As a major contributor to received ideas about the traditional English Christmas, Charles Dickens was well aware that our chief midwinter festival has considerable potential for spookiness. What is A Christmas Carol, after all, if not a supreme ghost story?
Very apt, then, to meet the great man in person, leading a troupe of Ghosts of Christmas Past, in the first of my three back page selections. It’s an adaptation by Tony Ross of G K Chesterton’s The Shop of Ghosts (Andersen, 0 86264 470 4, £8.99). The opening sentences establish the mood:
“‘Tell me a story, Grandad. It’s Christmas Eve and I can’t sleep.” Grandad crinkled his face and tickled his nose. Outside, the snow had begun to stick and sounds were muffled…’
Instantly, Grandad (who bears a striking resemblance to GKC himself) transports us to a time when ‘to ride on top of a tram was to be on a flying castle… It was when you could buy nearly all the best things in the world for a penny – except smiles and starry nights, thunderstorms and cosy toes – things like that you could get for nothing!’
Don’t be fooled, though. All isn’t well in the crooked little toyshop, hiding in the back alleys of the city. The proprietor, you see, is Father Christmas.
And he’s dying.
Luckily, here’s where the ghosts come in. After Dickens comes Charles the Second, William Shakespeare and Robin Hood who remind Santa that he always has been dying, and always will be, so what’s the problem? It’s a point that, in this necessarily abbreviated version, may need a little amplifying for some children but they’ll be instantly at home with Tony Ross’s illustrations. These weave rich, jaunty variations on Christmas card iconography with a beady eye on both detail and character – differences in dress between the social classes, for instance, or the presentation of Dickens as a vain, actor-ish dandy. Here we have Tony Ross in top form, offsetting the sentimentality of Chesterton’s tale with his sharp, sweeping line and deft use of colour but never undermining the story itself.
Undermining Yule-tide itself, no less, is Tim Burton’s aim with The Nightmare Before Christmas (Puffin, 0 14 055325 8, £4.99). This depends on one of those single, brilliant ideas that’s obvious once someone has thought of it: suppose there was a swop between Christmas and another, very different winter festival?
‘It was late one fall in Hallowe’enland, and the air had quite a chill.
Against the moon a skeleton sat, alone upon a hill
He was tall and thin with a bat-bow tie;
Jack Skellington was his name.
He was tired and bored in Hallowe’enland –
Everything was always the same.’
Er, yes… the metre does wobble a bit and so, later on, does the rhyme even with due allowance for transatlantic pronunciation. Once the tale has hit its stride, though, with a send-up of Clement C Moore’s well-known poem (surely the most parodied piece in the language) the reader is swept along by the sheer gusto of the enterprise:
‘Twas the nightmare before Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a creature was peaceful, not even a mouse.
The stockings all hung by the chimney with care,
When opened that morning would cause quite a scare…’
The verse remains a touch maverick, it’s true. So do the illustrations – a spikey, unwieldy amalgam of various drawing styles with a distinct air of the cinema in angle and perspective. This is no accident, for the maverick in question is the Tim Burton of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands fame and a former animator with the Disney Studios. His picture book, now published in Britain, will soon be boosted by the arrival of the full-length bigscreen, animated carton treatment which took America by storm last year. Such are the Ghosts of Christmas Present. If the movie has even half the offbeat flair of this paperback, don’t miss it.
What of the picture-book Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come, though? Hard to predict, perhaps… but giving us a hint is John Olsen’s The 3-D Night Before Christmas (Gazelle, 1 8558 6202 6, £5.99). Yes, Clement C Moore yet again, presented straight this time, but accompanied by an entirely fresh set of images. That’s if you can find them. For this is one of those computerised sterogram-art productions where figures leap out of the page for some people and remain infuriatingly hidden for others.
Amazingly, for me they worked – 15 eerie, three-dimensional visions of fireplace, bedroom, stockings and Santa’s arrival and departure, all hovering in some limbo at the back of the page and beyond. At least, I think they worked. The 3-D solutions at the end of the book, confirming what readers should have seen, are in severe black-and-white, not the full-colour patterning of the originals. So, though I recognised all of them, it was as if the shapes had been wallpapered over.
Is this how they should have appeared or am I missing something?
Fascinating and scary, either way. I couldn’t help wondering what a combination of John Olsen’s technical wizardry and a genuihe artistic talent such as Anthony Browne’s would have achieved, though. King Kong looming out of the page towards us? No doubt we’ll find out before long… about the Christmas after next, I expect.