Paul Finch was kind enough to give me a copy of the Audible version of The Christmas You Deserve, his quintet of festive novella-length terror tales, allowing me the excuse for the above quintuple dose of alliteration worthy of a bombastic music-hall impresario. Aptly enough, a pentagram too appears in one of these tales, along with other devilry, including an appearance by our old friend Krampus in another, which together cement Finch’s reputation as a master of horror, as well as a successful crime writer. In this, he is ably assisted by the voiceover artist Greg Patmore, whose professionalism adds to the feeling conveyed by Finch’s assured prose-style that we are in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing.
We start with ‘The Merry Makers’, an ironic title if ever there was one. When its narrator breaks down in the snow, he takes refuge in the mysterious Mistletoe Hall. There, his host insists he stays the night, while professing his antipathy to Christmas, which he denounces as popish frippery. Later the narrator encounters what appears to be the same man, but dressed rather more flamboyantly. Moreover, far from condemning the season, this doppelganger is himself the soul of festive mirth and merriment, but one whose idea of these things involves weird effigies of various icons of the season, Krampus included. There is a feeling that the strange ordeal suffered by the stranded motorist is somehow connected to his scepticism about religious matters and indeed this particular Christian festival. Sceptics and those of bad faith don’t fare well in Finch’s horror fiction, in this collection and elsewhere. Take the young vicar with his trendy moral relativism in ‘The Doom’ (originally in The Sixth Black Book of Horrors, reprinted this year in Terror Tales of the Home Counties). Not that I think Finch is suggesting we should revert to the grisly punishments depicted in the eponymous ecclesiastical artwork. Similarly ‘The Merry Makers’ doesn’t suggest he holds the Puritan view of Christmas in high regard.
If these are morality tales, there’s more than a hint of A Christmas Carol in them, whether or not they refer to Scrooge as some of them do, or as in one, characters from Dickens’ novella make guest appearances, albeit as over-grown puppets brought creepily to life. This is a device Finch uses very effectively in more than one of these tales, and I seem to remember something similar in his contribution to Ellen Datlow’s 2007 anthology Inferno. In that story, ‘Bethany’s Wood’, I seem to remember, it was some kind of weird art installation on a country estate.
In ‘The Unreal’, we have Dickens’ Christmas curmudgeon and his supernatural tormentors, and a subsequent story, ‘The Tenth Lesson’, offers a giant toy soldier that could have lurched out of The Nutcracker, but with homicidal intent. The nods to A Christmas Carol are no accident, as the protagonists of both these stories, Hetherington and Tregarron, are latter-day Scrooges, but whereas the ghosts offered the original Ebenezer a clear path to redemption, that’s not necessarily the case with Finch’s anti-heroes, who also resemble Jamesian protagonists in the way their intellectual pride comes before a fall.
The social media influencer Hetherington in ‘The Unreal’ certainly fits this profile. As a paranormal investigator with a zeal for puncturing fake supernatural manifestations, there are parallels with the Reverend Somerton in the BBC version of James’ ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, in that both point out the human cost to exposing fraudulent mediums. Finch is perhaps a little more sympathetic towards Tregarron in ‘The Tenth Lesson’, an author of fluffy Christmas fantasies who secretly despises the season even though his public persona requires him to pretend to love it. Ironically, while both Hetherington and Tregarron are Christmaphobes, the latter is himself a literary version of the kind of charlatan in the spiritualist world the former takes such delight in rooting out.
In the manner of Scrooge, Tregarron has fallen out with his sister over this. A self-styled ‘hedge-witch’, during a phone call she bemoans his cynicism, and he launches into a monologue debunking popular notions of the pagan origins of Christmas. He’s certainly got a point and he may be right. That scene certainly had me questioning my own half-baked assumptions about this question, yet just as the psychic investigator is literally right to expose fake clairvoyants but wrong to do this without regard to the feelings of the bereaved offered hope by charlatans, the author’s argument in this context betrays his lack of emotional intelligence, a failing that prepares the ground for the supernatural reckoning he faces. This provides him with the opportunity for the possibility of redemption, but first he has to contend with a freak snow-storm and the aforementioned toy soldier.
The latter reminds me of the one in the 1989 ITV version of The Woman in Black, except that this one doesn’t just stand there looming in the corner, looking creepy: It’s considerably more lively, frighteningly so. There are also echoes of the Susan Hill novel that gave rise to this unforgettably terrifying drama, as well as its literary forefather The Turn of the Screw, in the framing device used in my personal favourite of the collection ‘Krampus’.
Like these two classics, this story takes as its starting point the convention of the competitive fireside Christmas ghost story. This kind of first-person narrator is either recounting a personal experience (as in The Woman in Black) or one that happened to a friend or acquaintance (as in Henry James’ classic novella). Finch opts for the former, and his narrator is a far-from-willing participant in the seasonal ritual of scary tale-telling.
But that’s part and parcel of this convention. Swapping ghost stories around the campfire is supposed to be an evening’s entertainment, a ‘pleasing terror’, as supernatural literature’s other James (M.R.) would put it. In this kind of story, the narrator of the tale that’s supposed to trounce all the others is so traumatised by the experience he or she is recounting that there’s a sense that it’s somehow no longer a fun parlour game eliciting nervous giggles and only comes about because of the teller’s overwhelming need to unburden his or herself.
In Grandpa Ludwig’s case, this reluctance is understandable, as his reminiscence takes place in the context of Nazi Germany, where his father, a famous writer of children’s stories, has fallen out of favour with the regime. It’s his brother, an S.S. officer, who warns him of this as they argue over the author’s unwillingness to write Nazi propaganda. Before long, they have to flee to England, where the young Ludwig has a very unnerving encounter with a department store Santa Claus who looks strangely familiar and far-from avuncular. He also mentions Santa’s monstrous flip-side.
I don’t know how much of my enjoyment this tale was because I’ve written Krampus-themed fiction myself, but naturally I was keen to see how Finch handled the theme. Not only that but there are certain similarities in the backgrounds of the protagonists the Christmas demon persecutes. In mine, the narrator is the grandson of Jewish refugees who fled to England from Austria, while Ludwig is the son of Germans who flee political persecution. So that made it even more interesting to compare the two stories. I also love the way Finch has made Krampus a powerful metaphor for the nature and value of story-telling, as well as displaying his skills in this regard, crafting an excellent example of the tale of terror as bildungsroman and moving effortlessly between the framing fireside scene and the narrator’s reminiscences.
Story-telling is a common theme in the final three stories in the book, just as those of faith, non-belief and bad faith run throughout the collection. The final tryptych enables us to compare the bad faith of the professional Christmas-celebrating author who hates the festival that is the source of his fortune, with Ludwig’s father’s principled refusal to write pro-Nazi fiction. Finally, we have Rick in ‘The Stain’, the struggling screen-writer whose employers always fob him off about payment.
In this novella, the longest of the five, Stafford Wilks, the dodgy, aging film impresario behind a fictitious 1969 cult classic of Gothic exploitation cinema, Daemonia, has persuaded Rick to give up his Christmas holiday and hole up in the mansion where the original shoot took place and brainstorm with him, his ambitious trophy wife Tanya and a couple of hangers on, with a view to developing a remake / reboot / sequel.
As well as exceeding the length of the other stories, ‘The Stain’ is many ways the most entertaining. With its vividly-drawn cast of ill-matched characters thrown together in a possibly haunted house, complete with pentagram and blood-stained sacking in the cellar, Finch fully makes use of the potential for bitching, bickering and generally unhealthy group dynamics that arise from such a hothouse situation. Patmore’s vocal skills come into their own here. There’s something of ‘An Englishman, an Irishwoman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, an American and an Englishwoman walk into a haunted house’ about his throwing in as many accents as he can, but with the array of speaking characters in the story, it makes it easier for the listener to keep track of who’s who, so it works very well.
Finch also has fun working in the horror movie references, and any reader (or in my case listener) with a knowledge of UK horror cinema in the sixties and seventies will enjoy working them out. The film in question sounds like what would have happened if Tony Tenser had employed Norman J. Warren to make a film of The Devil Rides Out, but as well as being an enjoyable romp, like the more sombre story of ‘Krampus’, in its own irreverent way, it also has a serious point to make about story-telling, both literary and cinematic, because the script of Daemonia took certain liberties with the book it was from, adding outrageous violence and nudity to the source material provided by the staid Dennis Wheatley-esque author, Willis Roxborough. For this reason, one of the highlights of the story for me is Rick’s tirade against the stuffy privilege the upper-class occult novelist represents, pointing out that most authors are struggling to keep body and soul together, unlike either the yuletide literary profiteer Tregarron or the gentleman amateur Roxborough with the luxury of a private income to subside his writing, so I for one can certainly sympathise with his sentiments!
Here’s a link to this thoroughly enjoyable collection, perfect for the season.