Monday, December 25, 2023

Thurlow's Christmas Story

Did you know that the Christmas season not only brings glad tidings, but also ghost stories? Sure, the easy nod here goes to the ultimate Christmas ghost story, Charles Dickens' 1842 classic A Christmas Carol. But, references to the Christmas ghost can be dated as far back as 1730 with Round about Our Coal-Fire (aka Christmas Entertainments). 

In an effort to locate a Christmas tale for Paperback Warrior, I delved through some old anthologies and found Horrors in Hiding, a 1973 Berkley Medallion paperback edited by Sam Moskowitz and Alden H. Norton. While the cover screams Halloween, the book actually features a Christmas story called "Thurlow's Ghost Story" (misspelled in the TOC), authored by John Kendrick Bangs. The story was originally published in Harper's Weekly in 1894 as "Thurlow's Christmas Story". It turns out that Bangs was the humor editor at Harper's and was assigned with writing a holiday-themed story that year. He submitted "Thurlow's Christmas Story" as a sort of morality tale/tongue-in-cheek jab at holiday publishing deadlines.

The story is presented as a mild form of ergodic literature, meaning that the text itself represents a piece of the story. You can find this meta-story in a story in other early fiction, something like Bram Stoker's Dracula where parts of the book are diary entries. Here, the story is a statement written by Henry Thurlow, an author assigned the cumbersome task of writing a holiday-themed piece for the Idler, a Weekly Journal of Human Interest. The story's text is this statement sent to George Currier, the journal's editor. 

In the statement, Thurlow attempts to explain, in detail, why the assignment hasn't been completed, why the looming deadline is in jeopardy of tardiness, and how his own mindset is being plagued by an unknown supernatural force. Thurlow advises that several nights ago he saw his doppelganger standing at the foot of the stairs. He describes this vision as, “It was then that I first came face to face with myself – that other self, in which I recognized, developed to the full, every bit of my capacity for an evil life.” A week later, Thurlow sees the person again, describing it as, “...that figure which was my own figure, that face which was the evil counterpart of my own countenance, again rose up before me, and once more I was plunged into hopelessness.” 

As the deadline looms closer, Thurlow experiences this bizarre visitation multiple times. However, the strangest visitation occurs one night when the author's fan arrives at his doorstep to present him with a manuscript. The fan explains that he spent nearly a decade writing the story and that he feels Thurlow should publish the piece as his own. Without spoiling too much, Thurlow sheepishly accepts the manuscript and dismisses the fan. Later, Thurlow reads the manuscript and deems it to be brilliant. By using his own byline, Thurlow submits the manuscript only to find a surprising response from his editor. In a clever way, the text the reader is consuming makes up the final submission to the editor. The long and short of how the text becomes a part of the story is a real thrill.

You can read this story, including a neat write-up on Christmas ghost stories, at the Library of America's Story of the Week blog HERE.

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