To recap some of my thoughts about Hallowe’en. The use of such conquering fear of the dark activities seems to me pretty obvious:
winter nights enlarge/The number of their hours
and we can make the best of it by smiling at the dark. Thomas Campion‘s lyrics have it just right, and youthful revels have their place in the honey love of the closing-in evenings.
The pro and con tensions in part arise from the abuses these revels engender. “Psychos” and “Slutty Vampires” sit uncomfortably with my English folk-horror. Yet they’re not wholly American: Trick or Treat at least has an element of bargaining amid the demanding money with menaces, unlike much of its ancestor, Mischief Night, whose joys seem vengeful or gleefully malign. A door latch has a drawing pin attached to it with dog poo, so the unwary person who pricks his thumb goes at once to suck it… a sooty chicken is induced to cause havoc at a WI meeting…
Yes, these are both occurrences from North Yorkshire I’ve been told about. They are the same Carnival as the Big Skeleton, the Little Skeleton and the Dog Skeleton go in for as they riot their way home in Funnybones, or the menacing pumpkin head that gets its comeuppance in the story of the hopping pumpkin who meets an ignominious end with a goat (this is a link to a longer text than the one I tell). But the Carnival is there because we are at a sort of seasonal fault-line, where summer’s lease is up and the dark is at the door.
There is a sense for me that this big change is the Autumn answer to May Day. The nights close in, the socialisation is indoors, defined, more visible, with the freedoms of warmer weather lost or at least traded for friends and firesides. When C S Lewis envisages this in the hearts of his heroes in That Hideous Strength they think of
…stiff grass, hen-roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the Sun’s dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars.
No mischief or carnival here s we stare into the dark. Mischief, however, is close friends with these shadows and darkness, of the almost-known, the footsteps partly recognised. It is the younger sibling of more menace, and this is partly why it is disquieting: does it licence the bully, the vandal? In looking into the shadows, does it, as Kathleen Raine so evocatively puts it:
Let in the dark,
Let in the dead…
(Northumbrian Sequence IV is cited in extenso here in my post about poetry and spirituality)?
It seems to me that this week or so – Hallowe’en to Remembrance/Martinmas – is a real blending of a gleeful naughtiness, the swede or pumpkin lantern and the restlessness of wind and dark, wet evenings, as the chaos of Carnival mimics and mocks – and presages – the chaos and pain of the storms of winter and death, “þis andwearde lif manna on eorðan” “Talis vita hominum praesens in terris…”
So when we smile at the shadows when we look at books for (and with) children, how do we approach death and disaster? The too-brief nod recently to the BBC adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials asks about the Beeb’s decisions to show it pre-watershed. We might similarly ask about Erlbruch’s Death, Duck and Tulip, that strange and lovely meditation on the role of death in our lives – or Thummler’s Sheets, or McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends, or Ness’ A Monster Calls… In fact, although the list isn’t endless, there are plenty of books that offer wonderful and painful insights as they look at death and pain and loss.
The good writer who perceives a good story need not shy away from the issues; the reader who comes to these texts comes prepared for challenge, maybe for tears – but trusts the writer to deliver something that will bring them safely to shore. Raine puts it well when she suggests that in our innocence it is still within us to
bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild
and (for me the subtlest line)
Have pity on the raven’s cry