Ghosts for Christmas Present



It’s not exactly news that many, if not most, of the traditions we associate with Christmas have absolutely nothing to do with the Birth of Christ. Trees. Stockings. Cards. Eggnog. Fruit cake. Reindeer. An argument can be made for Santa, or at least St. Nicholas, having religious significance, but it’s not as if he was present in the stable at Bethlehem. In fact, many of the trappings of a modern American/ Western Christmas originated in Victorian England – and I am enough of a product of my culture to think that most of them are worth keeping. (Except eggnog and fruit cake. May I propose spiked hot chocolate and baklava?)

However, one Victorian tradition that has been mostly jettisoned is the telling of ghost stories around the fire on Christmas Eve. Why do you think Charles Dickens used ghosts as the means of reforming Scrooge in A Christmas Carol? He was just one-upping his fellow Victorians in their traditional Christmas Eve recital of the macabre. Why ghost stories? One source links the practice to Christmas’s association with pagan winter solstice festivals. I’m not sure that explanation is reliable, considering that Christmas ghost stories seem to be a distinctly Victorian tradition, and by then, most pagan festivals were centuries out of practice. But you might as well ask, why stockings? Why reindeer? None of it makes any theological sense.

So, why not ghost stories?

If you have ever enjoyed a Christmas Eve rendition of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life – which is a horror film of the first order – then you might as well admit to having a yuletide predilection for the dark side. How the Grinch Stole Christmas falls into the same creepy category; it just hides its true nature under rhymes. Christmas horror stories tend to have happier endings than their Halloween counterparts, but they remain an important, if somewhat clandestine, part of our Christmas culture. I for one think it’s high time we had a few good new ones to occupy those restless hours between the end of dinner and the start of Midnight Mass.

All ye writers and tellers of tales, consider this your Christmas commission: ghost stories. If you need inspiration, here’s an article from The Paris Review with links to a few good old ones.

Merry Haunting!

Karen Ullo is the author of the vampire saga Jennifer the Damned.  To find out more, go to


Sam the Zombie Fish


He looks so normal, doesn’t he?


When I wrote a vampire novel, I assumed – naturally enough – that the entire concept of the undead was fictional. Silly me. Because now I have a zombie living (existing? un-living?) in my house.

It all started back on Labor Day, when I finally broke down and decided to get my children pets. My littlest is terrified of dogs and my husband is allergic to cats, so we settled on fish. Two male betta fish dubbed Sam and Morris, both red because that is both kids’ favorite color, were purchased along with all the necessary accoutrements and detailed instructions from the staff at Petco. To make a long story short, after five trips to two different pet stores in three days, one faulty aquarium, two broken filters, and a bunch of truly obnoxious problems you don’t want to hear about, we had Dead Sam (which the children never knew about), Replacement Sam (who is the subject of this blog post), and Dead Morris, who was given a proper toilet-flushing funeral.

But eventually, I got the hang of the fish care business, and Replacement Sam became a thriving, happy member of the family. He’s quite a sociable fish, who actually comes to the glass and looks at you when you approach the aquarium. He was also voracious, eating just as often as you’d feed him, and generally living the fish good life. However, the aquarium developed a film of green algae. I bought a chemical to treat it, which didn’t actually work. But I just started cleaning the tank more often, and all was finally well…

…Until the Thanksgiving Holiday, when my children had a whole week off of school and nothing better to do than get into trouble. One day, while I was in the other room, my littlest climbed up into the cabinets he’s not supposed to go in, took out the algae-killing chemical, and put eight times as much as recommended into poor Sam’s fish tank. (In his defense, my son thought it was the water conditioner that makes tap water safe for betta fish, and he put the amount we use for water changes.)

Of course, I immediately changed the water, but it appeared I was too late. Sam took up residence on the rocks at the bottom of the tank and barely moved at all. He stopped eating entirely and would only stir every once in a long while, when he would swim straight to the surface, appear to either take a drink or blow a bubble, and swim straight back down. The rest of the time, he seemed comatose. I told the children Sam was dying, and they should be prepared to say goodbye to him. (They took this news a little too easily, and started making plans for a new fish named Dan.) For five days, Sam lingered in this half-dead state, and every morning I expected to find him floating sideways.

But at long last, Sam began to rally. Gradually, he began to swim for longer periods to other parts of the tank, and then to become sociable again. He would still sometimes swim to the surface and do his bubble-blowing thing, but he didn’t immediately become comatose afterward. Now, more than two weeks after his overdose of algae killer, Sam is behaving like good ol’ Sam again.

Except he doesn’t eat.

Since he OD’ed, no one has seen Sam take a single bite of food. Once, I saw him put the food in his mouth and then spit it out. Once. The voracious fish who would eat as much as you let him has not consumed so much as a single morsel in more than two weeks. He’s only about two inches long. There’s nowhere on that little fish body to store enough fat to keep him alive this long. But when we feed him, he lets the food hit him on the way down without paying it the slightest bit of attention.

There are only three possibilities:

  1. Sam has become shy, and he only eats when no one is looking.
  2. Sam has discovered some other microscopic food source growing in his tank.
  3. Sam is a zombie.

I know the first two sound slightly more logical than the third. But who ever heard of a fish having enough social awareness to be shy? And the idea that he’s living on microbes seems even less likely, considering that – at eight times the recommended concentration of the chemical – even the algae is finally dead.

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say.

My fish is a zombie.

At least he’s still cute.

Karen Ullo is the author of the vampire saga Jennifer the Damned.  To find out more, go to