Although we generally associate ghost stories with Halloween and October, there is a long tradition in Great Britain of telling ghost stories around the Christmas season. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic example, with Scrooge being haunted by spirits who offer him one last chance to see the error of his ways. Robertson Davies served for 18 years as Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. During that time, he wrote and presented a ghost story each year at the Massey College Christmas Gaudy, or college party.
Many of Davies’ novels reflect his interest in the supernatural. Murther and Walking Spirits, is narrated by a dead man and the shade of composer E.T.A. Hoffmann has a central role in The Lyre of Orpheus. The stories here all reveal ghostly encounters that Davies supposedly had at Massey. In the spirit of traditional tales of Christmas hauntings, the stories move easily between humor and horror. Massey was a new college, and Davies, a traditionalist in many ways, its first Master. As such, many of the stories he relates were intended, as Davies said in his introduction, “to stave off that most dreadful of modern ailments, the Rational Rickets.” Nothing becomes a college like a good ghost story or two that lends an air of antiquity and elegance to the place.
The stories here definitely fall on the more humorous side of the ghost story genre, and reflect Davies’ interest in books, Canadian history, royalty, the lives of the saints, and the occasional fine cigar. While perhaps not as frightening, or even serious, as many stories of the supernatural, High Spirits, evinces an English sensibility moderated by a brisk North America air. These are fun stories, and would benefit, as do many ghost stories, from being read out loud among friends.
Check the WRL catalog for High Spirits