Celebrating literature’s Christmas ghost and a local one as well

Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens.
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Back in 1963 singer Andy Williams captured the traditional Christmas spirit in his seasonal hit - ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of The Year.’

“With the kids jingle belling

Marley's Ghost. Illustration by John Leech.

Marley's Ghost. Illustration by John Leech.

And everyone telling you be of good cheer

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

But long before Andy celebrated old-fashioned Christmases the preface of a newly published book kickstarted traditional Yuletides, almost 180 years ago in December 1843.

“I have endeavoured in this ghostly little book, to raise the ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”

Original first edition cover.

Original first edition cover.

The preface was signed ‘CD’ - Charles Dickens - at the beginning of his soon-to-be bestselling publication which was originally entitled ‘A Christmas Carol in Prose, being A Ghost Story of Christmas.’

In the run-up to the 25th December, Roamer’s page will reflect on some of our most cherished seasonal traditions - singing carols, reminiscing, giving presents, and curiously, telling ghost stories!

In the second verse of the Most Wonderful Time of The Year Andy Williams sang:

“There’ll be scary ghost stories

Doreen McBride

Doreen McBride

And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

Punch magazine cartoonist John Leech famously depicted Ebenezer Scrooge’s Marley’s ghost for the first edition of Charles Dickens’ book, wonderful drawings that still adorn countless Christmas cards today.

Banbridge author, former biology teacher and story-teller Doreen McBride, whose books have often been mentioned on this page, shares a winter ghost story with us today that started long before her family moved into a big old house in south Belfast.

The spooky conclusion to Doreen’s true tale comes on Friday’s page, appropriately the 13th, but for now, here’s how it all started, recounted in her own inimitable way.

“My zoology practical class was held in temporary buildings that used to be behind Queens University. The heating was inadequate, to put it mildly, We, first year students, shivered as we set about dissecting something exotic such as earthworms. I can’t remember what! I do remember the poor creatures had to be immersed in water and the water was freezing.

“The lab technician kept going round adding boiling water from a kettle to our dissecting dishes, to no avail, they remained firmly frozen and we were sent home. It was a bleak January morning, freeing cold with snow covering the ground.

“I arrived home at approximately 11 00 am and found my mother, Anne Henry, drinking from a tumbler full of whisky at the kitchen table. I was shocked! Mum was, like me, a social drinker, and for one horrible moment I wondered if she was a secret alcoholic. I asked her. She answered indignantly, ‘No, I’ve just had a bit of a shock. If you promise not to laugh I’ll tell you when I get my head around it.

“I went, took my coat off and came back into the kitchen to find her still knocking back the whisky. I made her a cup of coffee and she sat drinking whiskey with one hand and coffee with the other.

“Eventually she gave a sigh, said, ‘I’m all right now. I’ll tell you about it if you promise not to laugh.’ I promised not to and she said, ‘I’ve seen the ghost.’

To my eternal shame I laughed! “She was cross. She said she was serious and she’d seen the ghost which the previous owner Mr Sloan had warned us about when we bought the house.

“My father, Bill Henry, bought the house in the spring of 1956 from Mr Sloan, who was a bank manager. As far as I can remember the price was £4,750. It was large Victorian semi-detached house with seven bedrooms and a garden of around an acre.

“Mr Sloan told us that the house was haunted and he would not let my father sign the contract until he’d discussed the ghost with the rest of the family. Mr Sloan signed, so he was legally tied, but my father could walk away from the purchase if he wanted to.

“My sister Eileen and I laughed at the idea of a ghost, but Mum took it seriously. She said she wanted to talk to Mr Sloan about it. She phoned him and they had a long conversation.

“The gist of it was that Mrs Sloan had suffered a heart attack and had been kept in bed for several months. (That’s how heart attacks were treated in those days!)

So Mr Sloan advertised for a home-help and employed a young girl from Donegal. I think her name was Mary, but I’m not quite sure.

“When Mrs Sloan began to recover she and her husband wanted to have an occasional night out. But each time, when they came back home, Mary was always in the garden, no matter what the weather was like.

“Mary insisted that the house was haunted and was adamant that she couldn’t stay in it on her own. Once, to their horror, they found Mary shivering in deep snow in the garden, late at night, after they’d come home from a bank formal dance.

“The Sloans were fond of Mary and were worried by her fear of the ghost so they decided to move out.”

Doreen’s family moved in, and you can find out what happened, here on Friday!