"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, September 21, 2020

Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne: Halloween Silhouettes

Lisa Morton's Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (2012) is a pleasure to read for all those who appreciate the holiday. Morton glories in everything from Samhain (and its pronunciation), yard decorations, to garden gate thefts.

Amid all the rural/urban dichotomies (my own particular interest), Morton also has some interesting things to say about our genre and the way it and Halloween feed on one-another.

....It wasn't until Halloween had become established in America that it acquired most of its token animals. Only the cat had been present in Halloween lore previously, and usually in association with the witch. The Scots, for example, thought witches might turn cats into horses to ride on Halloween night, while in America one folk belief had it that a witch who boiled a live black cat on Halloween night and then washed the bones in a spring would receive a visit from the Devil, who would reveal to her the 'lucky bone' that would henceforth serve as her talisman. Edgar Allan Poe's famed short tale 'The Black Cat' is now a Halloween classic, even though it makes no reference to the day itself, and cats figure prominently in twentieth-century Halloween folk art. Cats have recently been a source of concern at Halloween: in the USA black cats are believed to be stolen for use in occult rituals, and many animal protection agencies warn pet owners to keep close tabs on their black cats during the Halloween season.

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....In America, pumpkins – the large, bright-orange squash native to the New World and harvested in late autumn – had been carved into grinning faces for decades prior to the arrival of Halloween. In 1820, Washington Irving immortalized the carved pumpkin in his story 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow', and although the piece would later become a Halloween classic thanks to its combination of humour and fright, it made no direct mention of the day. In his poem 'The Pumpkin' of 1850, John Greenleaf Whittier links the pumpkin to another festival – Thanksgiving – but goes on to recall carving 'wild, ugly faces' in pumpkins lit from within by candles, and telling fairy stories by their light. Jack-o'-lanterns aren't mentioned in most of the Halloween party descriptions from the 1860s and '70s; an 1880 article suggests that they aren't even as useful as cabbages at Halloween. But within a few years, the legends of Jack the Blacksmith, Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane, turnip-carving from the Old World and the American tradition of cutting faces into the giant fruit would combine to create the jack-o'-lantern. In 1898, Martha Russell Orne, in her seminal pamphlet Hallowe'en: How to Celebrate It, suggested that a Halloween party should be 'grotesquely decorated with Jack-o'-lanterns made of apples, cucumbers, squashes, pumpkins, etc.' She also suggests creating 'bogies' from pumpkins:

A pumpkin is carefully hollowed out until nothing but the shell of the rind remains. One side of it is punctured with holes for the mouth, eyes, and nose, and made as nearly as possible to resemble a human face. A lighted candle is then fastened within, the eyebrows are put on with burnt-cork, and a demon-like expression given to the features . . . the bogie is put in a dark room, where the young people may stray on it unawares . . .4

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     If one could choose only three stories that have both contributed greatly to Halloween and have in turn continued to be read and enjoyed year after year thanks to the celebration, the second would be Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown' (1835). As with 'Ulalume', there is no direct naming of Halloween, but the night is strongly implied when the story begins with young newlywed Faith pleading with her husband, 'Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year.'11 The story describes how the eponymous hero, on a mysterious night-time journey through dark woods, encounters the Devil and learns that the most pious members of his community – Salem – are in fact in league with the Devil, and are all on their way to a diabolical meeting. The story includes frightening imagery of supernatural occurrences (Satan walks with a staff made of a living snake, an overhead cloud is full of voices, a flaming rock holds a baptismal font of blood) and a dismal ending that is a testament to Hawthorne's guilt over the involvement of his own great-great-grandfather in the Salem witch trials. 'Young Goodman Browne' has long been a popular Halloween story, and has probably helped to promote the icon of the witch, just as 'The Black Cat' served to elevate its title animal to Halloween superstar.

    The final story in the Halloween triple crown of fiction is Washington Irving's 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'. First published in 1820, the tale of gangly school teacher Ichabod Crane's encounter with the Headless Horseman makes no reference to Halloween, although it makes considerable use of an autumn setting, describing the seasonal countryside, harvest and a party. It has become a Halloween classic because of its use of a pumpkin – the Horseman (who is likely Ichabod's rival Brom Bones in disguise) cradles his 'head' as he rides, and finally hurls it at the terrified teacher, but the next day all that's found are 'the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin'.12 Did Irving's classic, in which a pumpkin serves as the head of a dreadful goblin, help to seat the jack-o'-lantern on the throne as the undisputed king of Halloween icons? Certainly, 'The Black Cat', 'Young Goodman Brown' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' have appeared in more American school textbooks as Halloween selections than any other works of prose, and it's surely no coincidence that their three respective subjects – black cats, witches and pumpkins – have become the three main symbols of Halloween.

    Another of Irving's tales is also set on 'a fine autumnal day' and is a Halloween favourite: 'Rip Van Winkle'.13 This classic tells the story of a man who, while wondering in the mountains one day, encounters a strange group of little bearded men. Rip sips from their keg, falls asleep and awakens twenty years later. Similarities to classic fairy tales set at Samhain or Halloween are obvious: a lone mortal has stumbled on a supernatural gathering and upon returning to his own world finds that time has moved on without him.

    By the mid-nineteenth century, a new form of popular entertainment had taken hold thanks to advances in printing and distribution techniques: the magazine. By 1850, more than 600 magazines were being printed in the U.S., all hungry for content. In 1830, the first magazine that targeted women began: Godey's Ladies Book, which early on acquired Sarah J. Hale as editor. Ironically, Hale would go on to be remembered for her involvement with another festival – she campaigned to have Thanksgiving recognized as a national American holiday – but Godey's was one of many nineteenth-century periodicals that featured Halloween-themed pieces in its pages. 'Halloween, or Chrissie's Fate' by Meta G. Adams is a typical example of the quaint Halloween stories to be found in American magazines of the 1870s and '80s. First published in 1871 in Scribner's Monthly Magazine (and reprinted a year later in The Century), Halloween is apparently unknown to the story's elderly spinster narrator until the arrival of a youngster:

So it came to pass that my niece Kitty Coles was spending the month with me, and having happened upon an old book upon 'The Supernatural', had become imbued with a frantic desire to test some of her newfound theories on the approaching 'Halloween.'14    

The party consists entirely of girls (age is never specified, although they are described as 'young' and 'girlish'), and activities include pouring melted lead into water to read the shapes, naming chestnuts in pairs and burning them on the hearth, and (after a frightful walk through a deserted wing of the spinster's house) eating an apple before a mirror at midnight. One of the girls, Chrissie, encounters a wraith while at the mirror, and the rest of the story is a standard nineteenth-century romance, as Chrissie finally meets and weds the man she encountered via a mirror's reflection on Halloween night.'

    Not all the Halloween-themed pieces found in these magazines were short stories; many took the form of non-fiction accounts of folklore beliefs. In 1886, for example, Harper's New Monthly Magazine ran 'Halloween: A Threefold Chronicle' by William Sharp. The sections in this triptych are titled 'Halloween in Ireland', 'Halloween in Scotland' and 'At Sea', which describes a Halloween spent in stormy weather near the Cape of Good Hope:

The only custom it was in our power to observe was that of dipping for apples; this, however, would prove impossible unless the sea greatly moderated, for it was all the steadiest of us could do to keep our feet at all.15    Later the weather calms enough to allow for bobbing, followed by music, dancing and telling of eerie tales.

    These magazines probably provided many Americans with their introduction to Halloween, and no doubt housewives were charmed by the descriptions of the parties. America was becoming more industrialized and urbanized, and the middle class, who now had disposable income, were happy to follow in the footsteps of their British kin, whom they still saw as sophisticated older cousins. It's probably no coincidence that Meta G. Adams's 'Halloween, or Chrissie's Fate' was published two years after Queen Victoria's Halloween visit to Balmoral Castle, an event that was widely reported in the American press.

    It was also about this time that a small explosion of works exploring folklore of the British Isles appeared. Over the space of seventeen years, dozens of small, regional histories were recorded, and many of the key major studies: Lady Wilde (mother to Oscar) published Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland in 1887 and Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages in Ireland in 1890, and introduced readers to stories of fetches and Halloween mischief. Sir James G. Frazer focused on Halloween bonfires and saw Halloween as a Celtic celebration of winter's approach when he published the first edition of The Golden Bough in 1890; Douglas Hyde's Beside the Fire: A Collection of Irish Gaelic Folk Stories came out in 1890, and included the whimsical folk tale 'Guleesh na Guss Dhu', about a peasant boy who rides with fairies on Halloween night. Sidney Oldall Addy's Household Tales with Other Traditional Remains (1895), John Gregorson Campbell's Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900), T. F. Thistelton Dyer's British Popular Customs: Present and Past (1900) and Sir John Rhys's Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901) all included a wealth of Halloween folk beliefs and stories of malicious spirits. Lady Gregory published Cuchulain of Muirthemne: The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster in 1902 and Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland in 1904, offering one of the most extensive collections to date of Celtic legends and Samhain lore. By the end of the trend, readers had been introduced to Scottish superstitions, pookas, fire customs, talking corpses on Samhain eve and fairies in every conceivable shape and mood....


21 September 2020

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Basil Rathbone reads Young Goodman Brown.

The Black Cat by Christopher Lee

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