Dickensian Gothic: A Christmas Carol (2011)

The year was 1843, and English literature had witnessed the zenith of early Gothic horror in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). On the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe was reimagining the genre in such tales as The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1843). And in Britain, Charles Dickens was appropriating the Gothic tradition for his own stories; the conventions of the Gothic were to loom particularly large in late works such as Bleak House (1852) and Great Expectations (1860), but it was in a series of Christmas stories that he first explored the genre fully. The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848) are now forgotten by popular culture, but the first, A Christmas Carol (1843), continues to be read by millions and has been the subject of dozens of film adaptations.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol primarily to expose the horrors of real-world injustice, but he chose to hang his social commentary on a literary framework owing much to Gothic horror. It is easy to forget that in genre terms, the tale of Scrooge is primarily a ghost story; it was originally subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas. Its role in enshrining the traditional Victorian Christmas – trees, holly, candles and carols – has meant many who know the story only through other media forget that it is, at least partly, horror.

Certainly Dickens narrates A Christmas Carol with tongue firmly in cheek at times. He prefaced the 1843 edition of the book quite whimsically:

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it [from the saying “to lay the ghost to rest”].

The story itself begins with death, but the author treats it with a large dose of gallows humour. “Marley was dead: to begin with,” he writes, before a humorous diversion as he muses on why the simile is “dead as a doornail” rather than “dead as a coffin-nail.” But after this almost-silly – if macabre – opening, Dickens sets the scene outside Scrooge’s London offices some seven years after Marley’s death. Far from being a picture of cheery, greetings-card festivity, the scene is gloomy and haunting. No snow, no children playing, no Christmas carols. It is dark, and the fog – in fact a mostly industrial London smog – is so thick, the houses across the narrow street have become “mere phantoms.”

Ebenezer Scrooge is described in almost non-human terms: He exists in his own atmosphere, carrying “his own low temperature always about with him”; blind men’s dogs recognize him and try to warn their masters; Scrooge has the “evil eye” of ancient folklore. Nature itself is described in decidedly preternatural terms: “To see the dingy cloud come drooping down … one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.”

Dickens’s prose is littered with Gothic elements. There are shadows, flickering candles and dingy streets; there are Scrooge’s gloomy chambers, echoey and empty of humanity. One particularly curious Gothic reference is when the miser declares that everyone who wishes another a merry Christmas should be “boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart,” a curse that evokes both cannibalism and vampirism. Dracula was not yet written, but vampires were already firmly in the public imagination through works such as John Polidori’s The Vampyre. The imagery is certainly intended to be dryly humorous, but the modern reader easily overlooks how grisly it was. (Much too close-to-the-bone for Dickens’s audience at some points. For example, when Scrooge tells his nephew words to the effect of “I’ll see you in hell first,” Dickens can’t even bring himself to mention hell, referring to it euphemistically as “that other extremity.”)

With his dark, shadowy images of a fogbound London, Dickens has established a Gothic atmosphere long before we arrive on the doorstep of his house, where he first sees the image of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, in place of his doorknocker. The author describes the vision in terms that are as bizarre as they are wonderfully ethereal. Marley had a “dismal light” around him, “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” It was a face of “horror” and “livid colour,” and the wide-eyed ghost’s “hair was curiously stirred as if by breath or hot air.”

Once inside, Scrooge speaks face-to-face with the ghost, who has come to warn him of an impending visitation by three spirits. The narrative of this encounter is terrifying indeed:

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Film adaptations have not always succeeded in translating these details to the screen. In 1938, a Hollywood version that suffers from far too much whimsy and a disappointingly cartoonish portrayal of Scrooge (Reginald Owen), the chance for something genuinely frightening or haunting is squandered by uninspired direction and a banal performance by Leo G Carroll, an otherwise-fine character actor whose skeletal features might have seemed ideal for the role of a ghost. Even the 1935 version managed a more effective atmosphere in these scenes, despite not showing Jacob Marley at all. Three portrayals that really work, however, are those of Michael Hordern (1951), delightfully camp but accompanied by truly chilling shrieks; Frank Finlay (1984), who manages a literal jaw-dropping in comic but macabre fashion, and without the help of special effects; and Gary Oldman (voice only) in 2009. In this decidedly scary latter version, CGI-animated and produced by Disney, Marley’s jaw literally hangs from its hinges as if on a decaying corpse.

Horrors of Injustice

Dickens masterfully blends the twin horrors of the story’s Gothic, ghost-story elements and the injustices of Victorian society. As Marley’s visit comes to an end, for example, the sky is filled with moaning phantoms in chains, but an equal horror is one spectre’s piteous wailing at “being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step.” The phantoms’ misery, writes Dickens, was in wanting to help others, which they had never done in life, but realizing they had forfeited such power forever.

One particularly effective moment of Victorian social horror will come later, when the Spirit of Christmas Present opens his robes to reveal two children, Ignorance and Want. In their “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” state, they have become so animal-like, Scrooge mistakes their hands for claws. Dickens describes it vividly thus:

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Disney’s 2009 version of the story stands out for making much of this scene. In a nightmarish sequence that takes place in the shadow of a chiming clock, Ignorance is transformed into a knife-wielding, caged lunatic – Dickens’s book referred earlier to Bedlam, London’s infamous insane asylum – while Want becomes a prostitute who is strait-jacketed and dragged away by invisible hands.

Scrooge and the Numinous

Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghostly encounters exhibit another common element of Gothic fiction, namely an experience of what philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) later called “the numinous.” In his seminal work The Idea of the Holy (1917), he described the numinous as an experience of fear and fascination, dread and awe, such as that of encountering a deity. The effects of this mysterium tremendum include trembling, or shuddering (“grauens” in the original German). In discussing the manifestation of the numinous in culture, Otto linked it explicitly to ghost stories:

But even when [the numinous emotion] has reached its higher and purer mode of expression it is possible for the primitive types of excitation that were formerly a part of it to break out in the soul in all their original naïveté and so to be experienced afresh. That this is so shown by the potent attraction exercised again and again exercised by the element of horror and ‘shudder’ in ghost stories, even in persons of high all-round education. It is a remarkable fact that the physical reaction to which this unique ‘dread’ of the uncanny gives rise is also unique, and is not found in the case of any ‘natural’ fear or terror.

Scrooge’s three visitations increasingly display aspects of the numinous. When visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past, Scrooge finds its light so overwhelming, he eventually causes its departure by seizing on its extinguisher-cone (a feature not often seen in film versions) and literally snuffing out its flame-like existence. Dickens’s description of this spirit feels almost Lovecraftian:

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. … [The] figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.

Scrooge’s response to meeting the Spirit of Christmas Present is to hang his head and look upon him “reverently.” But it is the third encounter, with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, that is accompanied by a classic experience of the numinous. By its mere presence, the ghost seems to “scatter gloom and mystery” in the air around it, causing Scrooge to bend down on his knee. He cannot see the spirit more than vaguely in the darkness, but he senses it is “tall and stately” beside him:

Its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved. … Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

A Christmas Carol: The Films

Has any film come close to recreating the Gothic atmosphere of Dickens’s novella? The first sound version of the film, in 1935 (starring Seymour Hicks, who had already played the role in a 1913 silent, Old Scrooge), boasts perhaps the most effective opening, with an atmosphere perfectly capturing the dingy, almost-depressing air imagined by the author. The street outside Scrooge’s office, with snow on the ground, and fog, but no cheery, pretty snowflakes to create a picture-postcard scene, is bleak and claustrophobic. A small band of musicians plays the The First Nowell – badly. It sounds more like a funeral dirge than a Christmas carol, but the groaning notes perfectly suit the sombre setting.

The 1951 film – by far the most popular version, due mainly to a very memorable starring turn by Alastair Sim – achieves a sublime Gothic feel, thanks largely to the black-and-white cinematography of C Pennington-Richards. Never is this better-seen than in the image of Scrooge kneeling before the “spectral hand” of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come; the many layers of light, creating stark shadows and contrasts, give the image an astonishing depth. (A hideously colourized version from 1989 robs the film of virtually all its visual power.) The film’s grimness may well explain why it flopped on its original American release, but it is testament to its faithfulness to the Gothic tradition.

The 1984 TV version, directed by Clive Donner, is also of note for an earnest attempt to accentuate darker elements of the tale. It’s also one of the few versions to be shot largely on location. The Shropshire town of Shrewsbury stands in for Victorian London, lending the film a pleasing authenticity; visitors can still see Scrooge’s gravestone, specially created for the film, in the churchyard of St Chad’s today.

Finally, Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) deserves a mention for being one of the few versions to go for actual scares – including decidedly modern “jump scares” – rather than purely atmosphere. The early scenes, such as that of Marley’s visitation, are executed fairly effectively, but they’re surely too scary for the film’s juvenile target audience. Unfortunately, the filmmakers later try to accommodate all ages by adding some very out-of-place slapstick action, including an arbitrary extended chase sequence featuring a shrunken Scrooge. By the time the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come arrives, the film is a bit of a mess.

Perhaps no cinematic version has truly matched Dickens’s original, but that’s unsurprising, for the author’s prose has a chilling and equally wry way of articulating the Gothic. How can an any celluloid image hope to rival such literary descriptions as “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar” and a spirit that is “now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body”? A Christmas Carol is a work of singular humour and atmosphere, and, as Dickens himself wished, may no one wish to lay its ghost to rest.

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