Imagination is the essence of Christmas. From imagining the sound of sleigh bells on the roof, to imagining that Lynne from accounts definitely fancies you at the office party; in bleakest midwinter, Christmas offers us the chance to put reality on the back burner for a while.
In the suitably Dickensian setting of a dimly lit 19th century library, five authors gathered to read, in intimate, hushed tones, the kind of festive make-believe to make the hairs on your neck stand to attention, and probably leave you sleeping with the lights on.
This was the launch of The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales. The book is a collaborative project, which aims to go beyond the mere written word – attempting, rather, to encapsulate the peculiar ‘stories by candlelight’ experience guaranteed to cover you in goosebumps. In doing so, the contributors consciously evoke that long tradition of eerie Yuletide storytelling practised and perfected by Dickens himself and, more specifically, the great M. R. James.
|Left to right: Illustrator Beth Ward, Authors, Tom Fletcher, Emma Jane Unsworth, Alison Moore, Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst.|
“Christmas is a time for taking stock. We look back on the year and we reflect on what’s happened to us. It really is a time for being introspective and I think a ghost story does that as well – quite literally in the case of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The ghost as a figure, of course, is a reminder of the past – a living memory. It puts us back in touch with the past.
“Yuletide was traditionally the time of year when supernatural stories were told. They are meant to be shared with those around us … they are a form of comfortable discomfort, if you like, because you can live them vicariously, but also at a distance and not in immediate danger.”
|Host, Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, with some of Beth Ward’s original artwork.|
Speaking to Humanity Hallows later, Dr Aldana Reyes praised the hard work of all the contributors, who not only wrote and illustrated the book, but have independently published and marketed it too. In terms of the overall project, he highlights Richard Hirst’s role in particular in bringing the whole thing together.Hirst, who read his story Drums At Cullen on the evening, was joint winner of the 2011 Manchester Fiction Prize for his short story School Report. Speaking to us, as the spooked but satisfied audience was dispersing into the night, we asked about The Longest Night’s inception and if the Manchester Fiction Prize award had had an influence on his involvement with projects such as this,“The whole thing started with me and Jenn [Ashworth] having an idea to write a ghost story for each other for Christmas as a way of saving money on Christmas presents. We thought we’d write a story each and share it with friends, maybe put on a little event. Then we started to think of other people we’d like to get involved, then we thought it would be quite nice to produce a book … it all ended up snowballing into this project and we became limited by Christmas actually happening! But that gave us a deadline to work to.“Jenn and I have always enjoyed horror and we’ve always been interested in Christmas ghost stories, particularly M. R. James and the productions of his work that the BBC have done over the years. It was all borne out of a love of those things.
|Richard Hirst and Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes following a successful evening.|
“The competition itself was helpful in that it was quite a challenge, in terms of trying to tailor your material to fit the brief. But I think it’s good to have something which requires you to edit and pare down your work, to think more and more about what you are writing and how you are writing it. It really makes you think about how to structure fiction.”
Richard Hirst’s cadaverous contribution Drums At Cullen cleverly combines humour and Poe-esque suspense, and is perhaps the most graphically macabre offering here. Asked if this was a conscious effort on his part, he responds,