I love Halloween, both in its resplendent gaudiness and in the strange, numinous seriousness which underpins it. Early each autumn I develop in my mind airy plans to write a great nonfictional treatise on Halloween and how those two interlink – the plastic pumpkin toys and the cosmic chill that lurks within us – and each year I find I’ve simply not got the time.
And yet I read, and one thing I’m always on the lookout for is quotations on Halloween. Christmas, its traditions, symbolism and cultural detritus, are awarded a seriousness and great writers’ observations are there to be collated (I have done some of this collating myself in the past). But Halloween, not so much.
John Burnside is one of my favourite authors, precisely because he spans numerous forms: poetry, criticism, novels and a handful of liminal memoirs. He’s also the writer who, fleetingly, comes closest to writing in that serious way I’d love to write about Halloween, that is approaching it not simply as a festival of spookiness and schlock but also as a time for interrogating death and darkness.
Here, for instance, is the opening of A Lie About My Father, Burnside's memoir concerning his terrorised relationship with his hard-drinking father.
And here is a poem by Burnside, ‘At My Father’s Funeral’, first published in the London Review of Books in 2012 and included in his most recent collection, All One Breath. It touches on Halloween in a similar fashion, slightly fearful and wholly reverent.
We wanted to seal his mouth
with a handful of clay,
to cover his eyes
with the ash of the last
bonfire he made
at the rainiest edge
of the garden
and didn’t we think, for a moment,
of crushing his feet
so he couldn’t return to the house
to stand at the window,
smoking and peering in,
the look on his face
like that flaw in the sway of the world
where mastery fails
and a hinge in the mind
swings open – grief
or terror coming loose
and drifting, like a leaf,
into the flames.
Another book which comes to mind is Hardy’s Return of the Native, which doesn’t mention Halloween itself, not entirely surprising for a novel of 1870’s provincialism, but takes place during the season, the time of year when ‘pale lunar touches which make beauties of hags’, its tragic love story set against a backdrop of village festivities and disruptive customs, with the modern, urban world intruding onto the distant fringes of the pastoral Heath.
Hardy goes some way in imparting to the reader the appeal of the dark season: ‘to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.’
There’s also Ray Bradbury, a writer I’m a little fearful to say I don’t think of as being particularly good. He’s far too homely and periphrastic for my tastes, but it’s hard not to have a soft spot for Something Wicked This Way Comes, a paean to October, ‘a rare month for boys’, and those who revel in its dark quintessence: ‘For these beings, fall is ever the normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth... Such are the autumn people.’
And finally, who else? Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Spirits of the Dead’, as well as being Poe at his most Poe, is possibly the most successful distillation of the spirit of the season I can think of, where solitude, darkness and a meditation on the dead all converge, resulting in a kind of black awe. Here is the poem in its entirety.
Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone;
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.
Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness — for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.
The night, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look down
From their high thrones in the Heaven
With light like hope to mortals given,
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever.
Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more, like dew-drop from the grass.
The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries.
What other Halloween passages are there? Are there some obvious ones I’ve missed? Any obscure observations hidden away in quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore? if so, let me know.