Horrors and heart-warmers: Sarah Waters, Mel Giedroyc and more pick great winter's tales

Mel Giedroyc chooses a Christmas pud whodunnit, Sarah Waters a ghostly spinetingler. Andrew O’Hagan goes for a psychic shocker – and Penelope Wilton nabs Winnie the Pooh. But what will Emeli Sandé and Tom Hollander choose?

Sarah Waters

The Open Door, by Margaret Oliphant

In this gem of supernatural fiction from 1882, a Victorian gentleman, Colonel Mortimer, takes possession of a country house with a picturesque ruin in its parkland – only to discover that the ruin has a terrifying sitting tenant, an anguished spirit that, night after night in the darkest months of the year, pleads with its mother to be let in through an abandoned open doorway. When Mortimer’s infant son is made ill with pity by the dreadful sobs and moans, the colonel resolves to lay the suffering ghost to rest, and embarks on a series of harrowing visits to the haunted threshold.

Oliphant’s supernatural tales were admired by MR James and, for sheer creepiness, The Open Door easily matches the best of his work. It has more heart to it than his stories tend to have, too – for, where his protagonists are often solitary figures menaced by impersonal dark forces, the action of this tale is motivated by kindness, by the desire to alleviate pain. It is ultimately an affecting portrait of familial and community love.

Along the way, though, the story evokes a desperate bleakness, its central wail of abandonment standing in for all sorts of losses, griefs, missed opportunities and failed intimacies. And it’s this that will pursue you to bed if you read the story on a winter’s night: the anguished spirit at “the vacant doorway, which no one could either shut or open more”, crying futilely, inconsolably, for its long-vanished parent: “Oh, Mother, let me in! Oh, Mother, Mother, let me in!”

Andrew O’Hagan

Markheim, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Andrew O’Hagan
Andrew O’Hagan Photograph: Andrew O Hagan/Supplied for byline

If Dostoevsky rather than Charles Dickens had invented Christmas, it might look a bit like Robert Louis Stevenson’s amazing story Markheim – a quick, soul-searching aria about the nature of human badness. (Ho, ho, ho: no pasarán.) Less of a smooch under the mistletoe, more of a slap to the psychic chops, it was first published in Unwin’s Christmas Annual 1886.

In Stevenson’s signature style, it opens like a troubled dream. A man appears in a curiosity shop to buy his rich wife a present. The shopkeeper suggests an old hand-mirror, which our customer, Markheim, dismisses as a “damned reminder of years”. (The shop is full of ticking clocks.) A darkness of the mind is somehow unleashed when Markheim leans in and stabs the shopkeeper, before the floorboards creak in the room above and we go upstairs to meet his conscience. Or is it the devil? The visitant offers Markheim a way to compound his crime and save his skin. “I offer you the service for a Christmas gift,” it says. But our hero’s compliance with evil is not full-hearted.

In this wonderful piece of writing, Stevenson tinkles the bells of conscience, creating an unforgettable feeling of inclemency. You can see, while reading it, why Henry James believed Stevenson to be one of the few writers, in English, who could truly write a sentence.
Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life is published by Faber

Christmas pudding – the murder weapon?
Christmas pudding – the murder weapon? Photograph: Glenn Millington/Alamy

Mel Giedroyc

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, by Agatha Christie

Mel Giedroyc

Christmas traditions are important in my family. Being half English and half Polish-Lithuanian, we have two separate celebrations. The first, on the 24th, involves a 12-course fish meal (one for every apostle), then on the 25th we have the full English. We also always do a Nigella turkey, which involves immersing the bird for 48 hours in a spice bath.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is all about a traditional Christmas, with a plot that hinges on the food. The other day, while rereading the story, I found myself worrying: “I hope they’re marinating their turkey!”

We’re so used to seeing Agatha Christie’s work on screen that going back to the original is a real joy. This is a short story, written when she was 70, with all the classic elements: the bufferish old guy living with his wife in a big country pile with their wayward granddaughter, her dangerous and rather louche boyfriend Desmond, the cook and the maid. Then there’s the murder, a stolen gem, secrets, deceptions – and of course Hercule Poirot. You don’t usually think of Christie for her comic writing, but her lightness of touch means she can say in three words what others take 100 to.

At Christmas two years ago, my family all watched the BBC’s brilliant adaptation of And Then Were Were None. Christie symbolises something traditional, something perfectly Christmassy, but also something retro. That shade of red lipstick, the Marcel-wave, the low-cut slinky dress, the flashy cocktail ring that conceals poison – she’s a sheer Christmas treat.

One of the things I make every year are festive marzipan biscuits from a great recipe created by a lovely baker called Janet who was in series two of Bake Off. Everyone thought we worked really hard on the show, but really it was 10 weekends of arsing round in tents having a great time eating delicious food. These days, I’m actually having to work proper hours!

Maggie O’Farrell

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, by Alice Dalgliesh

Maggie O’Farrell

One of my most treasured possessions is a 1981 Young Puffin edition of The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, priced at 65p (certainly the best ever use of my pocket money). Just holding its yellow and grey cover still gives me a frisson of fear.

Written by Alice Dalgliesh in 1952, this story of a boy sent over a snowy mountain to fetch a huge iron pot is a traditional Pennsylvanian one. “I have,” Dalgliesh humbly says, “given it more detail and form.” And what detail it is. The “Crunch! Crunch! Crunch!” of Jonathan’s boots in the snow, the sun sinking lower, and then the ominous “Drip, drip, drip!” of the trees. “It feels like spring, Jonathan said to himself. I HOPE THE BEARS DON’T KNOW IT.”

But of course they do: the plot demands it. The adults keep denying that there are bears on Hemlock Mountain. This delaying, avoidant device I would recognise later in detective fiction, gothic novels and horror films. Matched with Dalgliesh’s prose are Helen Sewell’s peerless woodcut illustrations. The best of these is the page of cookie shapes; the most frightening is the picture of the bears – at last – their eyes alight.

This book remains for me the quintessential winter story: snow, trees and the facing down of monsters that come for us, through the dark.

Winnie the Pooh and friends
Winnie the Pooh and friends Photograph: Egmont Publishing

Penelope Wilton

Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne

Penelope Wilton

Storytelling is always connected with this time of year, with its short days and long nights. I’m a sucker for stories: I love to listen to them on the radio. At Christmas, we always read MR James ghost stories. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is one of my favourite seasonal books: it’s good for reading aloud to a little person, as you can do it over a number of evenings – and of course it has a very happy ending.

I’ve got two grandchildren – aged five and 18 months – and I love to read to them. They’re so appreciative! The absolute concentration of young children is amazing. They’re taken completely into the world of the book with no preconceived ideas.

I didn’t read Winnie the Pooh when I was a child. And I’m not sure I read them to my daughter either. All she wanted to read were the Brambly Hedge books. But of course I know Winnie the Pooh and I’ve read the stories to other children over the years. As an adult, you realise how clever, as well as charming, they are. When you read them, you need to make sure you have a young person sitting next to you, who can look at the illustrations, as they are so wonderful, such an important part of the experience.

The flights of fantasy are remarkable. They just go with a child’s sensibility, using language they can understand without patronising them with baby talk. AA Milne created something touching and timeless that all children can enjoy.

Ben Okri

Where’s Buddha, by Ben Okri

Ben Okri

I think people should make up stories for Christmas. It’s not just a time for recycling ones that already exist. My mum and dad would always make up new ones. They were about searching and family – how families got reunited, how they discovered greater harmony.

I’m continuing that tradition with an original story I’ve written called Where’s Buddha. It’s about the daily ritual in a house, where a one-year-old baby leads a search every morning for Buddha. I never really say what Buddha is, but they always eventually find it. Yet one day Buddha seems lost permanently. It’s a family adventure about searching and loss – an inverted children’s story about what children know that adults don’t.

Sometimes my parents would tell tortoise stories as well. I’ve come up with one myself, too. People in Africa love tortoise stories, but you don’t tell them in Britain, which is a shame. They’re about the cleverness of the tortoise: how he sometimes gets away with being clever and how he sometimes doesn’t. In America, they are transposed on to Br’er Rabbit stories, while other parts of the world choose different intelligent animals. You can’t tell people stories and not tell the tortoise story.

Tom Hollander

Revolting Rhymes, by Roald Dahl

Tom Hollander

Roald Dahl is such a very British voice. He’s comforting and reassuring, like putting on a favourite old cardigan, but there’s a darkness to his work, an edge that means he’s never sentimental. I used to love his adult books, Tales of the Unexpected particularly. But my favourite thing to read at the age of 11 was Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. I’m still trying to grow out of them.

I’ll be with my family in Oxford at Christmas. My father’s side of the family are from central Europe and we celebrate with a German accent: on Christmas Eve, we gather round the piano to sing Stille Nacht. I’m currently in Los Angeles making a horror film, so England and Christmas feel very far away. I’m looking forward to coming home.

The Happy Prince
The Happy Prince. Illustration: Everett Shinn

Emeli Sandé

The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde

Emeli Sande

This is a charming story of typical Victorian sacrifice to morality, beauty and companionship disguised as a children’s tale. It’s interesting because, despite the age of it, the lessons are still relatable – to today’s attitudes towards friendship and truth, as well as opposing the myth of beauty meaning everything. And that’s something all children should be taught from an early age.

The beautiful tone and descriptions of the swallow and the Prince are so appealing, not just for children but also for their parents. It’s not just an easy read, but like any good fairy tale it has important messages.

  • Mel Giedroyc, Penelope Wilton, Ben Okri, Emeli Sandé and Tom Hollander will read their choices at Winter’s Tales, Print Room at The Coronet, London, 6-18 December, in support of the Grenfell Tower fund. Details: the-print-room.org. Mel Giedroyc, Penelope Wilton and Tom Hollander spoke to Imogen Tilden, Ben Okri to Rachel Aroesti.


Sarah Waters, Andrew O'Hagan, Mel Giedroyc, Maggie O'Farrell, Penelope Wilton, Ben Okri, Tom Hollander and Emeli Sandé

The GuardianTramp