The Gothic ‘Other’ at Christmas, by Dan Renshaw

The tradition of telling scary stories at Christmas is an old one. Tales of ghouls and goblins during the festive season, dating back to the Elizabethan period, have become part of Christmas tradition. In the years before the First World War M.R James, provost of King’s College Cambridge, would in December invite a select few of his undergraduate students to his rooms, where, over a strong drink and by a crackling fire, he would recount his own accounts of the supernatural. These stories would eventually be published, and their author acknowledged as the primary exponent of the modern ghost story. To this day, it is rare for a Christmas to pass without James’s work being featured on radio and television.

But the relationship between the gothic and yuletide goes beyond M.R James. A number of writers of horror fiction at the turn of the century used Christmas as a suitable background for their work. One vampiric example is ‘The Old Portrait’ by Hume Nisbet, set on Christmas Eve, where an artist acquires a second-hand painting of a beautiful woman who, as he dozes and dreams, emerges from the frame to drink his blood.[1] However, the two short stories I will look at in more detail are Christmas horror tales which reveal contemporary late-Victorian and Edwardian concerns about the presence of the ‘ethnic other’, migration, and violence, in the British Empire, and in Britain itself; one set in rural India, and the other in a country manor, blanketed by snow, in the English countryside.

Dâk Bungalow

It is no coincidence that the gothic genre experienced an upsurge in popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, at a point when British colonial power was at its peak, but also a time where it was widely felt that the imperial juggernaut, and the wider society, were entering a period of decline, cultural as well as geopolitical. The gothic, not always consciously, dealt with these fears – of sexuality, of the position of women in society, of the results of technological change, and of ethnic difference.[2] It was also concerned with events in the empire – and India was a particular focus. Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, both enthusiastic exponents of British colonialism, were fascinated by the South Asian ‘other’- the former using the Raj itself as a setting, whilst the latter often wrote of the Indian supernatural intruding on a British domestic tableau.[3] The story I will discuss, however, is by the British author B.M Croker, ‘The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ (1893).[4] Croker herself was from the (closer) boundaries of empire, born into a Protestant family in Ireland, but spent many years working and writing in India.[5] ‘The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ is notable for featuring two female protagonists, who are journeying across Gujarat to join their husbands for Christmas Day. These two Englishwomen are warned against doing so – a friend suggests they equip themselves both with quinine and with revolvers. The journey initially passes without incident, until the women stay for two nights in a house in a village on the route. Here, in the early morning, they have an encounter with a restless spirit, and witness his murder, which took place years before, played out again before them. At the conclusion of the story, they find his body, buried in a shallow grave, and resume their travels, in time for Christmas dinner with their partners.

This story reveals some of the assumptions, and fears, underpinning British control in the Indian Empire, as well as gender roles in both India and Britain. Firstly, Croker intends her heroines to be self-sufficient, despite others attempting to dissuade them, they travel independently (and armed), and solve the mystery of the haunted bungalow without male involvement. But crucially, they feel protected, and confident enough to traverse the Indian countryside, because of their white British identity. They are not in truth alone on this journey, they are accompanied by an Indian guide, Abdul, but they are unaccompanied by white men. Nevertheless, there is sufficient confidence in British hegemony and control in imperial India for the journey to be attempted, their Britishness and their whiteness giving them the right to travel where they please, without fear of injury or impediment. But in the second half of the gothic narrative this confidence is called into question. The man who is murdered is a white, British colonial administrator; his killers are both Indians, ‘othered’ in the text, portrayed as treacherous and avaricious, and one is described in the following terms: ‘a strange servant in a yellow turban, with cruel greedy eyes.’[6] Croker is suggesting that the assumptions that provide the basis for this sense of security are partially false – the British elite in India are resented by the Indian population, including that section of the society employed by or collaborating with the colonial administration, and this antipathy can potentially be expressed in extreme violence. The story might end with the women eating plum pudding in the company of their husbands, but this tale is not as cosy or as straightforward as it might initially appear.

The second gothic ‘othering’ to be discussed here that takes place over Christmas is set in Norfolk. This is the now obscure ‘The Terror in the Snow’ (1904) by B. Fletcher Robinson. Robinson is almost forgotten today, but was a close friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, and their discussions inspired the latter author to write The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).[7] The adventure, partly horror and partly detective story, occurs in a palatial mansion in the countryside, where it appears that the bloody killing of a financial magnate as Christmas Eve turns into Christmas Day is supernatural in nature, and possibly the work of a werewolf. In the end it is ambiguous whether a lycanthrope is responsible or not. The murdered man is called Baron Steen, and it is made clear that he is a shady entrepreneur, who has made his money by nefarious means and ‘played a bold game on the Stock Exchange’.[8] Indeed, on the night he is torn to pieces he is about to flee the country by boat, with the police circling. It is also heavily implied, although not explicitly stated, that he is Jewish. This characterisation grows out of a contemporary antisemitic stereotype that depicted Jews as corrupt businessmen, and also as arrivistes. Baron Steen has bought the country estate from an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times, and in a classic gothic plot device, have been cursed for several generations by a beast that haunts the environs of the mansion on snowy winter nights. The Baron represents modernity, but also the widespread Edwardian trope of Jews financially supplanting non-Jews (especially the old landed gentry), as well as being ‘vulgar’ and ‘flash’. Ultimately, he pays for this with his life. The sentiments that informed these depictions resulted in political change; the year after this tale was published, the Aliens Act was passed, which allowed for restriction on entry into the United Kingdom (and was particularly concerned with Jewish migration from Eastern Europe), and also facilitated deportation.[9]

Christmas is often accompanied by spooky tales. But it is not solely the ghosts of Christmas past who are there at the festive celebrations with clanking chains and cold draughts. In the fin-de-siècle gothic narrative contemporary prejudices lurk, sometimes acknowledged, and sometimes suppressed, but always present, and haunting the society in which they were formulated.

Dan Renshaw teaches modern British and European history at the University of Reading, and is particularly interested in migration history and the overlap between migration, minority identity and the gothic.

[1] Hume Nisbet, ‘The Old Portrait’ in Richard Dalby (ed.), Dracula’s Brood (London: Harper, 1987) pp.275-279

[2] See Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Victorian Studies (vol. 33, no.4, 1990) pp.621-645, Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, (London: Duke University Press, 1995), David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (London: Longman, 1996)

[3] Ailise Bulfin, Gothic Invasions: Imperialism, War, and Fin-de-Siecle Popular Fiction, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2018), Darryl Jones, ‘Introduction’ in Arthur Conan Doyle, Gothic Tales, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[4] B.M Croker, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ in Roger Luckhurst (ed.), Late Victorian Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) pp.96-108

[5] Luckhurst, ‘Introduction’ in Late Victorian Gothic Tales, p.xxiv

[6] Croker, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’, p.104

[7] B. Fletcher Robinson, ‘The Terror in the Snow’, in Mark Valentine (ed.), The Werewolf Pack (Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2008), pp.61-79

[8] Fletcher Robinson, ‘The Terror in the Snow’, p.62

[9] Bernard Gainer, The Alien Invasion: The Origins of the Aliens Act of 1905 (London: Heinemann Educational, 1972), Carol Margaret Davison, Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

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