The Christmas You Deserve
Sarah Johnson reviews Paul Finch's The Christmas You Deserve, a collection of seasonal ghost stories in which revenge is exacted and transgressions are punished...
I confess that before reading The Christmas You Deserve by Paul Finch I’d not read any of his other Christmas-themed horror stories. As he states on his blog Walking in the Dark, he’s been writing seasonal ghost stories since the early 1990s and publishes new stories every year. I’m now very pleased to be more familiar with his work as I thoroughly enjoyed The Christmas You Deserve, his most recent collection of five stories. Set at Christmas time, the stories feature ghosts, demons and figures from European folklore who wreak havoc on those deemed to deserve it. One way or another, they exact revenge and administer punishments for transgressions, real or imagined.
As a fan of Christmas ghost stories, I tend to rely on old favourites, the work of M.R. James or Charles Dickens. Reading Finch’s modern horror stories set in contemporary Britain is a refreshing change. The vivid descriptions of urban and rural landscapes are easily recognizable, from the bustle of London on Christmas Eve in ‘The Tenth Lesson’ to the housing estate in ‘Krampus’. British winter weather is a constant backdrop, with snow turning roads impassable, ice-making footpaths treacherous, and malevolent figures lurking under cover of a blizzard. In these stories, if the ghosts don’t get you, the weather will. This combination of elements creates a sense of claustrophobia, a feeling of being trapped and pursued, as are most of the characters through familiar environments rendered treacherous.
Indoors or outdoors, there is no escape for Finch’s characters from the judgements that await them. Ignorant of their crimes, they are caught unawares as the horror of their predicament increases and they desperately try to escape. Particularly enjoyable are the descriptions of pursuits around dark country houses, as in ‘The Merry Makers’, or backstage of the provincial theatre building of ‘The Unreal’. The attention to detail in the writing creates a chilling atmosphere, and Finch creates scenarios that call on all the senses. The smell of rot and decay fills the hidden cellar room of Godley Grange in ‘The Stain’, while later in the night distant noises increase in volume as something unknown stalks the hallways. Figures from folklore appear to administer judgement and justice with Sinterklass, Krampus, Belsnickel and a very disturbing Hooden Horse all featuring. Finch knows his European Christmas lore, and the juxtaposition of these traditional figures with contemporary environments creates a surreal atmosphere in which the protagonists cannot distinguish between the real and imagined. At times grotesque, the imagery is satisfyingly creepy, particularly when inanimate objects acquire a life of their own.
Each character in The Christmas You Deserve suffers, whether or not they are guilty of transgressing the Yuletide spirit. Finch successfully portrays the psychological trauma they experience as incredulity turns to understanding, while the physical horror they experience is hinted at rather than graphically described. I did find it rather satisfying to see some of the less likeable characters get their comeuppance. So much for ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.