So let us explore, and partake of new Christmas baubles, though not mere baubles—baubles like the sun, but that early winter sun that barely has any time to hang in the sky on account the days are so short.
Do you know who the most consistently excellent English ghost story writer was? If I’m posing this question, I likely don’t mean M.R. James, who is near-universally hailed as the best English ghost story writer by impassioned ghost story readers, much as I prefer E.F. Benson. Algernon Blackwood? Strong choice. But I would say A.M. Burrage. He had a fascinating life, too. Born in 1889, Alfred McLelland Burrage wrote fiction for boys, the usual rousing stuff, as his father and uncle had before him. Call it the family trade. Then he went to the Great War in the Artists Rifles, a volunteer unit comprised of writers, painters, sculptors, musicians. There’s a novel waiting to be written about such an outfit. Actually, I’ve just made a note.
The war, as one would expect, messed up our man Private A.M., who next wrote an anti-war tome called War is War, under the name, Ex-Private X. I tell people to watch Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, and I also tell them to read War is War for the same reasons. In 1925, Burrage wrote a progressive, way, way ahead of its time novel called Poor Dear Esme, about a boy who dresses up as a girl and attends an all-girls school. It’s smart, funny, witty—for they are not necessarily the same—and sweet. You see his breadth. The best writers have it, such that it seems they could do anything. Everyone else is everyone else.
It was then that Burrage became a writer of ghost stories. His first such collection, Some Ghost Stories—props for accurate billing, I suppose—announced the arrival of a major new talent in this field in 1927. Even M.R. James was a fan, and James had all of these prescriptive rules for writing ghost stories that were easy to violate. The energy of Burrage’s surprising tales won him over. A felicitous mind.
But we are talking Christmas, and yours will no longer be complete in the years going forward if you take the time to read Burrage’s 1931 ghost story “Smee” during this season of Yule. The story is a ghostly delight of the most extreme order, pure pleasure, pure sadness, pure fear, and I know the blend sounds paradoxical or impossible, but trust me—jump into this story, which is about children playing a variant of hide and seek in the run-up to Christmas.
Do we play anymore? Our children play. Do they play as much as they should? Does that playing get curtailed at an earlier age than it used to, or is best for them? I think so. What about adults? For we, too, must play, which is itself about a spirit, or retaining one. Play is like hope. Both are needed, if we are to be well.
The Burrage story featured in his 1931 collection, Someone in the Room, an apt title that by its mere mentioning—it’s very title-ness—signals to us that the person in the room is one not meant to be in the room. Otherwise, why say anything? The title of “Smee” is a conflation of the words “It’s me.” You know how kids get excited. Words run together.
These children are having a time that is going to be even better than Christmas morning, though that’s not how kids think. They’re playing, and when we are playing and invested in the game, there is precious little that is better in life. Or, perhaps, in death. Because there are not quite the right number of players that there should be. I won’t to spoil that for you—and I haven’t, though you may think I just did—but come on, what are you waiting for? Finish your cider and join the other children. There is fun to be had, and something else as well.