My Grown-Up Literary Christmas List

Making a List, Checking it Twice

A little while ago, I offered a list of Christmas movies that provided alternatives to sweet rom-coms. My list trended more toward serial killers, terrorist takeovers, and fluffy creatures who will kill you in your sleep than toward undercover royals and small towns in need of saving.

But what if movie viewing isn’t an option this Christmas? Maybe you were outvoted, and you need an escape from the shiny-happy movie marathon. Maybe your house is overrun with merrymakers, and you’re peopled out and just want to hide in a corner with a book. Or maybe you’re like me and are taking advantage of the time off work to sleep in during the day and stay up late at night reading and listening to ghost stories.

Forget Elves

Ghost stories? At Christmas? Yep. It’s a tradition, or was, anyway. Anglophiles are probably more familiar with it than the rest of us, as the British were the main keepers of this un-merriment. Telling scary stories during the long, dark nights of winter pre-dates both the British Empire and the Christian religion, of course, and is hardly limited to the English-speaking world. (Heard of Krampus? Frau Perchta? Olentzero?) However, the British, through the likes of M.R. James, Charles Dickens, Algernon Blackwood, E.F. Benson, and others, turned ghost stories in particular into a Christmas thing. Mention of the practice even worked its way into the American Christmas song, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

It’s A Crime

Ghoulies and ghosties aren’t your things but still want something to read when, to quote Colin Fleming in his Paris Review article, “Ghosts on the Nog,” “the glimpsed mistletoe kisses of new lovers are akin to sprigs of holly jabbed through the temple?” Pair your seasonally appropriate adult beverage with a Christmas mystery instead. As Martin Edwards said in his introduction to Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries, “When television becomes tiresome, and party games pall, the prospect of curling up with a good mystery is enticing—and much better for the digestion than yet another helping of plum pudding.”

(Full disclosure: I’ve been featuring holiday-themed cozy mysteries on my podcast, The Cozy Corner with Alexia Gordon, this month.)

Your TBR Pile’s Too Small

So, for your late-night (or whatever time of day best suits you), slightly subversive Christmas enjoyment, I present a bloody spooky reading list. (Or listening list. The M.R. James ghost stories are particularly effective in audio format. I listen to them on Audible, but you can probably find them elsewhere.)

  • “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” by M.R. James, read by David Suchet
  • “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance,” by M.R. James
  • “The Stalls of Barchester,” by M.R. James, read by Sir Christopher Lee
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • The Valmont Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, vols. 1-3
  • Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
  • Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith
  • Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie, read by Hugh Fraser
  • The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James
  • Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon
  • A Surprise for Christmas and Other Seasonal Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
  • A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (if you like your Christmas stories philosophical and gloomy)

STEM for the Holidays

This one is neither a ghost story nor a crime story but it’s snarky and combines Christmas with math jokes

The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oleron Evans

Okay, Okay

These stories fall into the “sweet” category; however, I include them because the first is written by the author of The Wizard of Oz, which includes flying monkeys, and the last two are read in that “Dateline” voice (as special episodes of the “Dateline” podcast) we all love.

  • The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss, read by Keith Morrison
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May, read by Keith Morrison
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