Ghost stories come with traditional trappings: haunted houses with creaking floors and dark shadows, freezing draughts and slamming doors. A winter setting is common, summoning fears of isolation and entrapment: some of the most frightening and convincing ghost stories that I have read are set in wintry countryside, in quiet isolated homes.
M. R. James‘ best-known story, ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad’ has an off-season English seaside village as its setting. On a grey winter’s day, the protagonist walks along a deserted stretch of sand, shivering in the bitter north wind, pursued by a strange, shapeless figure in ‘pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined.’ In Edith Wharton’s short stories, the most sinister events occur in isolated houses in the depths of snow-bound winter:
It was a very still night, earth and air all muffled in snow. Once in bed I lay quiet, listening to the strange noises that come out in a house after dark …I thought I heard a door open and close again below: it might have been the glass door that led to the gardens. I got up and peered out of the window; but it was in the dark of the moon, and nothing visible outside but the streaking of snow against the panes.
This quotation comes from the ‘Lady’s Maid’s Bell’; I can unhesitatingly recommend this story, as well as ‘Bewitched’ and ‘All Souls’ Eve’ for ghostly and chilling winter reading.
Lastly, moving from the early to the late twentieth century, one of the most successful ghost stories ever written: Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983). This atmospheric and beautifully-written novel, a pastiche of traditional Victorian ghost stories, became a best-seller, a long-running London West End play, a musical and a film. If you haven’t already had the pleasure of reading this mid-winter’s tale, do yourself a favour and enjoy it by the fireside soon.