Frederick Forsyth’s “The Shepherd” is a modern “Christmas ghost story” well worth taking time to enjoy around the holiday.
Christmas is a season of tales and stories of times past. Very often these Yuletide stories take the form of ghost stories. As the Most Wonderful Time of the Year goes:
There’ll be parties for hosting,
Marshmallows for toasting,
And caroling out in the snow.
There’ll be scary ghost stories,
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago.
Ghost stories are a natural for Christmas. More than any other holiday, Christmas turns our thoughts to childhood memories, Christmases of years past, and to the recollection of friends and family members who are no longer with us. The short days, the dark clouds, the tree branches laden with snow, and the chill in the air deepen the sense that it is the season for ghost stories.
Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is the best-known Christmas ghost story, but there are many more. Dickens himself wrote several after Christmas Carol, including The Chimes and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. Others ghost stories for the season too include Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl; J.H. (Charlotte) Riddell’s A Strange Christmas Game, and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
Christmas ghost stories were a Victorian and Edwardian specialty, but there are more recent seasonal ghost novellas too.
Frederick Forsyth’s The Shepherd is one of these. A 1974 Christmas gift to his wife, The Shepherd draws on Forsyth’s own experience as a young Royal Air Force fighter pilot. The story is of a cocky young pilot who trusts in modern technique rather than the faith of his childhood. As the tale begins, he is taking off for what should be a short, solo Christmas Eve flight home.
Without giving too much away, the young pilot confronts a mechanical emergency as fog sets in. He is saved when he is chanced upon by another pilot who guides him to a safe landing. In aviation parlance, a pilot who guides a lost pilot to port is a “shepherd.”
The young pilot is puzzled about how the shepherd could have spotted him in the fog. After ever-more-elaborate rational explanations fail—and in conversation with a fellow named Joe, who is a father-figure to the shepherd—the young pilot finally realizes his salvation that evening has come about by supernatural intervention. The shepherd who guided him stands in for the good shepherd, Christ.
Although Forsyth is a British author, The Shepherd is a Canadian favorite. The final episode before Christmas Day of the CBC weekday evening show, As It Happens, has concluded with a reading of The Shepherd nearly every year since 1979. The reading is by the late “Fireside Al” Maitland, who cohosted the As It Happens with Barbara Frum in the 1970s and early 1980s. This year marks the 40th anniversary of this CBC tradition. I hope you may find a copy to read or find time to listen to Maitland’s wonderful reading.
Best wishes for a happy Christmas.