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Bad Santas Advent Calendar Day 9 – Christmas in America

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Christmas had enjoyed a chequered history in America. When the first Europeans fled there to escape religious persecution, many brought with them the traditions of misrule and chaos that had shaped the Christmas of the Middle Ages. The southern states had carried on celebrations much as their ancestors had before the Reformation with drinking, feasting, dancing, wild partying and – this being America – gunfire. Like in England, masked working-class revellers would wander from house to house demanding food and drink and threatening destruction.

In the North, colonies such as New England were founded by Puritans, so Christmas was largely opposed – and even banned outright – well into the nineteenth century. Although America’s foundation was hugely influenced by religious exiles fleeing persecution, it was not always the same religious exiles or beliefs. This was not too much of a problem at first – colonies were set up by people with shared beliefs and attitudes and America was too vast and sparsely populated for the different factions to need to mingle together. Tensions increased as American cities expanded in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. By the beginning of the nineteenth century there were particular difficulties in the cities of the northeast such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

The essential problem was a class divide. Working-class revellers would roam the streets at Christmas forming calithump bands – impromptu and tuneless orchestras of drunks with horns, whistles and pots and pans – making as much noise as possible. Mumming was popular and even today Philadelphia still celebrates New Year’s Day with a Mummers’ Parade. They would visit middle-class houses and put on bawdy shows with lewd jokes before demanding hospitality and gifts in return. The middle classes wanted peace and relaxation with their families. They did not welcome visits from drunken oiks swearing, drinking and putting on vulgar shows, especially when this unpleasantness was compounded by being asked to hand out gifts and food to the very people who were pestering them.

What’s more, drunken Christmas riots were a frequent occurrence. Perhaps the most vivid example was in 1826 when cadets at the US Military Academy in New York were banned from drinking at Christmas. A few decided to do so anyway but slipped a bit too much whisky in their eggnog. What began with nine cadets having a quiet drink on Christmas Eve ended up with a lieutenant knocked unconscious and one third of the cadets taking up arms against their superiors in the mistaken belief that they were about to be assaulted by the full might of the US Army.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is available now from Simon and Schuster.   The picture at the top is allegedly a painting of the Eggnog Riots but I’m not entirely sure who painted it and can only presume they captured it in its very early stages…

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar – Day 5: the Krampus

The Krampus

The Krampus is a demonic hell-beast resembling a horrifically mutated goat with a sadistically wide range of punishments and tortures.  He beat children with a birch rod on occasions, but he also had a whole repertoire of penalties that ranged from ripping out a girl’s pigtails to leading children off cliffs Pied Piper-style or tossing children onto a train that was on a one-way journey to a lake of fire. He especially enjoyed eating naughty children for Christmas dinner and he’d even carry a bathtub on his back just in case the mood took him to drown a child in a bathful of water – or sometimes ink – before fishing them out with his pitchfork to eat.

5 December was not only St Nicholas’s Eve but it was also Krampusnacht – the night when the Krampus was free to roam the Alpine streets, heading from house to house to demand tribute, often in the form of alcohol.  The Krampusse in question were really large groups of young men dressed up in self-made costumes of fur, masks and goats’ horns charging around the streets with birch rods and pitchforks getting increasingly drunk, accusing people they encounter of misbehaviour and threatening to beat them up as punishment. Genuine monsters from the fires of Hell would probably have caused less destruction.

Whilst many of these other Christmas characters peaked during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, interest in and enthusiasm for the Krampus seems to have grown over time and the Krampusnacht remains popular today.  The nineteenth-century invention of Christmas cards saw an explosion of Christmas images of the Krampus sent around the world. The images were generally intended to be comical and something about the mischievousness and malevolence of the character clearly appealed, for Krampus cards were extremely popular. One card shows him grabbing a girl by the pigtails trying to pull her hair out.  Another sees him in a motor car stealing children.  In yet another card he is dragging a group of children off the edge of a cliff, beating children or driving off in a cart with a child in a sack on his back. Yet another card shows a group of children opening a box wrapped with shiny Christmas paper only to find the Krampus hiding inside waiting for them.

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Some of the cards have a clear sexual twist. The Krampus is sometimes seen romancing attractive ladies and a couple of cards even show gigantic female Krampusse – far more woman than Krampus – chasing after adult men or carrying them away in her sack. This sexual theme for the Krampus would expand hugely after the sexual liberation in the 1960s, when cards often showed the fierce demonic figure invading the bedrooms of scantily clad women to beat them with his birch rod.

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For the most part, however, the Krampus remains a source of terror.  The Krampusnacht continues today and is as popular as ever and, whilst it is slightly more sanitised than its anarchic Medieval peak, it still makes for a surreal and terrifying experience.

Visit here for some more absolutely incredible Krampus images.*

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas” by Paul Hawkins is published by Simon & Schuster and out now.  The Krampus image in the picture is by Mel Four and taken from the book.  The other Krampus pictures are from vintagepostcards and are mostly taken from Krampus.com

*(genuinely – it’s a link to the Atlantic and not affiliated to me in anyway!)

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Five of my favourite supernatural stories

As it’s Hallowe’en and, as I’ve recently been reading loads of supernatural fiction from the late 19th and earliest 20th Centuries – you might find out why when I come to write my next book… –  I thought I’d share some of my favourite supernatural stories.  All the works are out of copyright so I’ve included links to them online.

 

I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum but they will be there so nonetheless you might want to read the stories before reading my comments.

 

  1. “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” by Algernon Blackwood

Click here to read. 

My publishing editor Kerri recently introduced me to Algernon Blackwood and I’m a huge fan.  He wrote about the supernatural but is not a horror writer in the conventional sense.  “The Willows” is a brilliant piece of horror writing but generally he seemed far more interested in creating a sense of wonder and awe at the possibilities of the supernatural than outright frightening people.

 

Several of his stories are based around the idea of plants and nature having a secret life and mind of their own and “the Man Whom the Trees Loved” is one of the best of them.  What I find incredible about it is that it’s a story with virtually no action whatsoever – if you made it into a film then it would basically be an elderly man wandering around some woods a lot whilst his wife sits at home fretting about him – but it nonetheless builds up this compelling sense of psychological horror a whilst, at the same time, it’s also a brilliant portrayal of quiet sadness in the gradual unspoken and unfixable disintegration of a marriage.

 

2.  “The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle

Click here to read.

Arthur Conan Doyle is another writer who was a master of the supernatural and the collection “Tales of Unease” brilliant.  Perhaps “Lot No. 249” – one of the earliest and the best stories examples of Mummy fiction –  is perhaps the scariest story of the collection but I love  “the Horror of the Heights” for two reasons.  Firstly the macabre glee that Conan Doyle takes in the gruesome violence – “And where, pray, is Myrtle’s Head?” – but also because the story functions as a time capsule of a story with its central horror – a Cryptozoological explanation of the deaths of early aeroplane pioneers – long since obsolete.  Nonetheless the ideas are incredible and it’s not only a masterful piece of fiction from perhaps my favourite short story writer of all time but also an incredible piece of imagination and insight into the ideas of the 19th Century.

 

3. “The Eyes” by Edith Wharton

Click here to read.

There tends to be a certain snobbery about supernatural stories and, perhaps like any kind of ‘genre’ fiction, a sense that it’s not as impressive as ‘proper’, serious literature.  This is, of course, absolute nonsense.  However Edith Wharton makes a brilliant case as someone who was best known as a ‘proper’ author but absolutely excelled at writing in the supernatural genre.  “The Lady Maid’s Bell” and “Afterward” are perhaps her best-known ghost stories but “The Eyes” is my favourite.  The story of an elderly socialite and ‘confirmed bachelor’ who is haunted by the vision of two mysterious and horrendously evil eyes haunting him at various junctures of his life, the ultimate reveal of the owner of the eyes is phenomenal and it’s a brilliant character study of how somebody can trick themselves into believing that doing the right thing and wanting to be seen as doing the right thing are one and the same thing.

 

 

4.  “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” by M. R. James

Click here to read

M.R. James is perhaps the most consistent writer of ghost stories I’ve ever encountered so I’ve essentially picked one at random to serve as a favourite.  What I love abut him is that he writes in this brilliantly anecdotal style.  Most of his stories happen to a friend of a friend of a work colleague, he’ll divert from the telling to talk about his own thoughts and he’ll occasionally forget or not be aware of certain details of the story, which adds to this brilliant sense that it all might be real.  It also functions as a ruse to avoid superfluous narrative and flowery language as he’ll frequently break from his stories to apologise for the fact that, as he’s never been to the town in question, he can’t possibly begin to explain what it looks like.

 

What’s more he creates stories where, although a ghost is implicit in most of his stories, he deliberately shies away from providing definitive evidence and he’s got an incredible knack of ending his stories by basically saying ‘of course, I can’t say for sure what really happened so you’ll have to draw your own conclusion’, whilst of course being well aware he’s already made sure the reader knows exactly what to think about what’s happened.

 

Thrown in with this is a tendency to find the horror in simple everyday events – in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” the basic idea is lying alone in one of two twin beds in a bedroom and then realising something is happening in the bed next to you.  James created ghost stories terrifying in their very simplicity.

 

  1.  “The White People” by Arthur Machen

Click here to read.

Like Algernon Blackwood, Machen was recommended me to me by my Kerri and, whilst I find his work a bit more patchy than Algernon Blackwood, when it’s good it’s utterly brilliant.  “The White People” is possibly his most famous story and certainly, of what I’ve read of him so far, one of his best.  In complete contrast to MR James, it’s an absolute masterclass in descriptive writing and, after an opening five pages of thought-provoking philosophising over the nature of evil and introducing the central diary entry that tells the central story, it bursts into a dizzying, spellbinding narrative that is breathlessly intense in the form of a series of diary of entries as a teenage girl writes in an innocent, child-like fashion about her induction into the world of the occult.

 

It’s written as  a collection of fragments, thoughts and feelings rather than a fully-formed narrative (and indeed it tantalising breaks off at the crucial moment) but it’s an utterly spellbinding piece of writing.

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Photos of last Friday’s Awkward Silences gig at the Windmill

Richard Pearmain has again kindly posted up his pictures of the most recent Awkward Silences gig.

You can see them here.

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Brilliant article by Laurie Penny on Manic Pixie Dream Girls

This article on the New Statesman is one of the best things on depictions of female characters  in fiction that I’ve read for a while.  It’s a must read, especially for aspiring writers.

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Two Paul Hawkins & the Awkward Silences’ gigs this weekend. Get MP3s of new songs if you come to both!

This weekend, Paul Hawkins & the Awkward Silences play two gigs, with an on-stage set-up we’re really excited about that we’ve never used before.

First of all, on Friday we’re playing in South London at Joyzine’s Night of Joy at the Brixton Windmill with Extradition Order, Jack Hayter, James Cheshire and Dexy.

Then on Sunday we’re playing at T Chances in Tottenham.  It’s the Catapulte Records festival.  Catapulte are a collective of brilliant musicians.  There’s several great bands playing and it’s going to be absolutely amazing.   And there’s a barbecue.

Both are superb promoters with a fantastic taste in music who really care about what they’re doing and I’d recommend either gig!  And if you come to both gigs, we’ll email you some MP3s of new, unreleased Silences’ material that even our friends and families haven’t heard yet.

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New website for the Count of Chateau Noir.

The Count of Chateau Noir has a new website with links to news, songs and so forth.

You can visit him at http://afterthecarnival.com

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