Scary stories have always been part and parcel of Christmas, from creepy characters like Belsnickel to M.R. James terrifying pupils with his ghost stories around a blazing fire. Ross Montgomery is the latest sick individual to try his hand at this dark art:
‘For me, horror and Christmas work perfectly together. There’s something indescribably creepy about Christmas Eve: It’s the idea of it being so safe and warm inside when it’s so dark out. It’s like we’re all huddling in safety, trying to protect ourselves from something lurking out there in the cold.’
The setting is the ancient Soul’s college on Christmas Eve, a place that is far from safe. A secret society gathers to tell one another the most upsetting stories they can muster. The author of the most terrible tale will be permitted to enter the college’s vast catacombs, and search for a set of infernal false teeth with the power to tell stories so scary they can kill.
Witnessing all of this is young Lewis, who has been forced into acting as waiter for the evening after he was caught throwing rocks at the windows. He quickly realises that the evening may end terribly badly for him.
Montgomery says he was inspired by the old Amicus ‘portmanteau’ horror movies like Tales from the Crypt. Each one was built around a simple spine, and would culminate in a twist after the last tale was finished. Here we get seven stories that range from fairy tales to tales of the unexpected, each finely crafted with a careful balance of humour and horror.
Crucially the stories hang together effectively, and the further we get into the book the more tense they become, partly because we know of the terrible fate hanging over poor Lewis. Montgomery says he often felt disappointed by the endings of portmanteau horrors, and there is a real effort made here to create a satisfying denouement – and one that I didn’t see coming.
Like all good horror stories there are plenty of images that will stick in your head long after reading. A cabinet containing a footless corpse, a bulging chimney breast and a long, empty attic room with something unspeakable in the corner.
‘It was a filthy rag curtain, strung with wire from the rafters. There was something hidden behind it – a stack of dead twigs. There were sounds coming from it, too…’
Accompanying the text are wonderful chapter headers by Montgomery’s regular illustrator David Litchfield which, like the writing, tread the line between scary and funny. I could have done with more of both.
Buy this book for the unusual child in your life. It is perfect to read under the covers as you lie awake on Christmas Eve and wonder about the real motives of the old man in red creeping around your bedroom.
Christmas Dinner of Souls is published by Faber