Cocktail Hour: The Black Santa, inspired by Ramsey Campbell’s “The Chimney”

The Black Santa promises a merry Christmas to all, and to all a terrifying night.

To my mind, there may be no better writer of horror short stories than Britain’s Ramsey Campbell.

Beyond his beautiful — sometimes oblique — prose, Campbell is a master at tapping into the subconscious fears we all carry from childhood. His stories are full of shadows that stalk us, frightening figures watching from a distance and unknowable things that slither in the dark.

His Christmas-themed short story “The Chimney” is a perfect example.

Its 12-year-old protagonist is a sensitive soul, afraid of the strange noises that lurk in the darkness of his family’s house. Among the scariest are those from the drafty chimney in his bedroom. In Campbell’s hands, the boy’s nightly lights-out becomes a surreal trip into a tunnel of horror — and likely similar to ones we experienced in our own childhoods as we awaited slumber.

"The Chimney" is available in Campbell's Alone with the Horrors collection.

“The shadows moved things,” Campbell writes. “The mesh of the fireguard fluttered enlarged on the wall; sometimes, at the edge of sleep, it became a swaying web, and its spinner came sidling down from a corner of the ceiling. Everything was unstable…”

Of course, the boy’s parents are no help. He’s coddled by his smothering mother, while his fear becomes an embarrassment for his no-nonsense father. Both are unable, for their own reasons, to break the news to him that Santa Claus doesn’t exist — even though he’s quickly drawing his own conclusions.

With his imagination left to wander, the young protagonist frets that Father Christmas — or some dark version of Father Christmas — is the source of the mysterious noises. While Campbell could take the theme in a campy direction, he never does. He lets our imaginations fill in the blanks, and the dark figure that finally appears to crawl from the flue is truly terrifying.

Campbell is a master of gut-punch endings, and “The Chimney” packs one. Don’t worry, I won’t give it away. Suffice to say you won’t see it coming, but when it arrives, it works within everything he laid out in plain view during the story’s set-up.

“The Chimney” is a great, gruesome antidote for forced holiday cheer, and precisely the kind of story that warrants reading with a good cocktail in hand. May I suggest the Black Santa, which combines the mystery of black vodka with seasonal flavors.

Black Santa

1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup cranberry juice
1/2 ounces Triple Sec
1 1/2 ounces black vodka, such as Blavod, or make your own
Rosemary sprig, for garnish

Shake the juices and strain into a glass. Using the back of a spoon, pour black vodka slowly into a glass so it rests menacingly atop the juice mixture. Carefully slip the rosemary sprig into the glass for a garnish.

Tune in Monday when I ask other writers, fans and artists to sound off on their favorite holiday-themed horror, fantasy and sf stories.



Cocktail Hour: The Springheel Jack

The Springheel Jack, inspired by Stephen King's "Strawberry Spring," features... wait for it... strawberries in a starring role.

I first read Stephen King’s short story “Strawberry Spring” more than 30 years ago, back when he’d released just one short-fiction collection, Night Shift.

I’ve reread it multiple times since then, impressed by the economy of its prose (it’s a scant 3,500 words) and its masterful twist ending — one of those that makes you slap your forehead, grin and say, “Dammit, I should have seen it coming.”

“Strawberry Spring” opens with an unnamed narrator reflecting on events that transpired eight years ago, when he attended a small New England college. March 1968 brought a strawberry spring, a “false” spring much like an Indian summer, to the area. That early warmth ushered a thick fog onto the campus, and along with it a serial killer locals dubbed Springheel Jack.

The narrator recounts the paranoia that gripped the college and the way the killings ceased when winter returned. As the story closes, though, we learn the killer has picked up his bloody work where it left off. And…

Let’s just stop there.

When I reread “Strawberry Spring” recently, the thing that struck me most was its pervading feeling of melancholy nostalgia. That same longing for a disappearing small-town New England runs through much of King’s work, but it seems especially profound here and works through with just a handful of deftly painted passages.

“The unwary traveller would step out of the juke-thumping, brightly lit confusion of the Grinder,” King writes, “expecting the hard clear starriness of winter to clutch him . . . and instead he would suddenly find himself in a silent, muffled world of white drifting fog, the only sound his own footsteps and the soft drip of water from the ancient gutters. You half expected to see Gollum or Frodo and Sam go hurrying past, or to turn and see that the Grinder was gone, vanished, replaced by a foggy panorama of moors and yew trees and perhaps a Druid-circle or a sparkling fairy ring.

“The jukebox played ‘Love Is Blue’ that year. It played ‘Hey, Jude’ endlessly, endlessly. It played ‘Scarborough Fair.'”

Great writing. Just the kind to inspire this week’s cocktail, the Springheel Jack.

"Springheel Jack" first appeared in the University of Maine's literary journal, but was later collected in King's Night Shift.

This drink is the kind that hits the spot when it’s warming up outside (even if it’s the warmth of a false spring). And strawberries get a starring role — here in a shrub, an easy-to-make concoction of fruit, sugar and vinegar. The shrub, which you’ll need to start on the day before, lends the drink a sweet and sour character not unlike the nostalgia King evokes in the story.

Be warned, though, after a few Springheel Jacks, you too may become lost in a fog.


3 oz. bourbon
1 oz. strawberry shrub (see instructions below)
½ oz lime juice
Fresh mint leaves
1 tsp sugar

Place 6-8 mint leaves in the bottom of a pre-chilled, 12-ounce cocktail glass. Add sugar and bruise the leaves with a muddler to release their flavor. Pack the glass with ice and pour in the bourbon and shrub. Stir briskly until the glass gets frosty. Garnish with a mint sprig.

To make the shrub:

Cut up a cup of strawberries and mash in a bowl. Pour a cup of granulated sugar over them and stir until the fruit and sugar are well integrated. Cover and place in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, add the contents to a saucepan, along with a cup of red wine vinegar. Cook over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Do not bring to a simmer, as you’re just looking for enough heat it to make sure the sugar is no longer grainy. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a glass storage vessel and allow to cool. Use the leftover mashed strawberries on your breakfast toast or over ice cream.