bier back to its place under the tower. From what I overheard them saying, it appeared that it had been put out by mistake, by someone who was not there. I also saw the clerk busy folding up a moth-eaten velvet pall—not a sight for Christmas Day.

I dined soon after this, and then, feeling disinclined to go out, took my seat by the fire in the parlour, with the last number of Pickwick, which I had been saving up for some days. I thought I could be sure of keeping awake over this, but I turned out as bad as our friend Smith. I suppose it was half-past two when I was roused by a piercing whistle and laughing and talking voices outside in the market-place. It was a Punch and Judy—I had no doubt the one that my bagman had seen at W——. I was half delighted, half not—the latter because my unpleasant dream came back to me so vividly; but, anyhow, I determined to see it through, and I sent Eliza out with a crown-piece to the performers and a request that they would face my window if they could manage it.

The show was a very smart new one; the names of the proprietors, I need hardly tell you, were Italian, Foresta and Calpigi. The Toby dog was there, as I had been led to expect. All B—— turned out, but did not obstruct my view, for I was at the large first-floor window and not ten yards away.

The play began on the stroke of a quarter to three by the church clock. Certainly it was very good; and I was soon relieved to find that the disgust my dream had given me for Punch’s onslaughts on his ill-starred visitors was only transient. I laughed at the demise of the Turncock, the Foreigner, the Beadle, and even the baby. The only drawback was the Toby dog’s developing a tendency to howl in the wrong place. Something had occurred, I suppose, to upset him, and something considerable: for, I forget exactly at what point, he gave a most lamentable cry, leapt off the footboard, and shot away across the market-place and down a side street. There was a stage-wait, but only a brief one. I suppose the men decided that it was no good going after him, and that he was likely to turn up again at night.

We went on. Punch dealt faithfully with Judy, and in fact with all comers; and then came the moment when the gallows was erected, and the great scene with Mr. Ketch was to be enacted. It was now that something happened of which I can certainly not yet see the import fully. You have witnessed an execution, and know what the criminal’s head looks like with the cap on. If you are like me, you never wish to think of it again, and I do not willingly remind you of it. It was just such a head as that, that I, from my somewhat higher post, saw in the inside of the showbox ; but at first the audience did not see it. I expected it to emerge into their view, but instead of that there slowly rose for a few seconds an uncovered face, with an expression of terror upon it, of which I have never imagined the like. It seemed as if the man, whoever he was, was being forcibly lifted, with his arms somehow pinioned or held back, towards the little gibbet on the stage. I could just see the nightcapped head behind him. Then there was a cry and a crash. The whole showbox fell over backwards; kicking legs were seen among the ruins, and then two figures—as some said; I can only answer for one—were visible running at top speed across the square and disappearing in a lane which leads to the fields.

Of course everybody gave chase. I followed; but the pace was killing, and very few were in, literally, at the death. It happened in a chalk pit: the man went over the edge quite blindly and broke his neck. They searched everywhere for the other, until it occurred to me to ask whether he had ever left the market-place. At first everyone was sure that he had; but when we came to look, he was there, under the showbox, dead too.

But in the chalk pit it was that poor Uncle Henry’s body was found, with a sack over the head, the throat horribly mangled. It was a peaked corner of the sack sticking out of the soil that attracted attention. I cannot bring myself to write in greater detail.

I forgot to say the men’s real names were Kidman and Gallop. I feel sure I have heard them, but no one here seems to know anything about them.

I am coming to you as soon as I can after the funeral. I must tell you when we meet what I think of it all.

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A Christmas Ghost

Christmas Ghost Stories: Smee, by A.M. Burrage

I’ve always wanted to be invited to a big, rambling, haunted, rich (important, for the upkeep. I am very expensive to keep up) English country house for Christmas holidays. Since I don’t actually, you know, live in England, or know many English people and only one that had a house anywhere approaching my requirements, I shall probably end up having to purchase my own.

Hope the cheque clears. Christmas is a time of miracles, isn’t it?

Anyhoodle, in the spirit of grand English country estates and grand English country house parties, here’s a grand example: Smee, by A. M. Burrage, one of the most goosepimpling of stories, and a classic example of the scorpion sting in the tail. At first, it’s all jolly yuletide and hail wassail, but then a hint, just a hint, of something unfresh seeps in. It grows and grows, while you’re still not sure it is any Thing at all. And then…ah, but that would be telling! You’ll never play hide and seek again without thinking about this story, I’d lay odds on it.

Enjoy one of the most famous of all Christmas ghost stories, a good old-fashioned country house creeper!


Smee
by A.M. Burrage

A Christmas Ghost

A Christmas Ghost

No,’ said Jackson with a shy little smile. `I’m sorry. I won’t play hide and seek.’

It was Christmas Eve, and there were fourteen of us in the house. We had had a good dinner, and we were all in the mood for fun and games – all, that is, except Jackson. When somebody suggested hide and seek, there were loud shouts of agreement. Jackson’s refusal was the only one.

It was not like Jackson to refuse to play a game. `Aren’t you feeling well?’ someone asked.

`I’m perfectly all right, thank you,’ he said. `But,’ he added with a smile that softened his refusal but did not change it, `I’m still not playing hide and seek.’

`Why not?’ someone asked. He hesitated for a moment before replying.

`I sometimes go and stay at a house where a girl was killed. She was playing hide and seek in the dark. She didn’t know the house very well. There was a door that led to the servants’ staircase. When she was chased, she thought the door led to a bedroom. She opened the door and jumped – and landed at the bottom of the stairs. She broke her neck, of course.’

We all looked serious. Mrs Fernley said, `How terrible! And were you there when it happened?’

Jackson shook his head sadly. `No,’ he said, `but I was there when something else happened. Something worse.’

`What could be worse than that?’

`This was,’ said Jackson. He hesitated for a moment, then he said, `I wonder if any of you have ever played a game called “Smee”. It’s much better than hide and seek. The name comes from “It’s me”, of course. Perhaps you’d like to play it instead of hide and seek. Let me tell you the rules of the game.

`Every player is given a sheet of paper. All the sheets except one are blank. On the last sheet of paper is written “Smee”. Nobody knows who “Smee” is except “Smee” himself – or herself. You turn out the lights, and “Smee” goes quietly out of the room and hides. After a time the others go off to search for “Smee” – but of course they don’t know who they are looking for. When one player meets another he challenges him by saying, “Smee”. The other player answers “Smee”, and they continue searching.

`But the real “Smee” doesn’t answer when someone challenges. The second player stays quietly beside him. Presently they will be discovered by a third player. He will challenge and receive no answer, and he will join the first two. This goes on until all the players are in the same place. The last one to find “Smee” has to pay a forfeit. It’s a good, noisy, amusing game. In a big house it often takes a long time for everyone to find “Smee”. Perhaps you’d like to try. I’ll happily pay my forfeit and sit here by the fire while you play.’

`It sounds a good game,’ I remarked. `Have you played it too, Jackson?’

`Yes,’ he answered. `I played it in the house that I was telling you about.’

`And she was there? The girl who broke – .’

`No, no,’ said someone else. `He told us he wasn’t there when she broke her neck.’

Jackson thought for a moment. `I don’t know if she was there or not. I’m afraid she was. I know that there were thirteen of us playing the game, and there were only twelve people in the house. And I didn’t know the dead girl’s name. When I heard that whispered name in the dark, it didn’t worry me. But I tell you, I’m never going to play that kind of game again. It made me quite nervous for a long time.

I prefer to pay my forfeit at once!’

We all stared at him. His words did not make sense at all.

Tim Vouce was the kindest man in the world. He smiled at us all.

`This sounds like an interesting story,’ he said. `Come on, Jackson, you can tell it to us instead of paying a forfeit.’

`Very well,’ said Jackson. And here is his story.

Have you met the Sangstons? They are cousins of mine, and they live in Surrey. Five years ago they invited me to go and spend Christmas with them.
It was an old house, with lots of unnecessary passages and staircases. A stranger could get lost in it quite easily.

Well, I went down for that Christmas. Violet Sangston promised me that I knew most of the other guests. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get away from my job until Christmas Eve. All the other guests had arrived there the previous day. I was the last to arrive, and I was only just in time for dinner. I said `Hullo’ to everyone I knew, and Violet Sangston introduced me to the people I didn’t know. Then it was time to go in to dinner.

That is perhaps why I didn’t hear the name of a tall, darkhaired handsome girl whom I hadn’t met before. Everyone was in rather a hurry and I am always bad at catching people’s names. She looked cold and clever. She didn’t look at all friendly, but she looked interesting, and I wondered who she was. I didn’t ask, because I was sure that someone would speak to her by name during the meal. Unluckily, however, I was a long way from her at table. I was sitting next to Mrs Gorman, and as usual Mrs Gorman was being very bright and amusing. Her conversation is always worth listening to, and I completely forgot to ask the name of the dark, proud girl.

There were twelve of us, including the Sangstons themselves. We were all young – or trying to be young. Jack and Violet Sangston were the oldest, and their seventeen-yearold son Reggie was the youngest. It was Reggie who suggested `Smee’ when the talk turned to games. He told us the rules of the game, just as I’ve described them to you. Jack Sangston warned us all. `If you are going to play games in the dark,’ he said, `please be careful of the back stairs on the first floor. A door leads to them, and I’ve often thought about taking the door off. In the dark a stranger to the house could think they were walking into a room. A girl really did break her neck on those stairs.’

I asked how it happened.

`It was about ten years ago, before we came here. There was a party and they were playing hide and seek. This girl was looking for somewhere to hide. She heard somebody coming, and ran along the passage to get away. She opened the door, thinking it led to a bedroom. She planned to hide in there until the seeker had gone. Unfortunately it was the door that led to the back stairs. She fell straight down to the bottom of the stairs. She was dead when they picked her up.’

We all promised to be careful. Mrs Gorman even made a little joke about living to be ninety. You see, none of us had known the poor girl, and we did not want to feel sad on Christmas Eve.

Well, we all started the game immediately after dinner. Young Reggie Sangston went round making sure all the lights were off, except the ones in the servants’ rooms and in the sitting-room where we were. We then prepared twelve sheets of paper. Eleven of them were blank, and one of them had `Smee’ written on it. Reggie mixed them all up, then we each took one.

The person who got the paper with `Smee’ on it had to hide. I looked at mine and saw that it was blank. A moment later, all the electric lights went out. In the darkness I heard someone moving very quietly to the door.

After a minute somebody blew a whistle, and we all rushed to the door. I had no idea who was `Smee’. For five or ten minutes we were all rushing up and down passages and in and out of rooms, challenging each other and answering, `Smee? – Smee!’ .

After a while, the noise died down, and I guessed that someone had found `Smee’. After a time I found a group of people all sitting on some narrow stairs. I challenged, and received no answer. So `Smee’ was there. I hurriedly joined the group. Presently two more players arrived. Each one was hurrying to avoid being last. Jack Sangston was last, and was given a forfeit.

`I think we’re all here now, aren’t we?’ he remarked. He lit a match, looked up the staircase and began to count.

. . . Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen,’ he said, and then laughed. `That’s silly – there’s one too many!’

The match went out, and he lit another and began to count. He got as far as twelve, then he looked puzzled.

`There are thirteen people here!’ he said. `I haven’t counted myself yet.’

`Oh, nonsense!’ I laughed. `You probably began with yourself, and now you want to count yourself twice.’

His son took out his electric torch. It gave a better light than the matches, and we all began to count. Of course there were twelve of us. Jack laughed. `Well,’ he said, `I was sure I counted thirteen twice.’

From half way up the stairs Violet Sangston spoke nervously. `I thought there was somebody sitting two steps above me. Have you moved, Captain Ransome?’
The captain said that he hadn’t. `But I thought there was somebody sitting between Mrs Sangston and me.’

Just for a moment there was an uncomfortable something in the air. A cold finger seemed to touch us all. For that moment we all felt that something odd and unpleasant had just happened – and was likely to happen again. Then we laughed at ourselves, and at each other, and we felt normal again. There were only twelve of us, and that was that. Still laughing, we marched back to the sitting-room to begin again.

This time I was `Smee’. Violet Sangston found me while I was searching for a hiding-place. That game didn’t last long. Soon there were twelve people and the game was over. Violet felt cold, and wanted her jacket. Her husband went up to their bedroom to fetch it. As soon as he’d gone, Reggie touched me on the arm. He was looking pale and sick. `Quick!’ he whispered, `I’ve got to talk to you. Something horrible has happened.’

We went into the breakfast-room. `What’s the matter?’ I asked.

`I don’t know. You were “Smee” last time, weren’t you? Well, of course I didn’t know who “Smee” was. While Mother and the others ran to the west side of the house and found you, I went east. There’s a deep clothes cupboard in my bedroom. It looked like a good hiding-place. I thought that perhaps “Smee” might be there. I opened the door in the dark – and touched somebody’s hand. “Smee?” I whispered. There was no answer. I thought I’d found “Smee”.

`Well, I don’t understand it, but I suddenly had a strange, cold feeling. I can’t describe it, but I felt that something was wrong. So I turned on my electric torch and there was nobody there.

Now, I am sure I touched a hand. And nobody could get out of the cupboard, because I was standing in the doorway. What do you think?’

`You imagined that you touched a hand,’ I said.

He gave a short laugh. `I knew you would say that,’ he said. `Of course I imagined it. That’s the only explanation, isn’t it?’

I agreed with him. I could see that he still felt shaken. Together we returned to the sitting-room for another game of `Smee’. The others were all ready and waiting to start again.

Perhaps it was my imagination (although I’m almost sure that it was not). But I had a feeling that nobody was really enjoying the game any more. But everyone was too polite to mention it. All the same, I had the feeling that something was wrong. All the fun had gone out of the game. Something deep inside me was trying to warn me. `Take care,’ it whispered. `Take care’. There was some unnatural, unhealthy influence at work in the house. Why did I have this feeling? Because Jack Sangston had counted thirteen people instead of twelve? Because his son imagined he had touched someone’s hand in an empty cupboard? I tried to laugh at myself, but I did not succeed.

Well, we started again. While we were all chasing the unknown `Smee’ we were all as noisy as ever. But it seemed to me that most of us were just acting. We were no longer enjoying the game. At first I stayed with the others. But for several minutes no `Smee’ was found. I left the main group and started searching on the first floor at the west side of the house. And there, while I was feeling my way along, I bumped into a pair of human knees.

I put out my hand and touched a soft, heavy curtain. Then I knew where I was. There were tall, deep windows with window-seats at the end of the passage. The curtains reached to the ground. Somebody was sitting in a corner of one of the window-seats, behind a curtain.
`Aha!’ I thought, `I’ve caught “Smee”!’ So I pulled the curtain to one side – and touched a woman’s arm.

It was a dark, moonless night outside. I couldn’t see the woman sitting in the corner of the window-seat.

`Smee?’ I whispered.

There was no answer. When `Smee’ is challenged, he – or she – does not answer. So I sat down beside her to wait for the others. Then I whispered, `What’s your name?’

And out of the darkness beside me the whisper came: `Brenda Ford’.

I did not know the name, but I guessed at once who she was. I knew every girl in the house by name except one. And that was the tall, pale, dark girl. So here she was sitting beside me on the window-seat, shut in between a heavy curtain and a window. I was beginning to enjoy the game. I wondered if she was enjoying it too. I whispered one or two rather ordinary questions to her, and received no answer.

`Smee’ is a game of silence. It is a rule of the game that `Smee’ and the person or persons who have found `Smee’ have to keep quiet. This, of course, makes it harder for the others to find them. But there was nobody else about. I wondered, therefore, why she was insisting on silence. I spoke again and got no answer. I began to feel a little annoyed. `Perhaps she is one of those cold, clever girls who have a poor opinion of all men,’ I thought. `She doesn’t like me, and she is using the rules of the game as an excuse for not speaking. Well, if she doesn’t like sitting here with me, I certainly don’t want to sit with her!’ I turned away from her.

`I hope someone finds us soon,’ I thought.

As I sat there, I realized that I disliked sitting beside this girl very much indeed. That was strange. The girl I had seen at dinner had seemed likeable in a cold kind of way. I noticed her and wanted to know more about her. But now I felt really uncomfortable beside her. The feeling of something wrong, something unnatural, was growing. I remembered touching her arm, and I trembled with horror. I wanted to jump up and run away. I prayed that someone else would come along soon.

Just then I heard light footsteps in the passage. Somebody on the other side of the curtain brushed against my knees. The curtain moved to one side, and a woman’s hand touched my shoulder. `Smee?’ whispered a voice that I recognized at once. It was Mrs Gorman. Of course she received no answer. She came and sat down beside me, and at once I felt very much better.

`It’s Tony Jackson, isn’t it?’ she whispered.

`Yes,’ I whispered back.

`You’re not “Smee”, are you?’

`No, she’s on my other side.’

She reached out across me. I heard her finger-nails scratch a woman’s silk dress.

`Hullo, “Smee”. How are you? Who are you? Oh, is it against the rules to talk? Never mind, Tony, we’ll break the rules. Do you know, Tony, this game is beginning to annoy me a little. I hope they aren’t going to play it all evening. I’d like to play a nice quiet game, all together beside a warm fire.’

`Me too,’ I agreed.

`Can’t you suggest something to them? There’s something rather unhealthy about this particular game. I’m sure I’m being very silly. But I can’t get rid of the idea that we’ve got an extra player . . . somebody who ought not to be here at all.’

That was exactly how I felt, but I didn’t say so. However, I felt very much better. Mrs Gorman’s arrival had chased away my fears. We sat talking. `I wonder when the others will find us?’ said Mrs Gorman.

After a time we heard the sound of feet, and young Reggie’s voice shouting, `Hullo, hullo! Is anybody there?’

`Yes,’ I answered.

`Is Mrs Gorman with you?’

`Yes.’

`What happened to you? You’ve both got forfeits. We’ve all been waiting for you for hours.’

`But you haven’t found “Smee” yet,’ I complained. ‘

`You haven’t, you mean. I was “Smee” this time.’

`But “Smee” is here with us!’ I cried.

`Yes,’ agreed Mrs Gorman.

The curtain was pulled back and we sat looking into the eye of Reggie’s electric torch. I looked at Mrs Gorman, and then on my other side. Between me and the wall was an empty place on the window-seat. I stood up at once. Then I sat down again. I was feeling very sick and the world seemed to be going round and round.

`There was somebody there,’ I insisted, `because I touched her.’

`So did I,’ said Mrs Gorman, in a trembling voice. `And I don’t think anyone could leave this window-seat without us knowing.’

Reggie gave a shaky little laugh. I remembered his unpleasant experience earlier that evening. `Someone’s been playing jokes,’ he said. `Are you coming down?’

We were not very popular when we came down to the sitting-room.

`I found the two of them sitting behind a curtain, on a window-seat,’ said Reggie.

I went up to the tall, dark girl.

`So you pretended to be “Smee”, and then went away!’ I accused her.

She shook her head. Afterwards we all played cards in the sitting-room, and I was very glad.

Some time later, Jack Sangston wanted to talk to me. I could see that he was rather cross with me, and soon he told me the reason.

`Tony,’ he said, `I suppose you are in love with Mrs Gorman. That’s your business, but please don’t make love to her in my house, during a game. You kept everyone waiting. It was very rude of you, and I’m ashamed of you.’

`But we were not alone!’ I protested. `There was somebody else there – somebody who was pretending to be “Smee”. I believe it was that tall, dark girl, Miss Ford. She whispered her name to me. Of course, she refused to admit it afterwards.’

Jack Sangston stared at me. `Miss who?’ he breathed.

`Brenda Ford, she said.’

Jack put a hand on my shoulder. `Look here, Tony,’ he said, `I don’t mind a joke, but enough is enough. We don’t want to worry the ladies. Brenda Ford is the name of the girl who broke her neck on the stairs. She was playing hide and seek here ten years ago.’

Jan Terri is the Spirit of Christmas 2014

You know how there’s these ghosts? These Christmas ghosts? And they’re not so much all dead people as they are spirits in the pagan, pantheistic sense? Well, they say every Christmas gets the ghost it deserves (what? they do TOO say that. Now).

And this Christmas, that spirit is legendary chanteuse Jan Terri.

Now, my 2014 was memorable, even if parts of it have been blacked out for my own protection and ability to sleep at night. But it wasn’t all bad. For some of my friends, this year was indeed all bad, and they cannot wait to see its ass out the door. So it is to them that this little ditty is dedicated. You expected an angel singing the praises of the Mother of God and this, THIS, is what you got instead.

Happy New Year!

Is that a Little Red Book in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

Just your typical Marxist-Leninist anti-revisionist woman

Just your typical Marxist-Leninist anti-revisionist woman

Happy May Day, Comrades!

I hope you all had a fabulous day sharing the fruits of your labour, throwing off the yoke of the capitalist oppressors, and getting your political freak on. We can all take a lesson from this young Comrade from the Cascadian city of San Francisco. When it comes to sharing the fruits of her loins (do girls have loins? not sure) with deserving and pure-hearted Comrades, she eschews the profit-ridden sex marketing machine known as Online Dating Sites and instead goes with a free listing on the website from Comrade Craig. If you’re inspired to answer her posting, please remember it’s not the size. It’s from each according to his ability.

Ready for kinky fun? – w4m – 23 (San Francisco)

age : 23 body : average height : 5’7″ (170cm) ethnicity : White politics : Marxist-Leninist status : single

I am an attractive Marxist-Leninist anti-revisionist woman who is totally dedicated to the building of a revolutionary cadre party to overthrow capitalism and imperialism. But I have a sexy side for which I would probably be denounced by my comrades if they knew about it. I am looking for a degenerate Trotskyite, anarchist, or a member of the revisionist Communist Party who accepts the concept of peaceful coexistence to put me in my place. Tie me up and recite passages from The Revolution Betrayed by the social-fascist Trotsky. Slap me around and call me an evil Stalinist. Make me get on my knees and accept your left-deviationist cock. I love petit-bourgeois intellectuals the most, because then it gets a little Fifty Shades of Red for me. This is all NSA and drama free.

See my details below. I am DDF. Normally I don’t do drugs because they are a symptom of a crumbling bourgeois society, but I am 420 friendly when it comes to this because I want to be corrupted by a hot ultra-leftist pot smoking degenerate pervert. I am so horny just thinking about it. Please no Maoists. And if you have only read the Communist Manifesto, no. I am not into FDCKs.

Spread them like you would class consciousness

Spread them like you would class consciousness

Merry Christmas, Happy Boxing Day, and Happy Birthday to Shane McGowan

Slightly belated, but only by a couple of hours.

GUESS WHAT DAY IT IS GUYS!

GUESS WHAT DAY IT IS GUYS!

That’s right, it’s Shane McGowan‘s birthday! Or was, until a couple of hours ago. Yeah, Jesus is dead and Shane McGowan is alive; whodathunkit?

Normally we have a tradition of posting the Fairytale of New York, but for some reason I’m just not feeling it this year. Had the Christmas spirit going pretty well up until Christmas itself, whereupon I decided I needed to kill something. I killed the mood instead of a bystander by going for a two hour walk with my cousin, where we found a nice little sailboat, about 25 feet of sailboat, washed up on the rocks at English Bay.

A real, live shipwreck for Christmas!

Which brings us to today’s story. Normally we have a tradition of posting A Christmas Story by Sarban (NOT the one with the Red Ryder BB Gun) but in honour of whoever is having a worse Christmas than me because they got shipwrecked on a night when all the hotels are booked and everything is closed, I’ll link instead to the truly spine-chilling “Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk.” Enjoy?

If that doesn’t float your boat, here’s a slick and enjoyable remix of Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas, in mellow hip-hop style, via Doc Rocket on Facebook.