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Occult Auvergne: A Christmas Ghost Story

It often is my lot to spend, 

In the lone cottage of a friend, 

The tedious, gloomy, winter night, 

And hear old tales of ghosts and sprights. 

One Christmas night as late we sat

 In festive sport and rural chat, 

Mirth and good-humour did prevail, 

And each one told a ghostly tale…”

-Edwin Lancastriensis

What is Christmas without its ghost stories? In Britain, where each castle or abbey seems to have its own resident phantom, telling ghost tales by the fireside during Yuletide is a time-honoured tradition. There’s really no equivalent in France, but for hundreds of years, people living in Auvergne’s isolated mountains regularly gathered together in the dead of winter to tell a range of stories featuring ghosts, fairies, and other supernatural entities. It’s from this bygone wintertime tradition — the veillée — that much of Auvergne’s rich folklore is derived.

A veillée in Puy-de-Dôme, circa 1904. Art by Maurice Busset

The following Christmas ghost story, which was recorded by the French writer Edmond Desombres in the late nineteenth century, is a typical example of the kind of narratives that featured in the veillées of Old Auvergne. The legend tells how a vampiric creature (not unlike Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “Dweller on the Threshold”) rises from the grave to haunt a spiritually unprepared youth. The text below is my translation:

“The year was 1848. A wind of freedom from Switzerland, and especially from Italy– which had been trembling with impatience under the Austrian yoke — had crossed the Alps and was once again blowing across our country. The February Revolution had taken place, and republican France had seen, with undisguised joy, trees of liberty planted in its public squares.

“In a village in the Auvergne, several young people had spent part of Christmas Eve celebrating. The new ideas fermenting in their brains, fanned by the fumes of a generous amount of wine, had excited their spirits; they had talked at length about the new regime and hailed with enthusiastic cheers and cheerful refrains the era of freedom that had just dawned with the days of February. One of the dinner guests, who had a twisted mind, or at least wished to appear so, suggested finishing the meal in the church. The motion was accepted; everyone took some of the remaining food and armed themselves with the bottles that had not yet been emptied. The feast continued on the altar of the holy place, in the flickering light of the candles.

“The next day, the villagers learned with holy terror that, during the night, crosses in the cemetery had been overturned, shrubs uprooted and tombs desecrated. People whispered in hushed tones of mystery details of the horrible sacrilege; they whispered the names of the perpetrators of this awful breach of religious reverence; they secretly called down heavenly vengeance on their heads.

“It was not long in coming for at least one of the perpetrators, a weak and timid character who had only acted under the influence of drunkenness and imitation. As he bent over a sepulchre to pull out a boxwood stalk, he thought he saw, in the shadows, a bête noire emerge from the grave, glide noiselessly across the snow like a crawling animal, and flee without a cry.

“He was deeply affected by this silent apparition; he kept in his imagination the idea of this beast, whose dark robe he could still see tinging with a black spot the shimmering whiteness of the coat of snow. It obsessed him constantly. Whenever he was walking, the bête noire followed him; he could feel it in his steps. When he tried to run away, he could hear its steady, muffled trot behind him. If he turned around, he seemed to see it.

“Whenever he entered a cottage, the bête noire would stop at the door but wait for him to come out before following him again. If he tried to hit it, it seemed insensitive and the blows that struck it sounded hollow, like the sound one makes when hitting a skull. When he went to bed, the relentless apparition was on his bed; he spent his nights without sleep, and if, sometimes, falling from weariness, he closed his heavy eyelids in spite of himself, he seemed to feel at once, on his oppressed chest, the weight of the horrible bête noire.

“His health was visibly deteriorating; his cheeks were sunken and pale from psychological torture, his eyes dulled by suffering, his complexion colourless, his limbs emaciated, everything pointed to his rapid decline.

“Then came delirium. These were the first signs of madness or death.

“The patient’s parents had called on every doctor and tried every remedy, but to no avail; remedies and doctors cannot cure a moral affliction. Finally, a local peasant, pained by the incessant suffering of the poor visionary, no doubt felt that the punishment had equalled the fault and had the idea of writing to the bishop of Clermont. The head of the diocese took information, submitted the case to his hierarchical superior, was kept waiting for a long time, but nevertheless arrived, dressed in his priestly vestments, to exorcise the young man’s house.

“The sight of both the minister of religion in his pompous apparel and the priests in their surplices who served him, struck the patient’s troubled imagination. A glimmer of hope returned to light up his soul, and when, after the bishop’s departure, he was shown the corpse of a black cat, he, and many of the villagers with him, believed that he was actually seeing the corpse of his beast. From then on he returned to health and life.”

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