Tis the season... Miracle on 34th Street has gone into constant rotation, stiffly-animated characters are glowing noses and practicing dentistry on the network channels and to my great relief, every version of A Christmas Carol is starting to show up on small screens and stages everywhere. I'm a huge fan of all of them. I have my favorite film verson, and can rant extensively about which one and why, but that is not really my point in this column. My point this week is the body of literature based on that one specific, now practically ancient book by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
There have been several really entertaining new versions of the story and its characters in the last few years. Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy sets a now-grown Timothy Cratchit loose in a very atmospheric Victorian London, chasing the white slave trade and sending a foggy chill up my neck. Gregory Maguire's Lost sets the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge in a modern missing person story; nobody can tweak our common cultural mythos like Maguire. Mark Hazard Osmun's Marley's Ghost gives us some back story, some explanation of exactly how Jacob Marley came to be able to come back that one Christmas Eve and give Scrooge another chance. These are all entertaining, all fitting nicely with the universe Dickens created and all worth a read. I know there are more of these stories out there; these few are the ones that come most easily to my mind.
There's a new entry into the canon, A Christmas Caroline by Kyle Smith. This story of a not-so-typical New York Christmas could be thumbnailed as Scrooge Wears Prada, but that would not do the story justice. Smith, a film critic for the New York Post, has a great ear for dialog and eye for character. His Scrooge, Carolyn, works for a trendy New York fashion magazine, happily abusing her assistant and anyone else in range. There is, of course, a Tiny Tim in this book, a 6' 7" pro football player with a serious crush on Carolyn and a greater talent for butchering clichés than splitting goalposts. Smith has also inserted characters from other Dickens stories, all thinly veiled in New York personalities and, usually, fabulous clothes. A Christmas Caroline will bear rereading if only to pick out the other Dickens references Smith has thrown in. Like all good versions of the tale, A Christmas Caroline also has ghosts, the requisite four to be exact. Carolyn's long night begins with a visit from the first of these, her dead roommate, Carly.
It would be a mistake to think that the ghosts are the most important part of any version of A Christmas Carol. The most important thing in the story, the thing that has to be there for the story to work, is the epiphany. That is the moment when the character, whether it is the original Scrooge or the current Carolyn, comes back from the edge of insanity a changed person. (Alastair Sim sets the on-film standard for this, and yes, it is my favorite version.) Carolyn makes that journey, going from shallow fashionista, a spoiled accessory buyer with an apartment full of free stuff, to self-aware and sympathetic human overnight, just as the story says she should. I think that's why the story has survived so long. We can see anyone, including ourselves, making that journey. At least we hope we can
There is nothing, of course, that can take the place of the original book. If you have never read A Christmas Carol, please do. It is, as the book says, never too late. If you have, but not recently, read it again. Better yet, read it aloud to someone young, or to a group, or as a group. This slender book is where much of what we think of as Christmas comes from, and it is one story that really never gets old.
GALLEY SLAVE GALLEY WATCH:
Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill.
Wow. I can probably count the number of books that have really given me a scare on the fingers of one thumbless hand, with room to spare. Hill's story of a retired rock star who buys a haunted suit on eBay and gets far more than he bargained for is one of those few special books. Due in February, from Morrow.