Cold Reads: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The story of Ebenezer's Scrooge ghostly redemption has been the basis for countless adaptations, spin-offs, and parodies. It has become a classic story of the Yuletide tradition, and chances are there has already been a bombardment of film versions that have played on television by the time of this writing. At times it almost seems like the public forgets that A Christmas Carol is actually a book, one that happens to be written by one of the most well-respected artists to have graced the English language. What's forgotten even more frequently is that A Christmas Carol is at its core, past all the sugar plums and rosy-cheeked merriness, a horror story.
The winter may bring nothing but freezing snow and incessant fog to the heart of London, but that doesn't stop the city's inhabitants from wishing their fellow citizens warm tidings. The Christmas cheer touches all but one man, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the coldness in his heart is as frigid as the air that frosts the windows of his office. A notorious penny-pincher and all around sour soul, Scrooge's life takes a turn when the spirit of his former partner Jacob Marley returns from the grave to give him a dire warning to change his selfish ways. For the rest of the night Scrooge is visited by three additional specters who show him the error of his ways and the tragic fate to come if he does not redeem himself.
Everyone is at least familiar with the name of Charles Dickens and his other works in some shape or form: A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations. But what isn't publicized as greatly is the fact that Master Dickens was quite the avid fan of ghost stories. He wrote many a shivery tale, and his anecdotes on spooks and goblins were the perfect complement for the winter season. It was a typical tradition, particularly in Britain, to gather around the fire as the snow piled up outside and spin yarns with the intent of sending a shiver down the spines of all the guests in attendance. Hints of these traditions are present in A Christmas Carol, some more whimsical while others are decidedly sinister.
The urban landscape of London portrayed in the novel isn't wrapped in the colorful bows that adorn some versions of Dickens's story. Like in his other books of the time, the city is crowded, the streets are covered with a layer of dirt beneath the snow, and the ever-industrialized surroundings paint a rather bleak and depressing portrait. Scrooge's house is ideal for a haunting; it lies at the very edge of the city, a great run-down giant whose rooms are dark and forgotten. There's a gloominess and dreariness already present in the story before the supernatural even comes into play. This dark, wintry atmosphere that Dickens paints so vividly places us in the right frame of mind for what's to come.
The appearance of Jacob Marley is a startling beginning to our story. Although the chain-laden spirit has become a bit of a common trope (and perhaps was even in Dickens's day), the writer still manages to make the reader wait in dreadful anticipation for the appearance of the thumping ghost in the hallway. Marley is the most ghoulish of the specters; in addition to his powdery form and clanking iron wear, Jacob sports a handkerchief tied around his head and chin that keeps his lower jaw from snapping open in a manner most gruesome. Dickens may be trying to terrify us, but he also allows a touch of black humor to spice up the proceedings. Even more surreal, Jacob reveals that there is an entire world of phantoms existing on another plane bordering our own upon his departure. The image of the wailing, damned spirits flying through the air above Scrooge's window is a haunting sight. Like the grime existing underneath London's fine snow, the phantom void is a reminder of the darker things lurking beneath the surface in A Christmas Carol.
The most apocalyptic vision comes in the charnel shape of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Clad only in an ebony hood and robe with a single, bony hand jutting out from its silent form, the ghost seems to be the very image of Death itself. Dickens chose an appropriate likeness, as the specter's main purpose comes when he guides Ebenezer to a wasted cemetery where the old man sees his own name etched into a gravestone. Compared to the previous ghosts, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is darkness manifested, a soundless reaper that stands as the pinnacle of ultimate horror in Dickens' supernatural novel.
It's the appearance of Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in particular that raise somewhat of an interesting conjecture: could it be possible that Ebenezer Scrooge, who up until this point was a one-dimensional villain of sorts, does indeed have a shred of conscience and that these haunting apparitions are only the demons of his guilt? Maybe his miserly ways were only suppressing his growing consciousness and, finally unleashed, his hidden guilt was projected out from his psyche in the guise of various foreboding phantoms. Reading the novel with this psychological slant could provide new insights into what is considered a mere Christmas fairy tale.
There's a mark of horror even present in the other two spirits, albeit slightly more ambiguous than the ones present in Marley and Yet to Come. The Ghost of Christmas Past has an air of mystery about him. He is young and old at the same time, his presence suggesting a divine demeanor while simultaneously hinting at a hellish purpose. He brings Scrooge back in time to relive his childhood and early adulthood. Scrooge is moved by nostalgia and weeps over his small-minded mistakes. It's not entirely hard to imagine the Ghost getting a small amount of enjoyment from this. After all, the ghosts are all damned in some way, so is it not possible that the Ghost of Christmas Past delights in this little act of torture?
The Ghost of Christmas Present seems benign enough. He's a hulking giant of a human form, clad in seasonal garb and filled up to his bristling beard with joy and merriment. This phantom also reveals the lives that have been hurt by Scrooge's cruelty, but the Ghost of Christmas Present's most profound demonstration comes at the end of his journey. In a darkened alleyway of London, the Ghost reveals the monstrous forms of Ignorance and Want huddled under his flowing robes. The sight is startling and blunt, with the monolith spirit standing over the zombie-like children in a moment where time seems to stand still.
In the end, Dickens imbues his tale with a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit that comes as a refreshing revival from all the sordid business dealt out in the previous chapters. Scrooge's soul is saved from an eternity in Hell and he giddily parades about the streets with a new lease on life. It's a happy ending, but it took one night of terror to reach it. Dickens was a man all too familiar with the harsh realities of life and all the fantastic horrors that lurked beneath those realities. A Christmas Carol may take place during the merriest time of the year, but it's also the season for specters and scares.