‘There’s always been an affinity between Christmas and ghosts’: Mark Gatiss on the joy of festive frights
The writer and actor puts the ghoul into yule with screen and stage roles reprising haunting classics from Charles Dickens and MR James
Close the curtains. Light the fire. Then prepare to be terrified; it’s Christmas. For although the word “cosy” may be closely tied to festivities at this time of year, so it seems is the word “ghost”.
In northern Europe people understandably cope with the shorter days and darker evenings by drawing in around a roaring hearth, metaphorical or otherwise. Light and warmth: it makes sense. But what kind of stories are told while friends and families gather together? The answer, of course, is the spookier, the better.
The most effective of these frightening Christmas tales tend to begin with a carefully paced account of an uncanny experience that once troubled a former acquaintance, leading to a chain of events so appalling that, even in the retelling, goosebumps appear and the skin crawls.
Writer and actor Mark Gatiss, an expert in the form, sees a long tradition. “Perhaps it all began with the idea of telling stories round a campfire, of the shadows lengthening and us all clustering together for warmth and security, but there’s always been an affinity between Christmas time and ghosts,” Gatiss told the Observer in a month in which he is tapping into the spooky side of yuletide on stage and screen. “‘There was a man dwelt by a churchyard’, begins Shakespeare’s Mamillius, as he tells a story of sprites and goblins in where else but The Winter’s Tale. I think it’s very deep in the race.”
The custom of ghostly yarns at the end of the year is more commonly traced back to Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol was the Victorian novelist’s most successful ghost story, but not his only one: his novella The Chimes followed in 1844 and soon after The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. A generation later came the short stories of Montagu Rhodes James, the Cambridge academic now acknowledged as an early 20th century master of the genre. His stories, repeatedly set in bleak, wintry landscapes, are particularly relished at Christmas and for the last 12 years occasional screen versions of James’s chilling tales have been made by Gatiss, who seems determined to disturb as many revellers as he can.
After perfecting the modern grotesque in his television work with The League of Gentlemen, the darkly comic troupe he founded with Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, Gatiss went on to write for Doctor Who and to reimagine Sherlock, which became one of the BBC’s biggest hits for many years. Last year he introduced us to Claes Bang’s perturbing Dracula, in a one-off drama series for BBC1.
This month, Gatiss’s mission to unsettle the nation is three-pronged. Not content with playing the ghost of Marley in his own adaptation of A Christmas Carol at the Alexandra Palace Theatre in London, he is offering viewers two atmospheric screen treats on Christmas Eve. The first, on Sky, is The Amazing Mr Blunden, a supernatural tale of time travel first adapted in 1972 from Antonia Barber’s novel. His second drama is the latest in his string of James stories made for BBC Two. This time Rory Kinnear stars in The Mezzotint, perhaps the best known short story of the lot. It follows Gatiss’s adaptations of Martin’s Close in 2019, The Dead Room in 2018, The Tractate Middoth in 2013 and Crooked House in 2008.
The Mezzotint, which revolves around the hair-raising properties of an engraving of a manor house, has not been adapted as often as other stories, perhaps due to its focus on just one mysterious image. It did, however, make it on to the BBC in the 1950s and was read by Robert Powell on screen in 1986. It has also been plagiarised a fair few times, including in a pilot episode of a 1969 American series called Night Gallery that starred Roddy McDowall.
Gatiss has given his cast, which includes Frances Barber and Robert Bathurst, some new twists – and some subtle red herrings. The setting, at the fictional Canterbury College, Oxford, in 1922, has what for Gatiss is the crucial combination of clubbable appeal and demonic dread: something that recalls the duality of the popular Danish idea of “hygge” and its grim flip-side of “unhygge”, a fearful place inhabited by trolls.
Christmas is the right moment to savour these contrasting moods, Gatiss believes: “It is a time when we’re inevitably looking back, to all the Christmasses of our past and those who are sadly no longer gathered round the tree. It can be a very melancholy time for many and it’s always seemed to me that, even more than at Halloween, the boundary between this world and the next (if you believe that sort of thing) is at its thinnest. And though the ghost story is a very English tradition, there’s a strong parallel in other countries where the onset of winter and darkness bleeds over into an ancient storytelling culture.”
Dickens understood the sombre note struck at Christmas, Gatiss argues, citing a passage in Pickwick Papers in which the family gathering summons up memories of those “whose hearts throbbed so gaily” but have now “ceased to beat”.
“There is also the allure of what James called ‘a pleasing terror’,” said Gatiss. “That there’s something especially satisfying about being inside, cosy and warm while telling stories of horrible apparitions and ghastly visitations. James’s readings took place within the delightful walls of his college rooms, as an after dinner treat and though they can be very nasty, they’re also filled with humour, funny voices and all the trappings of a good yarn. So we, like James’s audience, demand a crackling fire, a glass of madeira, frost on the window panes, and then a story to unsettle and chill the blood before order is restored and we plunge off into the freezing night … and perhaps wondering who that dark shape might be that seems so doggedly to follow our footsteps…?”