Winter literature has its own niches and sub-genres – children’s books, festive chick-lit, Carol Ann Duffy’s individually published poems. My own favourite is the Christmas ghost story, something which came about in the Victorian era but has been periodically revived. For me this is more than mere personal affection, and I work closely with a number of others – writers Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Emma Jane Unsworth and Tom Fletcher and artist Beth Ward – to publish a bespoke anthology of “Curious Tales” each year (this year’s volume is Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales). But ghost stories are only one of the ways in which the written word engages with the season. Taken as a whole, the myriad descriptions and depictions of winters past serve as an extended narrative, charting a course of the human imagination.
1 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anonymous (late 14th century)
This, one feels, is an early example of a tale to be told by firelight. At the court of King Arthur, the winter festivities are disrupted by the arrival of a spectral green knight. There is a duel, in which the knight is beheaded by Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain; he then picks his head up, holds it aloft and promises that the two of them shall meet again. It’s a hell of an opening. The poem only came to light during the Victorian era which, as any Christmasologist will tell you, is the yuletide’s golden age. So much here prefigures the tropes found in modern winter literature: family and friends gather for warmth and jollity, feasting is the order of the day, good cheer is lubricated by heroic quantities of booze … and then the stranger arrives.
2 ‘Lucy Gray’ in Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth (1800)
For the Romantic poets the sublime – that mysterious sense of awe and terror induced by the natural world – took on its darker manifestation in winter. Snow, in this poem, is merciless and deadly: the lonely Lucy Gray, who wanders out into an unexpected blizzard, gets lost and is never seen again. At a glance, the poem’s fable-like arrangement makes it seem a simple instructive tale: beware winter. But look again: it is the manmade world – a lantern and a wooden bridge – which lead Lucy astray. And, rather than simply dying, she takes on a new kind of life in which she and nature become indivisible and eternal.
3 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)
Other than depictions of the nativity, there is no work of art that has furnished society so comprehensively with what we now think of as Christmas: the generosity of spirit, the personal rebirth through reflection, the gaucheness and sentimentality, even saying “Merry Christmas” to one another. In the same way that (to paraphrase Joey from Friends) the television gave us something to point our furniture at, A Christmas Carol gave us something to point our winters at. That it should be a novel which cemented the notion of Christmas as the grand secular holiday we now have (Jesus is mentioned only obliquely) is something even the most cynical fiction writer revels in.
4 Poem 311: ‘It sifts from Leaden Sieves’ by Emily Dickinson (written c.1862, published 1891)
By the mid-19th century, there had been enough improvements in housing and heating to transform winter into something of a spectator sport. Emily Dickinson’s winter is charged with wildness – the snow buries the “stump and stack and stem” and creates “Acres of seams where harvests were”. And yet everything is viewed, figuratively speaking, from behind a window pane. Liberated from the harshness of the season, Dickinson is able, in both this and the handful of other winter poems she produced, to project her own quiet inner turmoil on to a world being, as we see here, slowly and cinematically blanketed.
5 The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
There emerged towards the end of the 19th century a mini-industry based around polar exploration, and no voyage was complete without its heroes’ bestselling diaries and memoirs. The most enjoyable of these remains The Worst Journey in the World, a title which is no mere hyperbole. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the survivors of Scott’s doomed 1910 expedition, wrote the book as a means of overcoming what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. There is more than a touch of the absurd – the core of the narrative focuses on a perilous trek in search of a penguin egg – and in many ways Cherry-Garrard’s entirely needless suffering foreshadows that slouching towards Europe in the guise of the first world war. But what makes it such an engrossing read is his almost hallucinatory attention to detail: the frozen-rigid clothes limiting his movements, the blisters in his fingers turning to ice, and the maddening wide-open twilight of the Antarctic.
6 ‘The Glamour of the Snow’ by Algernon Blackwood (1911)
The great ghost story writer MR James would gather together his friends and colleagues on Christmas Eve to read them his latest tale, but the seasons are curiously absent from his work. This story by his contemporary Algernon Blackwood touches upon his two obsessions: the supernatural and what he saw as the need for man to reconnect with nature in the face of modernity. Like all good ghost stories, the premise is simplicity itself – a lonely traveller goes on a skiing holiday in the Alps. And, although the prose is occasionally hoarily overdone, the spectral chill in the night air remains tangible. Especially when Hibbert, our main character, encounters a mysterious woman who seems to emerge from the snow to lure him away from the cosy safety of the hotel and up into the mountains.
7 ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce (1914)
Without a family drama, Christmas would simply not be Christmas. Reading James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ at this time of year gives it the feel of an inverted Christmas Carol: an awkward, unassuming man undergoes a handful of small slights, all of which lead him to a moment of profound and painful self-appraisal. His wife, he now sees, doesn’t love him – not really. So far, so festive. But it’s the story’s ending – and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it closes with a description of snow – which provides Dubliners with its most mysterious moment. The snow itself represents death, the great equaliser, come to bury the everyday dreams and heartbreaking anxieties which consume Joyce’s characters. The final passage, however, is also a flawless rendering of the real-life miracle of snowfall, a few light taps upon the window ushering in a flurry of some of the most beautiful prose ever printed.
8 ‘Last Christmas of the War’ by Primo Levi (1986)
Primo Levi knew the realities of winter. Many of the memoirs he wrote of his time as a prisoner at Auschwitz are coloured as much by biting cold and endless grey snow as by barbarism and industrial slaughter. This brief piece takes place in the final winter of the war, just before the events described in The Truce, the story of Levi’s long journey home. And it consists of little more than the arrival of a package of biscuits from his family – a dangerous offence in a concentration camp. This small gift, coming as it does after the harrowing things he has experienced, is transmuted into an almost miraculous event, and his giddiness at the prospect of satiety is palpable. But it’s the glints of an intrinsic decency Levi is able to locate in his fellow man, even under the shadow of the darkest evidence of his capacity for brutality, which form the heart of this tale.
9 ‘Snow’ by Ted Hughes (written 1956, published 1995)
Ice, frost, wind, snow: all these proliferate in Ted Hughes’s poetry, but this near-perfect short story is where his inner vision of winter is at its most powerful. After a plane crash, a man stumbles through a landscape of endless snow, carrying a chair on which he periodically sits, only to find himself rapidly buried by falling snow; then he gets up to repeat these actions over and over. He tries to find his way back to the site of the crash, charting every step he takes, yearning for the family he left behind. But is anything he tells us true? The story carries echoes of both Beckett and another snowbound piece of existentialism, Kafka’s The Castle. The themes are weighty – Is memory an act of faith? How does one find meaning when confronted with nothingness? – but Hughes’s narrative precision remains page-turningly compelling.
10 The Snowman by Raymond Briggs (1978)
It was the 19th century which dreamt up Christmas as a holiday to embody our ideals of what childhood should be, but it finds its 20th-century apotheosis here, in this beautiful, wordless and entirely unsentimental picture book. The story is straightforward: boy builds snowman; snowman comes to life; charming high-jinks ensue; snowman melts. The Snowman, for the British in particular, is perhaps the closest since A Christmas Carol that any book has come to fully epitomising Christmas (this despite there being, as Raymond Briggs is always keen to point out, no reference to Christmas in the original book). It is simply impossible, when faced with a page of its pastel-and-crayon blizzard, Snowman and child mid-flight, to ignore the pull of one’s inner child - winter is suddenly alive again with twilight magic. In a world in which, while Christmas thrives, winter itself is under threat from global warming, imparting to the generation which comes after us a sense of the season’s true majesty feels all the more vital.