A Grouch's Guide to Un-Christmas Books

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Christmastime has landed like a fat guy dropping from a chimney. Scrooge is at the multiplex, Santa's at the mall, and Mannheim Steamroller is crushing everything in its path. Christmas lights are shining, carols are playing, good cheer is cheering, warmth is warmthing, all is merry and bright. And it's going to grind on for weeks.

If you're looking to escape from this holly jolly overkill, a good book might be just the thing. But this time of year, your options are limited to various uplifting tales of the season, all called The Christmas Something [just insert a random noun: Box, List, Sweater, Dog, Bus], each one brimming with heartwarming sentiment. There's nothing I like better on a wintry evening than settling down by a cozy fire with one of those books and then throwing it into the fire.

On the other hand, you don't want to be all Scroogely McGrinchster and check out of the holidays entirely, right? Some Christmas tree hugger might call you a grump.

What you need is an un-Christmas book. An un-Christmas book takes place at Christmastime, but its tone, story and subject matter have nothing to do with the season. It provides perfect cover when the Noël nags accuse you of being a holiday poop. Simply point to the word Christmas in the text and say, "See, I'm reading this Christmas book," and just keep the un- part to yourself.

Booksellers, take note: This is an excellent theme for a seasonal display. You're welcome.

Here are some examples:

The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett. Stopping over in New York City for the holidays, Nick and Nora Charles get involved in several murders and a lot of other unpleasantness, while knocking back so many cocktails and highballs that you start thinking maybe there was something to Prohibition after all. Following a night of hard drinking on Christmas Eve, the fun-loving couple is up at 5:00 am to welcome in Christmas with--what else?--Scotch and soda. Nora is miffed that Nick won't give her a Christmas present before breakfast, which leads to this exchange:

"Whatever you're giving me," she said, "I hope I don't like it."
"You'll have to keep them anyway, because the man at the Aquarium said he positively wouldn't take them back."

[Don't miss the terrific scene from the 1934 film version in which Nick uses his Christmas gift--an air rifle--to methodically shoot the ornaments off the Christmas tree. The vicarious pleasure this provides is difficult to describe.]

On Her Majesty's Secret Service, by Ian Fleming. James Bond observes Christmas Eve by escaping from Blofeld's hideout in the Swiss Alps. This requires him to engage in such traditional Yuletide activities as breaking people's necks and dodging grenades and gunfire. Schussing down the mountainside pursued by SPECTRE killers, Bond has an aha moment:

"But of course! It was Christmas Eve! God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay! . . . White Christmas! Well, he'd certainly got himself that!"

Fleming continues working the exclamation points as Bond narrowly eludes an avalanche, stabs a henchman with a ski pole, leads another into a giant snow blower that chops him into mincemeat (seasonally appropriate, I suppose), and tricks several more into driving off a precipice to their deaths. Apparently 007 didn't get the "Peace on earth, good will toward men" memo. Be prepared for the shocking revelation that James Bond, celebrated gourmet and epicure, has no idea how to make plum pudding. "You don't seem to know much about Christmas," his secretary, Mary Goodnight, tells him. I think he just likes celebrating in his own way. [Another cinema side note: The film version of OHMSS features the unlikeliest James Bond song of all: "Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?" a sugary composition that cites reindeer and Santa and friendship and kindness and love while a chorus of children sing "la la la la la" in the background. Proceed at your own risk--personally, I'd rather be chopped into mincemeat by a snow blower.]

Hell House, by Richard Matheson. The title could refer to my place after the relatives arrive for the holidays, but actually the book is about a psychic researcher, his wife, and two mediums who move into "the Mount Everest of haunted houses." Props to Matheson for specifically setting his story during the holiday season--December 18th through the 24th--then studiously ignoring that fact until the last line of the book ("'Merry Christmas,' he repeated softly"). Just as well--the spirits here aren't exactly the kind of transformative, redemptive apparitions we've come to associate with Christmas. Marley's Ghost is pretty scary, I suppose, but he comes off like Casper on nitrous oxide compared to the malevolent ectoplasmic abominations Matheson conjures up. After a night with these ghosts, Scrooge wouldn't have vowed to change his ways, he'd have hung himself.

And a shout-out to Paul Gallico's The Poseidon Adventure, in which the doomed ocean liner capsizes on December 26th (not New Year's Eve, as all three film versions have it). Hundreds die horrible deaths, but the survivors put a fifteen-foot Christmas tree to good use, so that makes things jolly.

These un-Christmas Books will get you started, but you'll need more--it's going to be a long haul. Consider making a list. You can even check it twice, in keeping with the season. That ought to make the Yule bullies happy.