Once again we are on the immediate cusp of a new month, and no other ‘eve’ – if we discount New Year’s – is attributed quite as much of an atmosphere as that of All Hallows Eve. This evening is the annual celebration of all things spooky and scary, eerie and creepy; already you may be observing the presence of something unexplained and ever-so unnerving in the air…or perhaps the spine-tingling shiver has more to do with the colder weather than any otherworldly sort of chill. Regardless of whether or not you witness any strange goings-on today or tonight, literature has always loomed large over Hallowe’en, with the spectre of old stories continuously being resurrected and new ones entering into the spirit too, becoming the legends of the future. Before the contemporary traditions of trick or treating, apple bobbing or ghost hunting, gathering together by the dim light of a single candle with only the accompaniment of the howling wind outside to read aloud some terrifying tales was for many the definitive way to spend All Hallows Eve.
Though the storytelling ritual of the season has never really disappeared, of late there has been heralded a resurgence of Hallowe’en reading events. In many respects, it’s the perfect time for sharing stories; not only is it more affecting to have a scare that’s shared but you’re also afforded the comfort of a collective experience – keeping things fun as well as the right side of frightening. Observing the trend, over the weekend the first Stories Before Bedtime was held with a distinctly disturbing flavour (hopefully the thrills and chills didn’t keep everyone up all night) and over the past week, legions of blood-curdling books have been exchanged thanks to a novel Hallowe’en practise called All Hallows Read. The idea was conjured up by author Neil Gaiman, a spooky solution to the relative lack of recognisable traditions involving literature and specifically the giving of books. So while on a plane near the end of last October, the spectacularly simple thought to get everyone giving each other scary reads – brand new, borrowed or second-hand – in the run-up to Hallowe’en popped into his head. And thus, All Hallows Read was born. It goes without saying that we wholeheartedly support any story-sharing initiative, especially one so inclusive; it takes into account all books and all people, from adults to children, so long as the story’s scare factor is suitable for kids – indeed, academic experts have recently advocated a spot of shocking storytelling in helping children to safely deal with fears and anxieties.
So in keeping with the spine-chilling theme, it’s only right we should feature a poem this Hallowe’en from a man many would call term the master of mystery, horror and suspense – none other than Edgar Allan Poe. His poems – perhaps most famously, The Raven – and short stories have been a central aspect of Hallowe’en congregations for years, and fittingly, Poe was also an early literary influence on Neil Gaiman. Rather than providing heart-stopping shocks, Poe’s tales of the macabre evoke a dark romanticism, petrifying but also poignant. There is perhaps no finer example of this mix than Ulalume; full of ominous atmosphere with its ‘ghoul-haunted woodland’ but haunting in an entirely different way, too. What’s more, it was originally intended to be an elocution piece so it is oozing with echoing sounds and rhythms. Perfect to read aloud and set the mood prior to any Hallowe’en get-together.
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispèd and sere —
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir —
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
There were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll —
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.
Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere —
Our memories were treacherous and sere —
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year —
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber —
(Though once we had journeyed down here) —
We remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
And now, as the night was senescent
And star-dials pointed to morn —
As the star-dials hinted of morn —
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.
And I said — “She is warmer than Dian:
She rolls through an ether of sighs —
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
To point us the path to the skies —
To the Lethean peace of the skies —
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes —
Come up through the lair of the Lion
With Love in her luminous eyes.”
But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said — “Sadly this star I mistrust —
Her pallor I strangely mistrust: —
Oh, hasten! — oh, let us not linger!
Oh, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.”
In terror she spoke; letting sink her
Wings till they trailed in the dust —
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust —
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.
I replied — “This is nothing but dreaming:
Let us on by this tremulous light!
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybillic splendor is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty to-night: —
See! — it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
And be sure it will lead us aright —
We safely may trust to a gleaming
That cannot but guide us aright,
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”
Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom —
And conquered her scruples and gloom:
And we passed to the end of the vista,
And were stopped by the door of a tomb;
By the door of a legended tomb: —
And I said — “What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?”
She replied — “Ulalume — Ulalume —
’Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”
Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crispèd and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night of all nights in the year,
Oh, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”
Said we, then — the two, then — “Ah, can it
Have been that the woodlandish ghouls —
The pitiful, the merciful ghouls —
To bar up our way and to ban it
From the secret that lies in these wolds —
From the thing that lies hidden in these wolds —
Had drawn up the spectre of a planet
From the limbo of lunary souls —
This sinfully scintillant planet
From the Hell of the planetary souls?”
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)