The merry and the morbid have ever been cater-cousins. Man has for ages immemorial eaten, drunk, and made merry for the simple reason that tomorrow he dies. Let life be merry while it lasts, and especially, God willing, at Christmastime. And why not? Let nothing you dismay. Christmastime is a time when dark death was shaken by life’s light, when worlds commingled, when spiritual presences drew—and yet draw—closer to man, in some cases to shout triumphant Gloria’s in Bethlehem or, in other cases, to whisper phantasmagorias in boneyards. In short, the night before Christmas is when, all through the house, all manner of creatures do stir, never mind a mouse. Ghosts, elves, fairies, talking beasts, angels—they are all members of the Christmas mythos and the Christmas message. It is in this hallowed, haunted tradition that that master of storytellers, Howard Pyle, spun a Christmas yarn that chills with chuckle and charm, bespeaking the season with a knavish slant that teases the peace promised to men of good will. The Mysterious Chest is not to be missed, for it offers a Christmas present most unexpected and most unspeakable.
Like every good tall tale, The Mysterious Chest begins with a solemn testimony of truth:
THE MYSTERIOUS CHEST
BEING A TRUE AND TEMPERATE NARRATIVE OF
THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES THAT BEFELL SEVERAL
CITIZENS OF THE TOWN OF NEW YORK ON THE EVE OF
CHRISTMAS DAY IN THE YEAR OF GRACE 1793.
The Mysterious Chest was first published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, December 1908, a periodical for which Howard Pyle regularly provided stories and illustrations of adventure and history. Whether The Mysterious Chest is actually historical, as it claims to be, must in all fairness be questioned given its fantastical nature—though fact is often more fantastic than fiction. In all events, supporting documentation for the purported veracity of its content has been well buried. At the same time, it must be admitted that the hope that the narrative is as true as it is temperate has caused the reviewer to abandon his researches rather speedily upon finding the strata of time sufficiently frozen against exhumations. The Mysterious Chest is too good not to be true, and so should it stand.
The Mysterious Chest is also too good to give away. A premise should suffice to entice the hesitating. When five carriers bearing a large, cumbersome chest to its destination on a snowy Christmas Eve decided to take respite at a public house of merry revelers, their state upon resuming their burden was not one that proved conducive to conducting the mysterious chest to its rightful terminus. With ribald Christmas cheer, they deposited it at the wrong doorstep, hanging on the bell and haranguing about their fee before stumbling back to the establishment which inspired their high spirits. The worthy man and wife who discovered the bulky Christmas mistake, or Christmas miracle, made haste with keenest curiosity to open it.
Again, without intending to spoil the story, let it be merely said here that the contents of the mysterious chest were no less shocking than a corpse with its head, though present, shorn cleanly from its well-dressed trunk. Recovering from the reactionary loss of their own heads, the worthy man and wife fervently resealed the mysterious chest and feverishly bundled it off harum-scarum through snow and sleet in the dead of night to the porch next door, leaving its cryptic conundrum to be negotiated by hopefully worthier and more willing individuals. And so began what Howard Pyle calls the peregrinations of the mysterious chest from threshold to threshold on a cold Christmas Eve, in a jolly little story that is both incredible and irresistible as the gruesome gift was passed throughout the night amongst terrified neighbors. The occasion may be surprising, no doubt, but it is far less surprising than the conclusion, rest assured.
If the reviewer has experienced any difficulty in unearthing historical verification for this nightmarish Christmas narrative of 1793, it is to be hoped that his readers will not experience equal difficulty in unearthing a copy of The Mysterious Chest to read for themselves. To those who savor stories that thrive in the hearse-like shadows thrown by hearth light, the reviewer can only offer what he himself has found. The Mysterious Chest, a tidbit not easily come by, can be cornered in The Fireside Book of Christmas Stories edited by Edward Wagenknecht from Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers of Indianapolis and New York. If appetites have been whetted in any way for this morbid yet merry tale, all encouragement is here extended to read the words of this work on the recommended pages, especially as opposed to on screens. Heaven forbid. The ghostly and ghastly cannot, for the life of them, take hold as they are able but when exuding like coffin dust from musty paper from a forgotten epoch. Give the spirits a chance and their due, if only for the sake of the season.
And do not shrink from reading a tale of terror during the season of joy. For all its warmth and whimsy, Christmas has a haunted side to it—a side of ghouls and graves that lurk grinningly in the shadows of ribboned presents, hallowed halls, and tinseled trees. The stout hearts that heat themselves at glowing firesides on Christmas Eve are the necromancers in question. The convivial atmosphere of well-fed folk cradling mugs of potent spirits has ever managed, as nurturing a lively body, to invoke a lonely atmosphere of gaunter fellows contending with portentous spirits and conjuring dead bodies. Christmas has, as a result of this phenomenon, a long-standing tradition of delighting in things that go bump in the night. Made especially famous by Mr. Dickens’ goblins and ghosts all the way to more modern and less imaginative incarnations, Christmas does, in fact, evoke something of the uncanny as though to accentuate with some spine-tingling playfulness its profound celebration of comfort and joy. Miracles are always mysterious, and sit that way in every chest—and the long-lost story in the forgotten Christmas canon called The Mysterious Chest offers a fine piece of homely horror that must be read to be believed.
Howard Pyle’s concluding postscript provides matter enough to prompt a reading from the tale’s beginning:
It is altogether likely that the thoughtless reader who follows this serious history will think but little of anything else than of the entertainment he can find in it. But the author has recounted the several events not that he might amuse the frivolous, but that he might supply food for thought to the more sober-minded. For how often doth it happen that the most innocent and harmless appearances will disturb the repose of mankind with terror and apprehension for which there is, only too often, no foundation whatsoever.
Will you, O Civilized Reader, be bold enough to lift the lid of The Mysterious Chest and behold what lies within? It is to be wished that all will answer resoundingly in the affirmative armed to the teeth with warm blankets and warmer beverages. A Merry Morbid Christmas to All and to All a Good Night.