Celtic Autumn – The Origins of Halloween

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Samhain (pronounced Sow-in): The origin of Halloween can be traced to this ancient pagan festival celebrated by Celtic people over 2,000 years ago (states the Word Book Encyclopedia). “The Celts believed that the dead could walk among the living.”

It hasn’t changed all that much since then. The dead still walk among us that night, joined now by Zombies, Witches, Warlocks, Werewolves, Vampires, Black Cats and various other “haunts.”

Halloween night has become very crowded indeed.

Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallow’s Evening.” Also know as Allhalloween, All Hallow’s Eve, or All Saint’s Eve. Whatever you call it, it’s pretty scary. It used to scarier still, but in the nineteen fifties, it became sort of  “family friendly.” Now it is the second most popular holiday of the year, second only to Christmas. Americans spend about six BILLION dollars buying Halloween stuff.

And that doesn’t even include the candy.

According to many scholars, Halloween is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals. In many parts of the world, religious observances of Halloween include attending Church services and lighting candles on the graves and tombstones of the dead.

The word Halloween dates to about 1745, and is of Christian origin. It is a Scottish term. Samhain is old Irish and means “The end of summer.” Indeed. Gaelic Halloween was on November the first, rather than the last day of October. I’m not exactly sure which day I prefer. Both seem somehow very apropos, either night seemingly a good one to “Rattle dem dry bones.”

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At Samhain, places were set at the dinner table for the dead. It was believed that the departed would re-visit their homes on that night, and apparently be hungry when they got there. In 19th century Ireland, candles were lit, and prayers formally said for the souls of the deceased.

In modern Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Mann, and Wales, the festival includes Mumming and Guising. The adult mummers go door to door, reciting verses and singing songs in exchange for food. Guising is closest to our own tradition, with children making the rounds in disguise, searching for food or coins. The food usually consists of apples or nuts, with very little sugar.

“Trick or treat is largely America – demanding treats with menace. But then, that’s more or less the American way. One improvement we did make however, was to center the tradition largely around candy, and lots and lots of it. Chocolate is preferred.

No matter how it started, or where it came from, children the world over love it. I know that some of my very best memories of my kid-hood involve trick or treating around the neighborhood with my dad. The nights were cold and crisp. The scent of apples and cider were in the air. Dad was always by my side to ensure my safety. He was as constant as the sun rising in the morning.

Years later, when I was grown and dad was old, I would usually visit on Halloween night. I would bring about a half ton of candy, and dad would have more. We always bought a whole lot more than we knew we would distribute to the kids. But that was exactly the point. We got to eat the leftovers, as we watched an evening marathon of horror movies on the television. Old black and white monster movies were preferred.

Memories don’t get much better than that.

Dad has gone on himself to the great beyond now. I celebrate his life and his passing. And I will do it in typical (and traditional) Halloween style. As in light a candle, carve a pumpkin, eat a ton of candy, set a place for him at the dinner table, just in case he wants to drop in and is hungry when he gets there.

And just generally scare the crap out of myself and the grandkids as we watch an evenings marathon of old black and white horror flicks.

Because Halloween is, and always will be, the most wonderful (and scariest) night of the year.

Thanks for reading. Have a wonderful (and incredibly frightening) Halloween night.

We will meet again in a few days, with an excerpt from my upcoming book in The Watchmaker series, THE RECKONING.

Until then. Happy Halloween .  .  . and Happy Nightmares.

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Sunset . . . and Wyatt’s War

Young Wyatt

It’s not a very good movie in the final analysis. Mostly dreck, to tell the truth. But one of the very first scenes .  .  . well, that’s another matter.

The late, and very great  actor James Garner plays an aging Wyatt Earp in the 1988 crime comedy, Sunset.

Early on in the film, Wyatt is serving as a consultant and advisor on a Tom Mix (played by Bruce Willis) motion picture featuring the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. Mix, and the participants of the gunfights are dressed up ridiculously in overly ornate boots, spurs, chaps and ten-gallon hats. They carry pistols that are not much more than cap guns, making feeble little silly popping noises as they employ them.

They are filming the gun battle, running around in childish fashion shooting their fake pop-guns at each other, grabbing at their chests and falling over in absurd pantomime of death. It is totally inane. A troop of grade-schoolers could have done it better.

Wyatt watches all this, a faint smile playing on his face. The watcher of the film Sunset however, gets to see inside Wyatt’s head at the same time. And he’s remembering the real gunfight. The gunfight where guns boomed, where real people died, where real blood and guts flowed. Where people fell over and stayed dead–real dead. It plays in slow-motion in his memory, the dirt and the dust, the screams and shouts of the wounded and the dying, the panicked and bucking horses. Without any doubt, it is a memory of a dark day, a bloody day, a day that old Wyatt will never be able to erase from his mind. It is part of him forever.

When the scene is finished filming, Tom Mix wanders over to Wyatt, and asks how the scene went. Wyatt smiles even more broadly at the question, and replies .  .  . “Perfect boys–that’s just the way it was.”

Like I said, Sunset is a pretty crummy movie. But it’s worth watching just to see that one sequence. And maybe the rest of the movie as well, just to see the incomparable James Garner doing his thing one more time.

OK Corral after a fire.
OK Corral after a fire.
The OK Corral today.
The OK Corral today.

The well-known and much filmed real gunfight at the OK Corral happened in the mid-afternoon, October 26, 1881, one hundred and thirty-three years ago tomorrow. It happened in Tombstone, Arizona territory. It was a bloodbath. Eight participants; three ended up dead and several more seriously wounded. Only Wyatt was not harmed. But then, a bullet never touched him in his long and bloody career. He led a charmed life that way.

It happened in a very small vacant lot, and it was over in thirty seconds, something like 33 or so bullets being fired. One side made out a whole lot better than the other. The “cowboys” lost big, with three of their members buried up in Boot Hill Cemetery a couple of days later.  The Earps, and their friend John Henry “Doc” Holliday, all walked away, but Virgil and Morgan would pay a heavy price, with Virgil being crippled for life a few months later by the cowboys, and Morgan killed, shot in the back as he played pool. Doc died in bed a few years later, of tuberculosis.

For those who are interested, the gunfight was filmed best in Kevin Costner’s movie “Wyatt Earp.” It is a nearly perfect recreation,  realistic–at least as much as a movie scene can ever get to be.

Wyatt went on to  a long life, living until 1929 when he was eighty years old. But the memory of that day never left him. He would never return to Tombstone. He would never go near blood alley again, except perhaps in his nightmares. He was a haunted man until the day he died.

You see, he kind of started it. It all, the entire grudge that turned into the most famous gunfight of all time, was largely due to the machinations of one man, Wyatt Earp, gunman, lawman, sinner and saint. Take your pick. But he was also a consummate politician, running for a well-paying public office, and playing both ends against the middle to get the job. It all blew up in his face.

I often wonder if Wyatt, watching his brother Morgan’s body being lowered into the ground, wished it might have been him that died that night, and Morgan lived.

Wyatt was a circumspect man. In his later years however, he talked a lot about his Tombstone days.

But that little tidbit–he never divulged.

His dying words were .  .  . “Suppose .  .  . ”

Wyatt Earp at 80.
Wyatt Earp at 80.

Later this week .  .  . the origins of that most wonderful day of the Fall.

Halloween.



 

Tales of Enchanted October (the scariest story ever written) . . . The Monkey’s Paw

 

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The author at work.
The author at work.

His full name was William Wymark Jacobs, although he wrote his stories under the simplified handle of W. W. Jacobs. An Englishman, Mr. Jacobs was born in London, England on September 8, 1863. He would spend 79 years on the planet Earth, dying the 1st of September, 1943, still in his beloved London.

He was a short story writer and novelist. Much of his work was humorous. Much was not. His most famous story was a short one, the ever-remembered and much beloved THE MONKEY’S PAW. It was written in 1902.

Every once in a while, if a reader of fiction is really lucky, he will encounter a book so incredibly well-written, that he (or she) becomes so totally engrossed in the story, that the book in the hands seems to simply disappear. The reader enters into the story, becoming for all intents and purposes, a participant.

So it is with Mr. Jacobs’ most wonderful story of the paw. And it doesn’t seem to matter if you are reading it for the first time, or the fifteenth. It’s power to capture and hold the reader’s imagination is just that great. It is, to my mind at least, and in my very humble opinion, the scariest story ever written.

The entire story, which is not very long, is readily available on the internet, it having gone into public domain long ago. For any lover of horror, I would suggest reading the complete work, and basking for a short period of time, in the genius of the master. The best of modern-day horror genre novelists, mostly have their roots in this gentleman’s work. Lover’s of the work of Stephen King take note.

In the story, three wishes are granted to the owner of the monkey’s paw, but the wishes come with an enormous price-tag for interfering with fate. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, as the old saying goes.

The story involves an old couple, Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son Herbert. He works in a factory, around a lot of machinery. Sergeant-Major Morris, a friend of the Whites, and a veteran of the British Army in India, visits. He brings with him a dried monkey paw, a paw that contains a curse put on, “by an old Indian Fakir.” “A very holy man,” according the  Sergeant-Major, he wanted to show that fate ruled people’s live, and those who interfere, do so to their sorrow.

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The paw comes with three wishes. The old Sergeant-Major, has had very bad experiences with his wishes, and throws the paw into the fire. Mr. White rescues it, thinking he could use a little cash. He wishes for 200 English pounds, which he gets a day or two later when his son Herbert is killed in a horrific accident at the factory. The 200 pounds is a goodwill gesture from the factory owners.

The poor boy has been thoroughly mangled by the machinery. His father can only identify him by the clothing he was wearing. The man, horrified by what he has done, which was basically trading his son’s life for money, attempts to destroy the paw again. Mrs. White interferes this time, and uses the paw to wish her dead son back to life. It is an ill-considered desire.

Remember, he’s been buried for ten days. Not very pretty, huh? Well, he’s on his way home.

I won’t give away the ending. I couldn’t begin to do justice to the late, and very great genius of the master story teller, Mr. W. W. Jacobs. He probably had more “diabolical” in his little finger, than I have in my entire body.

Give it a read before Halloween. Better yet, wait for that wonderful dark and crisp last day of October. Wait until late at night, when all the kiddies have gone home. When the witches fly. When the black cats scream. When ghosts rule the night.

When the dead make their way back home from the Cemetery.

Light up the fireplace. Lower the lights. Settle in with this story. And whatever you do, don’t look over your shoulder. Not even when you hear that faint and mild tapping at the door.

A change of pace for the weekend. A hundred and thirty-three years later .  .  .  back to the alley. Back to the gunfight at the OK Corral.

In the meantime, good reading. And many happy nightmares.

W. W. Jacobs
W. W. Jacobs

 

 

 

Tales of Enchanted October – Mary Shelley and her Monster

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Mary Shelley (nee Wollstonecraft Godwin:  August 30, 1779 – February 1, 1851

She was the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. And if this lineage were not enough in the way of bone fides, she was married to the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Mary Shelley was no dummy.

In 1816 Mary and Percy Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Clair Clairmont near Geneva, Switzerland. It was a cold, rainy and wet summer, and often the company was confined to the house. It was here, in that house, by the shores of Lake Geneva, that Frankenstein was born.

Lord Byron proposed a wager. East of the company would write it’s own ghost story, and they would see which one was the scariest. Each went to work, but Mary was having a lot of trouble thinking of something to write about. Finally, she hit upon her idea. “What,” she wondered, “if a corpse could be re-animated?”

The rest was history, and needless to say, Mary won the wager.

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Her story was indeed the scariest, and has been scaring folks for almost two hundred years now. It started as a short story. With Percy’s encouragement, it expanded to a novel. It was a hit, spawning countless incarnations and versions.

It has never gotten old. Frankenstein is of course a gothic novel, but it was groundbreaking as well for its day and age. It is considered to be one of the very first science fiction stories.

It plays on one of our most basic phobias. Not only things that go bump in the night, but our very real, and largely well-founded fear of science gone mad and out of control. It worries us with the possibility of medical mistakes (For instance I have often been accused of having received a criminal’s brain) and with the hubris and god-complex of many practitioners of the medical arts today.

Cloning and biological engineering come to mind.

Our fears were given a face–and it was not a pretty one. Perhaps no other actor so personified the face of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation than that of the late great Boris Karloff. He owned the monster. No one would ever do it better. Boris can perhaps be credited with scaring the stuff out of more children than any other person who ever lived. I know he scared the crap out of me.

Boris Karloff
Boris Karloff

 

Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff were made for each other, and it was a shame that they would never meet in life. Mary Shelly passed at only age fifty-three, the victim of a brain tumor.

Perhaps they sit together now on a distant moor, cooking up even scarier yet ghost stories between them. It would be appropriate. After all, Mary Shelley, a diminutive woman, was the true designer, creator, and architect of the most famous monster that ever lived.

And yes, he does live, in our collective psyche. In our hearts, our minds, our imagination, and most of all–in our darkest nightscapes.

Not too bad for a result of a wager made between four very bored literary type individuals, on a cold, dark, rainy summer night–a couple of centuries ago.

Thanks Mary, for a job well done .  .  . and for all the goosebumps.

Next time .  .  . the scariest story ever written. The Monkey’s Paw.

Until then .  .  . Happy Nightmares.

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley

Legends of Enchanted October – The Haunting of Hill House

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“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality: even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against it’s hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”    (From The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, copyright 1959)

So began what is considered by many, to be the finest ghost story ever written. The above opening paragraph is taught in many creative writing classes as perfection–catching up the reader immediately in the story. It has it all. It sets the table, so to speak. Time, place, subject, powerful, vivid flavor–the writer’s craft at it’s best.

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I have written two mysteries.  I can absolutely assure you that neither opening paragraph came anywhere near Shirley’s quality. I’m good, but I’m not that good.

Shirley Hardie Jackson (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965).  She didn’t give interviews, believing her work would speak for itself. Indeed it does. Even these many years since she left this mortal life, she is still considered the master. She was only 48 when she passed, a victim of a weak heart. The literary world was cheated.

Shirley would live to see her work produced on the big screen–the 1963 classic titled simply The Haunting. It had a stellar cast. Julie Harris, Clair Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. The screenplay was credibly written to include a bit of humor–a very effective technique in a good horror movie. It worked. I remember going to see it with my mom (I was fourteen). She was a lover of good books, and hence a fan of Jackson. We were both scared poop-less.  It is one of the golden memories of my childhood.

The movie was reprised in 1999. It may (or may not) have been good. The critics were not impressed. To be honest, I have never seen it. I’ll stick with the classic, thank you very much. If you want to see an example of terrific movie-making, rent the ’63 version. You will not be disappointed. Not a computer generated effect to be found in the entire film. It didn’t need them. In an age of color, it was filmed in beautiful black and white.

If you want to be frightened half-to-death even more effectively, by all means read the book. A dark mid-October night by the fire in the company of Shirley Jackson. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Pull your blankey up tight around your shoulders–and grip the novel firmly.

And try not to hear .  .  . the creaking and groans of an old house.

Next up .  .  . two more classics. Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein–and W. W. Jacobs’, The Monkey’s Paw.

In the meantime, good night, good reading, and .  .  .  Happy Nightmares!

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson