Descriptions and Depictions of Fireside Storytelling

Barabas: Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who, in my wealth, would tell me winter’s tales
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.

Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta (c. 1592)

Hermione: [P]ray you sit by us,
And tell ‘s a tale.
Mamillius: Merry or sad shall it be?
Hermione: As merry as you will.
Mamillius: A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.

William Shakespeare, A Winter’s Tale (1623)

When the Men and the Maids have ended their Gambols, are all seated around the Fire, and Bed-time is drawing on, then John begins some dismal Story to the Company about Apparitions and Hobgoblins, and so about it goes till all the rest of the Society are drawn into the same kind of Discourse, and frightened out of their Wits with dreadful Apprehension.

Dick Merryman, Round about our Coal Fire; or, Christmas Entertainments (1734)

In the evening, when the party met round the social fire, after the usual sports, Charles Woodley proposed that they should each tell a story, and, if they pleased, he would begin. “I will tell you,” said he, “such a terrible story about a ghost, that you will be afraid to look around you.”

Sarah Wheatley, The Christmas Fire-Side; or, The Juvenile Critics (1806)

Another of [Icabod Crane’s] sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him.

Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819)

Großmutter erzählt
Großmutter erzählt (Grandma Tells Tales), by Friedrich Wilhelm Schloen (1845)

There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories — Ghost Stories, or more shame for us — round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.

Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Tree” (1850)

A Ghost Story - George Thomas smaller
“A Ghost Story,” by George Thomas, from Illustrated London News 45 (Dec., 1864) pp. 644-45
R.N. Brooke
“Telling Stories Round the Camp Fire,” by R.N. Brooke, from Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 14, 1872, p. 972.

In those days we had no magazines and daily papers, each reeling off a serial story…. There was no theatre, no opera; there were in Oldtown no parties or balls, except, perhaps, the annual election, or Thanksgiving festival; and when winter came, and the sun went down at half-past four o’clock, and left the long, dark hours of evening to be provided for, the necessity of amusement became urgent. Hence, in those days, chimney-corner story-telling became an art and an accomplishment. Society then was full of traditions and narratives which had all the uncertain glow and shifting mystery of the firelit hearth upon them. They were told to sympathetic audiences, by the rising and falling light of the solemn embers, with the hearth-crickets filling up every pause.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, “The Ghost in the Mill” (1872)

Let us imagine a group of young people sitting about the dying embers of a fire on a winter’s evening, listening to a ghost story. The black darkness, the sound of the wind howling without, accord with the low tones, the dim light, and the tale of horror within. The minds of the listeners insensibly cast off their ordinary trains of thought, and give themselves up to the unreal impressions of the moment. The incredible circumstances of the apparition are accepted without question or criticism; the impression of the supernatural occurrences is alone thought of and enjoyed. But now, let the same tale be read aloud after breakfast, from a newspaper, with the affidavits of the witnesses of the apparition duly attached, and only laughter can be the result.

Bayard Tuckerman, A History of English Prose Fiction (1882)

Mr. Rangle's Ghost Story
An anonymous illustration for H.J.V. Torode’s “Mr. Rangle’s Ghost Story,” The Lamp 27 (1884) p. 393.

The wood piled on with generous hand,
The huge back-log and fiery brand
Light up the room and o’er the wall
Fantastic shadows gently fall
And then the weird tales of ghosts,
Of heroes, and of mighty hosts
That met in battle’s shock afar;
The thunders of the mighty war
That rocked our country, when the sun
Of Freedom rose at Lexington.

Anonymous, History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania (1887)

Snow-bound
“We sped the time with stories old,” by E.H. Garrett, in Snow-bound; A Winter Idyll, by John Greenleaf Whittier (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1891) p. 13.

‘God bless you and your good wife, sir, for the cordial welcome you have given to the poor stranger. It reminds me of the gay old times when I was a happy boy under the roof-tree of my parents, when we loved to pass the Christmas-eve by the cheerful fireside, singing the old songs of our persecuted land, and listening to the ghost stories and fairy tales until the hour arrived to attend the midnight mass. Oh, those times! those grand old times will never come again.’

Barry O’Connor, Turf-fire Stories & Fairy Tales of Ireland (1905)

H.M. Brock
“Ghost Stories Round the Christmas Fire,” by H.M. Brock, in The Christmas Tree, by Charles Dickens, (Hodder & Stoughton, c. 1911).

Ghosts have always been invited to Christmas parties, and whether they are seen or not, they always come; nor is any form of story so popular by the Christmas fire as the ghost-story — which, when one thinks of it, is rather odd, considering the mirthful character of the time. Yet, after all, what are our memories but ghost-stories? Ah! the beautiful ghosts that come to the Christmas fire!

Richard Le Gallienne, “A Christmas Meditation” (1915)

[T]he people of the Victorian age, when ghost stories were ghost stories, loved nothing better than to get round a blazing fire as the night grew late and listen to a tale of ‘apparitions’ and ‘figures’ till even the stoutest of them took up his tallow candle to go to bed in a fit of the shudders, or, more dreadful and more delicious still, to read the awful tale in bed itself and by the uncertain light of the taper.

Stephen Leacock, “The Passing of the Christmas Ghost Story” (1919)


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