Angelica Kerr explores the best of Halloween: the stories.
As a birthday treat, my mother invites us to sit down with her and watch The Shining: Stanley Kubrick’s film of Stephen King’s great horror classic. Just as roses and peonies are blooming and baby birds are tweeting, at my house we gather around to enjoy the story of a man going mad and trying to hack his family to death. Happy days! Seriously though, why be confined to October to enjoy some of the greatest books ever written, and why should only this be the time of year for horror?
The story of how Halloween started is one of the best stories of them all. It is said that the origins of Halloween began 2000 years ago in Northern Europe through the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) in a celebration for their new year on 1 November. The night before being called among other iterations, either Hallowe’en, All Hallows Eve or All Saints’ Eve, it marked the end of summer and the harvest, and the beginning of the deathly winter. It’s said that “Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of 31 October they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.”
With the day of celebration enduring through the ages, but its origins being in pagan roots and folk customs, in the 9th century the Christian Church attempted to replace it with its own version, a day of prayer and remembrance called All Souls’ Day, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed or more simply, the Day of the Dead. Forget the pumpkins, sweets and kegs of beer, the stories are the best of Halloween, and have resulted in the great genre we know as horror.
The first writer of supernatural literature H. P. Lovecraft said that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. Somehow reading, with its reliance on creating images in your mind and not having them visually imposed, as in film, is more evocative and frightening. Curling up with a horror book as the wind blows in the dark outside can evoke the fabulous sensation of being simultaneously safe and totally afraid. Mary Shelley wrote one of the greatest stories of all time, Frankenstein, in a ghost story competition with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron around a log fire on a cold rainy holiday when she was just 18 years old, and the book went on to create a whole genre of its own, quite possibly also inventing science fiction. (I think she won.)
Women writers are relatively well represented in this genre with the bizarre and disturbing but often funny, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Susan Hill’s many books and lately Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale being described by the Guardian as “horror in its purest sense”. John Polidori, another competitor in the Shelley’s ghost story competition, brought in a new sub-genre in 1819’s, ‘The Vampyre’, (allegedly based on Lord Byron, him again) which many great writers ran with: Bram Stoker in the classic 1897 Dracula and Richard Matheson in his fantastic 1954 post-apocalyptic novel I am Legend, which also developed, alongside vampires and being the only man left alive on earth – zombies. It just keeps getting better.
But the day (or the night) might belong to the legend that is Stephen King and the many works he has brought us over the years and may still do. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…Carrie (1974), Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), Christine (1983), Pet Sematary (1983), It (1986), Misery (1987). If you only read his work for one night a year you may just finish one book if you are lucky. So lock the door, turn down the lights and pretend it is Halloween every night.