Another year, another Christmas, another hunt for seasonal reading material ... In this area, the crime fiction fans get all the fun. So many "Golden Age" detective stories feature a Christmas party in a lonely country house, with road access blocked by snow as the clock ticks towards midnight and the butler's horrified discovery of a body in the library. Even private-eye fiction has festive moments like Rex Stout's superfatted sleuth Nero Wolfe eavesdropping on party conversations by disguising himself as – you guessed it – Santa Claus.
I produced a frighteningly erudite survey of Santa's fantasy appearances for the Christmas 1998 SFX. Here's one that I missed. Eric Thacker's and Anthony Earnshaw's surreal illustrated novel Musrum has a yet more surreal sequel called Wintersol, all about that wicked man Father Christmas:
"This is the tale of an enemy whom millions regard as a friend. It tells of the origins and early career of one who races like a spectre across our wintry skies, and descends from time to time to swivel a maleficent eye towards our camps and settlements."
So much for obscure erudition. Actually, my favourite fantasy Christmas scenes are totally Santa-free (but may contain nuts) and appear in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. There's a great moment when time stops during a carol performance and our young hero follows his Merlin-like mentor's footsteps on a weird journey into the past, still singing "Good King Wenceslas".
Besides this being a nicely magical scene, I'm afraid I like it for the wrong reasons. Since childhood I've had rotten hearing and zero ability to follow music except as an irritating noise. The infant Langford spent too many festive occasions suffering through agonising church hymns and carols, wishing desperately that time would halt as in the book, leaving all those singers frozen in mid-ghastly shriek.
Equally basely, I love the scene in The Dark Is Rising that subjects the village church to a mass attack by malevolent rooks after the Christmas Day service. That's how to criticise boring sermons! And none of your wimpy stuff about the forces of evil – the Dark – being subdued on holy days, either. Now is the time to resist a digression into Terry Pratchett's invention, while still a schoolboy, of Tolkien/Jane Austen crossover fiction, leading to his nostalgic reminiscence: "It was a really good bit when the orcs attacked the rectory ..."
A particularly heartwarming sample of Christmas spirit appears in another children's series, J.P. Martin's "Uncle" books, where the elephantine title character dutifully asks the bad guys round for lavish seasonal festivities (and turns a blind eye as these evil-doers lace their soft drinks with Black Tom or Leper Gin). Just imagine Bilbo Baggins sending an eleventy-first birthday party invitation to Sauron.
Then of course there's Dickens, but A Christmas Carol is so utterly, maddeningly familiar that I'd rather mention a send-up that made me giggle. This is Edward Gorey's graphic novelette The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas. When Edmund Gravel, known as the Recluse of Lower Spigot, takes tea all alone on Christmas Eve with a miserable accompaniment of decade-old fruitcake ... there is a Manifestation. A monstrous beetle erupts from within the tea-cosy! "I am the Bahhum Bug," it explains. "I am here to diffuse the interests of didacticism." And poor Gravel is subjected to three spectral visitations of increasing silliness. Great stuff.
What the world now needs, I think, is a Christmas story in the manner of that master of adjectival horror, H.P. Lovecraft. I haven't worked out the plot details, but the last paragraph will probably go something like this:
"Would that I had heeded the cryptic warnings in that fatal grimoire, the unspeakable, unreadable Necroyuletidecon! Would that my eyes had been torn from their sockets ere they witnessed what now swelled in eldritch, ichorous foulness from the pentacular portal beyond time and space which I had thought a mere fireplace. By its beard-like tentacles, its gibbous form, its vilely rufous integument, I knew this adipose abomination was the most dreaded of the Old Ones, the Sleigher from the Cold Waste – great Yog-Santathoth himself! As my last vestiges of sanity fled, I, Ebenezer Scrooge, felt this fungoid horror's bestial taint corrupting my own soul, with a terrible, blasphemous craving for turkey and plum pudding ..."
David Langford now plans to have a wassail. Happy New Year!