I was twelve when the BBC screened The Signalman as its Christmas ghost story and was hooked on the concept. This was my first exposure to this BBC tradition and the Beeb’s first Charles Dickens adaptation, following a run of MR James tales.

These programmes were an echo of the Victorian tradition of fireside ghost stories, best known of which is A Christmas Carol. A goodly chunk of InDulwich’s audience will have read it and seen film versions with Alastair Sim, George C Scott and the Muppets. I reread it last Christmas and then stumbled across it’s much less well known follow up, The Chimes.

This slim volume has all the classic Dickens ingredients; humour, social commentary, chewy characters, beautiful turns of phrase and some lush sentimentality to set against the dread of the bleaker passages.

Toby ‘Trotty’ Veck is no Scrooge. He’s a loving father and a generous friend, “a weak, small, spare old man”, still trotting across town bearing messages from one self-important buffoon to another. His life is marked out by the Chimes. He hears them from his niche by the church door, when trotting on his errands and at home. “Toby Veck, Toby Veck, keep a good heart”, they say but ground down by poverty and newspaper reports of degradation, Trotty begins to lose his faith in humanity. He is summoned by the Chimes. “Drag him to us, drag him to us”.

At the top of the bell tower, waking from a faint, the air is a mass of phantoms, like the host Marley joins when he leaves Scrooge. This “Goblin Site” would be at home in an Arthur Machen story but soon gives way to the Chimes themselves, close cousins of the Ghost of Christmas Future.

They rove through time and space, showing Trotty the fate of this typical Dickensian cast; angelic daughter Meg and the labour agitator Will Fern and his niece. There is Alderman Cute, determined to Put Down wandering mothers and boys without shoes and stockings, kindly Mrs Chickenstalker and the grotesquely fat Tugby whose voice is “a long way off and hidden under a load of meat”.

There’s a fair chance that you are sick to the back teeth of hygge but the English version is surely a crackling fire, a glass of your favourite warming poison whisky and a ghost story. The Chimes could be that story this winter.

Oh and if the BBC wants to add The Chimes to its great list of Christmas chillers, Paul Whitehouse would make a terrific Trotty. Barring a Derek Jacobi-narrated animated version, it hasn’t been filmed nice 1914, so it’s about time.

The Chimes by Charles Dickens is available here from Amazon

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