Day 6·Q&A

Canadian cartoonist Seth thinks the holidays are a perfect time for a scary story

While Canadian cartoonist Seth acknowledges spooky stories aren't everyone's cup of tea, he spoke to Day 6 host Brent Bambury about why the holidays are the perfect time to read tales to astonish.

For the past several years, Seth has been illustrating classic English ghost stories for the holidays

Guelph, Ont.-based cartoonist Seth has been a fan of Victorian ghost stories for almost two decades. Each year, he works with Biblioasis in Windsor, Ont. to illustration a collection of classic ghost stories. (National Film Board of Canada)

Guelph, Ont.-based cartoonist Seth knows that scary stories don't seem like they would fit the festive holiday season. 

But for the past several years, he has been working alongside Windsor, Ont., literary press Biblioasis to release an annual collection of classic English ghost stories — written largely by authors around the Victorian period — accompanied by his signature minimalist artwork. 

Seth spoke to Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the books and why the holidays are the perfect time to read spooky stories. 

Here is part of that conversation.

You've been an admirer of Victorian ghost stories for more than 20 years. Why does the holiday season cry out for a little haunting?

There is a long and rather old-fashioned tradition, mostly from Victorian England, of reading a scary tale on Christmas Eve. From what I gather, it goes back kind of to the pre-electric light-era when it seemed natural on a holiday to gather the family together and read a scary story.

Now, I certainly didn't grow up with this tradition, but eventually after I'd read enough ghost stories, I stted to see just how charming the idea is. It wasn't a tradition that was all about the usual Christmas stuff. Most of the ghost stories for Christmas have nothing to do with Christmas at all. They're just scary ghost stories.

One of the most famous Victorian Christmas stories is A Christmas Carol, and that's a ghost story. Do the other stories in this series feel like A Christmas Carol? Do they have the Charles Dickens vibe to them?

They're not all necessarily Victorian, but they certainly are within a 100-year span that mostly ends by the early 20th Century. So they have one thing in common with the old Dickens stories and that's that they take place in a world that doesn't really exist anymore.

It's a cozy sort of English world. Not all the ghost stories are necessarily English. There's an Edith Wharton in there; she's an American.

But there is a kind of a quality to them. It's part of the genre. Even though they're about a scare, they're really mostly about building up a kind of sense of atmosphere and place.

I would say that the standout story, of course, is A Christmas Carol for Christmas, because like every genre, there's one that really rises above it. And certainly, A Christmas Carol is more profound than most of these tales.

This year's collection of Seth-illustrated stories include R. Bridgeman's The Morgan Trust; M.R. James's The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance; and Mrs. Oliphant's The Open Door. (Biblioasis)

So is it that atmosphere that spoke to you as an illustrator — that suggested to you that there's part of this world that you can add to with your illustrations?

As a person who likes old ghost stories, I've read many illustrated volumes myself and there's nothing worse when you're reading an illustrated ghost story to turn the page and come across a full-page illustration of the ghost which totally ruins the whole story.

It's usually terrible and your imagination is better than anything the illustrator can come up with. A lot of the time they draw in kind of a typical horror image, and what you really don't want is to make these into horror stories. So mostly what I've been doing is trying my best to augment the feeling of the story, rather than get too much in the way.

I tend to draw where the stories happen. I tend to draw some empty rooms or shadows. The usual kind of stuff, but stuff that's mostly there to build atmosphere.

I have occasionally had to draw the ghost. It just sort of demanded it. I try not to get into the big full-page shot of the ghost face screaming at you.

Often you're not drawing any figures at all. We see landscapes and that emptiness — that austerity — and of course, your clean-line style.

I find that as I'm getting older, I tend to draw more and more landscapes and it crept into the ghost stories naturally. I'm working on a graphic novel right now where it seems to be more landscapes than figures.

Part of it is simply that the more you try to get yourself out of the way, the more you try to pull the background forward. I think when I was younger, I was more than happy to always be in front of the story. I mean, it was about me.

But this kind of work, especially the work where I'm not the writer, I really feel like I want to try and do justice to it.... It's kind of the old cliché of creating a nice setting for a gem. You don't want the setting to be more important than the gem.

I was struck by something you said earlier that these stories show us a world that doesn't exist anymore. What is it that you find in the past that is so compelling and relevant and that inspires you?

Everything I do and think about is connected to a vanished world of the past.

I think when I was younger, I would have a very different answer than I do now, but I think the answer I have now is probably similar to what many people would say and that there was a kind of quiet in the past. 

I feel like our lives now are so busy, so noisy. When you talk about the fact that these are little books that you hold in your hand, that's a big part of it.

I wouldn't really imagine you could read a ghost story on the internet. I mean, I'm sure it can be done. I'm sure they're out there. But there's something about getting away and being in an unconnected world that has so much to do with what these stories are about. 

And so much of a ghost story is about being isolated, being on your own. There's not a real way to be alone in the same way there used to be.

I don't think I recognized how singular life felt before the computer was around, because, of course, I had the television playing or listening to the radio. There was still that sense of connection, but it was a one-way connection. Now I feel like there's an intense feeling of a two-way connection in my life that's changed that silent quality.


Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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