BOOKS Spooky yuletide tales

Stephanie Cotela explores the time-honoured tradition of swapping ghost stories during the festive season. Here she shares her favourite spooky Christmas books for children.

Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.

 ~ Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper, 1891

Author Charles Dickens famously lamented he had ruined Christmas by reigniting the thrill of swapping ghost stories during the festive season. It wasn’t his fault. Victorians had an unquenchable thirst for the macabre.

It didn’t start with Dickens, the tradition dates back to the pre-Christian era. These folks revelled in winter solstice festivals during which, they believed, the veil between the world of the living and dead was thin enough to be peeled back.

The sentimentality and moral grounding of A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843, was nothing compared to the terrifying hopelessness and despair put forth by subsequent authors.

The scene, featuring a group of terribly English gentlemen gathered around a crackling fire, in a notoriously haunted Victorian mansion, was set by Henry James’ Turn of Screw in 1898.

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be… 
~ Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, prologue.

As I said, in my Spooky Autumn Reads feature, “When we think of ghost stories, we think of hiding under the blankets, sleeping with the lights on and generally being scared out of our wits. Why, then, would we want our children to read them? It’s simple, ghost stories encourage us to acknowledge a world beyond our own. They show us that not everything can be explained, that strangeness lies beyond what we consider normal.” Paradoxically, the thrill of a spine-tingling ghost story awakens our senses and makes us feel alive.

So, break out the hot cocoa and marshmallows, gather the kids and indulge in the time-honoured tradition of swapping spooky tales this holiday season.

Here is a selection of five children’s books which explore different approaches to the classic Christmas ghost story.

Christmas Dinner of Souls, Author: Ross Montgomery, Illustrator: David Litchfield Publisher: Faber & Faber

Main protagonist, Lewis, takes the fall for a misguided prank and must spend Christmas Eve at Soul’s College. His punishment, imposed by the Dean, includes helping the chef prepare a disgustingly vile meal to invited guests, who are, as it turns out, unruly, ill-mannered, Christmas-loathing ex-students. Seven chosen diners recount spooky tales, each scarier and more gruesome than the last, in an attempt to win the chance to enter the catacombs beneath the college. There, they intend to search for the legendary Dead Man’s Jabberers, a set of dentures which hold special powers. Each story is frightening in its own way but increasing tension arises with the realisation that Christmas itself is under threat, and Lewis may not survive the night.

Christmas Tales of Terror, Author: Chris Priestley, Publisher: Bloomsbury

In his collection of seven sufficiently spooky tales, Chris Priestley masters the tone, pace and chill factor of a classic Victorian ghost story. The little drummer boy is cursed, dolls are possessed and undead plague victims wander the streets. Just when you think he’s gone too far, what with killer snowmen on the loose, Priestley throws in witty anecdotes, unexpected twists and the perfect amount of edge-of-your-seat suspense to keep young readers hooked.

Tis the season to be screaming…

Fright Before Christmas: 13 Tales of Holiday Horrors, Editor: Shannon Delany, Publisher: Leap Books, LLC

In place of happy endings, this anthology of short stories boasts murderous nutcrackers, zombie snowmen and a video game gone rogue. The creepiest takeaways, or rather warnings for young readers, include not opening presents before Christmas, steering clear of gifts found in second-hand shops and being wary of Ol’ St. Nick for he’s always watching (and waiting in the shadows with a machete in his hand).

Goosebumps Most Wanted: The 12 Screams of Christmas, Author: RL Stine, Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks

It’s 1892, a family of five moves into a creepy old house in need of repair. They have three children, including a set of twins. There’s an accident. Fast forward to present day and main protagonist, Kate, must collaborate with frenemy Courtney, if either of them want to participate in the school play, ‘The Twelve Screams of Christmas.’ Bizarrely, the girls are sent to the same creepy old (notoriously haunted) house to rehearse. The story is grounded in relatable struggles that go along with adolescence, but with an added bonus, Kate can see ghosts, they can see her and they’re hoping she can replace their long dead sister. It’s as creepy as it sounds, but, as with A Christmas Carol, this story has a happy ending.

The Very Merry Murder Club, Editors: Serena Patel and Robin Stevens, Publisher: Farshore

Though it’s not strictly supernatural, this collection makes the list for its Christmas-themed mystery and mayhem. The diverse cast of relatable characters, in equally varied settings, find themselves mixed up in hauntings, homicide and even a heist. The short stories, 13 to be exact, range from the spectral and fantastical to historical fiction and cosy crime and include cold cases, scrabble games and skiing accidents. This book won’t have you checking under the bed or sleeping with the light on, but it will flex your crime-solving skills and as always, remind us that Christmas isn’t all about jingle bells and happy elves.

*Header image: Courtesy of Stephanie Cotela 


Stephanie Cotela is the Network News & Events Editor for Words & Pictures magazine. Art historian at large, she’s now busy writing spooky middle grade fiction, picture books about polar bears and YA/Adult crime thrillers. Please feel free to contact her at or find her on Twitter: @stephaniecotela

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