In a few weeks’ time it will be Halloween. The supermarkets are already full of pumpkins, plastic cobwebs, spiders and buckets, in which to collect the goodies for trick or treat, skeleton masks and costumes, all of which will be bought for children, who will set off happily on the night of October 31st, to celebrate…what?
Death, the afterlife, the afterlife, the interaction between the living and the dead, these are the themes of All Hallows’ Eve and I very much doubt whether the kids, who knock on my door asking for sweets, have any idea of the meaning of this custom. For them, it’s a chance to get lots of sweet things, dress up and go to Halloween themed parties, where they will eat scorched sausages, toffee apples and possibly play traditional games, like bobbing for apples.
Trick or treating, however, has a long history. Although many people believe it came from the USA, it originated in medieval times, when children and poor people went from house to house begging for money or food, in return for praying for the souls of the departed. Thus keeping the link to the Celtic festival of Samhain and the origin of All Hallows’ Night, when it was believed that the barrier between our world and the next grew very thin.
It was, and still is, a time when human beings contemplate their mortality and the possibility that death is not the end. The fear of what is inevitable and what will follow, or maybe not, is mitigated by ritual. It is also where the ghost story comes into its own.
Ghosts promise us an afterlife. The shiver the stories send up the spine are a way of dealing with the primeval fear we all experience at the idea of:
“The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns.”
Telling, writing and listening to ghost stories is a way of inoculating us against some of that fear. It is a homeopathy of the soul.
It is also a comfort, as these horrors are experienced through the medium of a book, or a film and, while we might tremble, or hide our eyes, we know that what we are experiencing is fiction and we will soon return to the safety of our lives.
The best ghost stories, however, will not let you go. They grip you and shake you and slide into your veins. There are the classics like Henry James, “The Turn of the Screw” and for me a more recent one, “Nanna Burrows” by Jan Edwards. This story, from her anthology “Leinster Gardens and other Subtleties”, has lingered long in my psyche.
Equally powerful is her “Pet Therapy”, to be found in “Fables and Fabrications”, which centres around the power of a malign spirit.
The inevitable ending of both those tales of the supernatural is something I fight against. I want a different resolution, just as we strive against the “dying of the light” and try through scores of health and anti-aging initiatives to convince ourselves that it will not happen to us, at least, not yet.
Time slip is another way of coming to terms with change and loss. It brings a sense of continuity, that lives might end, yet still exist in a past which can be visited and, in some cases, what has been tragic can be given a different outcome, by the actions of the protagonist.
So, as the nights draw in, we huddle in the darkness, illuminate our pumpkins to banish what lurks in the shadows and tell stories to chill our blood.
If you are interested in any of the books mentioned, both Jan Edwards’ “Fables and Fabrications” and my time slip novel “House of Shadows” are now on special offer, for this month only, on Amazon. Click here for “Fables and Fabrications” and here for “House of Shadows.”