These annual sets of ghost stories from cartoonist Seth and publisher Biblioasis has, over the last few years, become one of my favorite holiday traditions. The 2023 set arrives bearing three creepy stories and an armload of stark, atmospheric illustrations that perfectly capture and bolster them to chilling effect.
Reading a ghost story on Christmas Eve was once as much a part of traditional Christmas celebrations as turkey, eggnog, and Santa Claus.
So says the Biblioasis website in introducing this year’s collection of stories, each presented in their own stocking-sized paperback. That’s a tradition that passed my family by when I was growing up, but it sounds perfect. Just imagine…sitting by a roaring fire, a tree glowing with colorful lights, snow drifting around outside, blown by the winter winds….sounds perfect. Maybe you can recreate that scene yourself, but if not, reading these stories will transport you there.
“The Captain of the Polestar” by Arthur Conan Doyle was the first of these I read, and my favorite of the bunch. A ship is trapped by ice fields while out on an expedition. The crew is mostly calm about their plight, feeling confident that they have provisions enough to wait the ice out. But their captain is obsessed with an apparition on the ice, a haunting figure that has emerged from his past and seems intent on catching up to him. Before long the crew is caught up in his obsession, hearing nightmarish wails from out in the dark. A memorable tale of isolation and desperation.
“The House in the Poppy Field” by Marjorie Bowman follows a man named Maitland in his newly-inherited, neatly-kept home. At first he’s content to stay there, even if he feels like a ghost himself as he drifts through its mostly empty rooms. One day he spots a man in his poppy field, cutting them down with a scythe. This eventually leads him to a nearby church, where a stranger tells him of the unnatural desires pursued by a distant relative of Maitland’s. Dread pours from the pages as Maitland learns more than he wanted to know about the history of his family, and the estate that now belongs to him.
“A Room in a Rectory” by Andrew Caldecott concerns a young priest living in a home surrounded by lush gardens and a stream that “dimpled and chattered” along the grounds. With the house comes a housekeeper, a woman who seems agreeable enough, except for the fact that she insists on keeping a particular room locked and unused. It’s not long before this idyllic setting is upset, however, as the priest succumbs to odd behaviors that we soon learn follow a pattern of demonic possession that’s afflicted previous priests in this very home. I found this one a bit dry, tough to push through in places — but when I did, I was rewarded with several bits of beautiful writing hidden in the otherwise stilted language.
Like these stories, Seth’s illustrations suggest more than they actually show, adding to the quiet horror creeping around the edges. These are perfect for a quick read on a cold winter’s night, and are sure to warm the cockles of any jaded horror fan’s heart.