Have you noticed the aversion many people have for the word “novella”? I’ve never been able to figure it out. At times I’ve had the sense that the avoiders think it pretentious; why not simply say “short novel”? I prefer “novella” myself because it is a distinct form.
Novellas come in great variety, of course, just as stories and novels do, but it’s not a coincidence that the uncanny makes its presence felt more often in that form. True, there are plenty of fat novels in which weird, fantastic elements can be found from page 1 to page 666. Such books naturalize the uncanny, we might say. But to maintain a certain tension, a frisson, at that length is difficult (not impossible, but difficult); much better to work on the scale of the novella, as Dostoevsky did with The Double.
Which brings us to Andrew Klavan’s When Christmas Comes: A Yuletide Mystery, published just this week. It was the mystery-fiction doyen Otto Penzler, as Klavan tells us in his acknowledgments at the end of the book, who suggested that he write a Christmas-themed novella, and we can be glad that Penzler did. We don’t typically associate Christmas with the uncanny, though the most famous Christmas story ever, by one Charles Dickens, shows that it can be done to great effect. Perhaps today more than ever, when Christmas has been commodified, misappropriated, and travestied to a degree even Dickens couldn’t have imagined, we need to see it from an unexpected angle.
More than twenty years ago, Klavan looked at Christmas from this angle in his full-length novel called The Uncanny. It starts with a prologue: a ghost story (printed in italics) called “Black Annie.” Here’s how Chapter 1 begins:
A glass shattered across the room, and Storm, lifting his tragical eyes, saw, though too late, a woman worth dying for.
The book of ghost stories was still open in his hands. His lips were still parted on the final phrase—crumbled to dust even as we gazed upon it. But the phrase, the whole story, had been blown right out of his mind.
Just a few lines down, we hear of “the great Scotch pine with its colored Christmas lights,” and other references to the season follow.
We’ll return to the association between Christmas and the uncanny in a moment. What about When Christmas Comes? Here I encounter a difficulty. Part of what makes this new book so enjoyable is its cunning misdirection of the reader—all conducted, I assure you, with the requirements of fair play in mind. The novella is a kind of game in which the author and his readers collaborate—though not “just a game.” Indeed, it is infused with unpretentious moral seriousness, but constructed to provide surprise and delight. I don’t want to spoil that.
I can tell you that the protagonist, Cameron Winter, is a college English professor with a past. We gather—nothing is spelled out—that he has been an intelligence agent in the service of his country, trained in the dark arts. His passion for literature links him to the early days of the CIA and provides a lovely thread running through the book (not least when—attacked in his office—Winter grabs a hardcover edition of Byron’s collected poems and clubs his antagonist with the hefty volume). Has he retired from active duty? It seems so, but he is still in fighting trim. Much that we do learn about him comes from our listening in on sessions with his therapist, a woman of remarkable insight (and not the only such character to appear in Klavan’s fiction). What haunts him most deeply you’ll have to learn on your own as you—if you—read the book yourself.
A librarian at the local elementary school (in a town largely populated by people of military background) has been murdered, and the man she’d been seeing, Travis Blake—an Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, from a family with a long and valorous military history—has confessed to the crime. But something seems a little off to the public defender assigned to the case: Victoria Nowak, a woman with whom Winter was involved some years earlier, when she was his student. She doesn’t doubt the guilt of the accused, but still asks Winter if he will do a little digging. And of course he does.
Now back to the association between Christmas and the uncanny. Throughout Klavan’s work there’s an interesting tension between his toughness and his tenderness. He has no truck with sentimentality, but a deep vein of unembarrassed feeling runs through his work. Christmas has of course been so shamelessly appropriated in countless ways that many people are simply fed up with it. Not Klavan. Even as he traces threads of violence and betrayal and deceit, he refuses to harden his heart. And what is at the heart of the Christmas story, after all, but “the uncanny” transformed into the blessedly ordinary, a baby (not just any baby, it’s true) in his makeshift cradle?
If among those on your Christmas gift list there are some who love reading “mysteries,” who are attuned to moral complexity, and who agree with Coleridge about the appeal of a certain strangeness, consider this novella as a present.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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