It’s that Samhain time of year again when I pull out my stripey leggings and think about foggy nights in front of the fire.
Not that I have a fire. I have radiators, not quite the same effect so I tend to have to go out into the garden and light the fire basket, which is where the fog creeps in as I pull up a cobwebbed deck chair and start reading. Of course, at Halloween it has to be something spooky.
I’ve long been a fan of Alice Hoffman and Practical Magic is one of my favourites. It has everything, a vast Gothic style mansion in New England, an undead ex-boyfriend and broomsticks. It’s filled with rich everyday magic and an idea of not messing with the occult unless you know what you’re doing. I like my magic doings to have a solid foundation in reality. In Practical Magic the sisters have a deep and troubled connection to their home town and their witchy powers and the book is about family and accepting who you are. The most gifted sister hides her witchcraft and only through a crisis does she finally realise how much a part of herself this gift is and that it was a mistake to try and tamp it down.
Another big favourite is M R James. Be careful. You have to ration yourself on these short stories. Their quiet, sinister quality will make you jump at every creaking floorboard and see figures moving at the edge of your vision. Again it is that basis in the everyday, in reality that makes them somehow more spooky.
That’s the key I think, you have to choose your monsters. The most obvious firebreathing Godzilla is scary but it’s only a surface terror, like a rollercoaster ride, you know you are strapped in and along for the loop the loop. Once you make the monster have a human face you are really plugging into the primal fears.
I make no bones about the fact that my two Desert Island books are (chuck out the Bible) Catherine Storr’s Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf with, as its companion volume, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It is no surprise then that another go-to for spookiness and delight is The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke. I love Clarke’s writing and this collection of stories is one I am always turning to in a moment of reading need. I love the title story, exceptionally spooky and also feminist/empowering. A close second is ‘Mrs Mabb’ in which poor forlorn and forgotten Venetia takes on quite a powerful fairy. That makes it sound like high fantasy but again, these stories are rooted in reality, albeit an historic 18th century folkloric one. For spooky humour turn the page to ‘Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower’. Conan Doyle’s Cottingley fairies were never like this. I have read this collection a thousand times and never tire of it.
A long ago read that has stayed with me and is always a good one for a Halloween, is Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Again we’ve got darkness seeping into the everyday. I first read this as a teenager. I was terrified and yet I could not put it down. You think you’ve got bad neighbours? Think you can trust a kindly little old lady? Think you can trust your own ambitious husband? Think again. This novel makes even pregnancy into, well, spoiler alert. To this day whenever I see anyone wearing a little pot-pourri style silver pendant round their neck the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Read the book, you’ll understand. That’s the power of words, imagination and Tannis root.
I know, I know, this is a lot of wordage and there are only 24 hours in Halloween. Probably wise to open a portal and skim through several different Hallow…Wait. Did you hear that? Is there someone there? Hello?
I’ve always been a book lover, ever since I finally had the words to read ‘Old Dog Tom’ one of the epics of the reading scheme at my 1970s primary school. No, it was not written on parchment or etched in stone. It was colourful though, I remember lovely ochre and chestnut tones and there was always something about the rhythm of the title ‘Old Dog Tom’ 3,3,3. Literary magic. Could not tell you now what that story was about but the feeling of it, the colours, the sound of it lodged in my mental geology like mica.
I read and re-read Ladybird books. I mowed my way through Enid Blyton and Sue Barton District Nurse. My mum was adept at leaving books idly on stairs and upturned on tables and in this way I found ‘The Pigman’ by Paul Zindel, Jean Plaidy’s young queens historical books and Alan Garner’s ‘Owl Service’. I roared through Alan Garner, Elidor settling into the old geology like Lewisian Gneiss.
Harriet the Spy was another geological deposit, a book I still have, yellowed and creased to glory. It is no lie to admit that many of my writing skills come from the way that book made me think about people and about their stories and their secret inner lives.
Another totally immersive book for me was The Adventures of James Bond Junior 0031/2 written by the mysterious R D Mascott. At the time I had no idea it was by a mystery author, some thought it was Dahl, others that it might be Amis. I just thought it was brilliant. I borrowed it over and over and over again from my primary school library, a small corner room at the top end of the hall that was a haven of hidden stories. These are the proper libraries, the ones that are quiet with secrets not brash with the council’s corporate hype. A library should be dusty and hidden, the shelves should be tall so that readers can scuttle between them undisturbed. There should be paperbacks and bookworms not protocol.
This book might seem an unlikely choice for a ten year old girl but believe me, I thought this book was the Bible. I liked the adventure of it, the gripping writing style and the fact that this boy just wandered around the countryside finding out secrets and solving a mystery and then, at last, not being given credit for it. It was not a sop of a book. One of my vivid recollections of its storytelling was when he ends up in the river trying to get away from the bad guys and gets his leg broken. I can’t tell you how that book imposed itself into my head. It was a wonderful place to run around in.
That’s the key. It’s what is in your head, the secret places, the hidden dreams and desires, and stories need to reach those places. We all love different stories because we are all different but we connect as tribes through those stories. I like witchcraft and the supernatural, you might like horror or crime.
You find your tribe. You build your hut. You read.
I love Autumn despite the fact that the dawning of September gives me panicked flashbacks to my schooldays. Riffling images of black polyester blazer, mustard coloured Hush Puppies and the crack of Tracey’s nose after Karen hit her with the hockey stick that time. Her nose swelled like a vast purple balloon, an image that has stayed with me. Purple. Yes. Imperially so.
Autumn has the best colours and I love the cooling weather plus there is something lush about the name ‘October’. It might be the ‘ber’ at the end, reminiscent of bears and other predatory wildlife that roam the fictional forest that fills my skull. Oct, too has a sharp clicking sound to it and probably accounts for the fact that one of my favourite aquatic creatures is ‘octopus’. November is good because it has a ‘v’ in the middle and also the word ‘ember’ which reminds us that we can light fires in the crisp Autumn darkness to chase away the less welcome spirits or invite others in.
I was at the gym the other day listening to a boring woman drone on about bad weather. She hates bad weather because when it rains ‘You are stuck in the house.’ to which I replied ‘Why? Don’t you have a coat?’, which comment went down like a lead balloon but I was in that sort of mood. What sort of a sop doesn’t like bad weather? As Billy Connolly tells us ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing’. Cold? Put a jumper on. Anyone who won’t venture out into the rain is a hopeless write off, especially in this country with its daily meteorological smorgasbord. Seriously folks, the weather here is a breeze compared to the monsoons of Asia and the wild hurricanes of Tornado Alley in the US. Get your boots on. Knit a scarf. Get out there.
I visited California on my honeymoon and it was relentlessly sunny. After about five days my husband (Welsh) and myself (Northern) began to crave some clouds. Just a few puffy ones, possibly a bit of cirrus streaked across the unending blue. Then, after a week of sweat and squinting, even with sunglasses, we needed a fix of cumulo nimbus, a great towering thunderhead and possibly a bit of a chilly breeze, maybe a spot or two of rain. It was torture. I am not of a sunny disposition it has to be confessed. I don’t roast or bake on the nearest beach; when I’m on a beach I like to build a sandcastle, which is no small embarrassment to my now grown up children.
Eventually the skies opened and we were treated to a vast and monsoon like downpour just as we decided to visit the La Brea Tarpits. It was one of my favourite moments of the generally wonderful honeymoon, the rain trickling down my neck from the collar of my cagoule as I looked at the black gloop and its cargo of concealed mammoth.
So here we are at October with its recent harvest of pumpkins. When I was a girl the only pumpkin I had ever seen was in my Ladybird ‘Cinderella’ fairytale book. Pumpkins were the fruit of myth until I visited the east coast of the US and was assailed by the pumpkin stands and general pumpkin bounty.
In more recent years the pumpkin has had a comeback in this country and I love their brightness and their fairytale aspect. The flavour isn’t half bad either, whether in a pumpkin pie or roasted with some walnuts and blue cheese. In case you were questioning my sanity I also love brussels sprouts and find it difficult to relate to those who don’t like them. What’s not to like? Green and tasty and like a fairy sized cabbage!
Autumn has all the best colours too, the vivid reds and umbers, burning oranges and the light held within the yellow ochres. There is the soundscape of the wind, of rustling leaves on branches and underfoot. You can’t beat it.
Flip over to the October page of the calendar, you’ll probably find it’s a squirrel or a dormouse armed with a hazelnut or dangling from an ear of wheat, although that’s probably a harvest mouse.
Harvest. Another lovely Autumn word. See, you just have to squint a bit at the season and you’ll be fine.