Category Archives: Halloween

…and Things that go Munch in the Night


It’s that time again, as darkness falls upon the land and the dead rise from their crypts to walk amongst us, reaching out with cold, unfriendly fingers to suck life from the living… though I hope my previous wafflings on this subject have shown that the dead are exactly that and can do us little harm beyond spilling our cocoa in mild surprise at their re-appearance. It was a noticeable feature of several of the stories that I came across in my research for last year’s “The Raven and other Underworld Journeys” that the doors to the land of the dead are firmly shut and once you get down there you are not coming back. If the conditions are right you might be able to get a phone call through though.

Originally the late October feast, Samhain (pronounced Sawain) in the celtic language of the Britons back before the Romans came here, was a time to relax and enjoy the fruits of the years labours; the storehouses were full from the harvest and the year’s work was done. At the death of the year and the thinning of the veil between past present and future, it was also a time to give thanks to and commune with the ancestors, an opportunity to seek advice from late Uncle Jack or Grandmother Jane. With the coming of Christianity the tradition of talking to deceased relatives went from normal to dark and terrible. Since then our low mortality rates and hurried funerary practices have distanced us from death to such an extent that we no longer have the psychological means to deal with it, our collective terror of death being so great that we have demonised the dead themselves. The result of this is a vast mountain of zombie flicks in which the touch of the dead can transform even our nearest and dearest in to ravenous fiends hungry for our brains, at least one of the gang of plucky survivors having to pull the trigger in the face of their best friend or closest relative.

Our fear of re-animated corpses and ghosts is all in our minds, a projection of our fear of death and could be easily laid to rest by accepting deaths inevitability and celebrating the lives of those that have passed on before us. Needless to say I will be leaving the waking dead for the movies to deal with. If you want something to be scared of, and it would appear that many of you do, then I would choose the living.

For the spooky season this year I shall be concentrating on beings far more likely to creep in to your bedroom under cover of darkness and fasten their fangs in your goose-bump covered flesh than zombies or ghosts. My Halloween tour takes me from Evolution in Exeter on the 18th October, across the country to London and back with eleven gigs on the way ending on November the 9th at the Skittle alley of my local pub, the London Inn in Morchard Bishop. My entourage for this spine chilling venture will be “Goblins, Ghouls And Long Legged Beasties”… all of them very much alive!

 

Goblins, Ghouls and Long Legged Beasties tour poster

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Filed under Autumn, Halloween, October, Samhain, Spooky, stories

The Blacksmith’s Wife Of Yarrowfoot


Two brothers worked in apprenticeship to a blacksmith down at Yarrowfoot many, many years ago. They were hard working lads and good learners but after a while the youngest began to grow pale and thin, his previous ready wit and easy smile were gone from him along with his ability to concentrate and perform all but the simplest of tasks. He seemed distracted, tired and edgy.

One night, the elder brother sat down on the side of the younger’s bed as his brother lay there, with his eyes fixed somewhere beyond the roof.

What is wrong my brother? Speak to me, maybe I can help”

Help?” he replied “There is no help for me on this earth.”

Well there certainly will not be if you don’t tell anyone what’s wrong! Now speak, for you know I will not let the matter drop until you do.”

So the lad told his tale, “Each night is the same, after everyone is asleep the Blacksmith’s wife comes in to our room. She slides a bridal over my head and I am transformed in to a horse. She then rides me for miles out across the moors, sparing neither kicks nor whips, places me in the stables of a great hall and goes within to dance and debauch with a host of other witches and their demonic associates. When they are done she collects me from my stall, in which there is neither food nor water, and rides me back here at full gallop, with just enough time to creep in to bed before I have to get up. I have not slept for days”

He said sadly. “Then swap beds with me now” urged his brother “and tonight you shall sleep while I bear your burden.”

The youngster needed no second asking and was fast asleep in his brother’s bed in a trice. There was not long to wait before the Blacksmith’s wife crept in to the room and slid the magic bridal over the elder brother’s head. He felt the strangeness of transformation, becoming a fine, strong stallion and allowed the witch to lead him out of the house. Soon he was galloping over the moors as she kicked his sides and whipped his back. Eventually they reached a great hall high up on the moors, where she placed him in a stable before going off to her ghastly revels.

The elder brother, whilst trying to scratch an itch on his cheek by rubbing it against the wooden side of the stall, discovered a nail sticking out of a post, managed to snag the bridal on it and pull it off over his elongated head. As soon as the bridal was removed he underwent a reverse of his previous transformation and hid in the shadows of the stall. When the witch returned from her unearthly carousing he suddenly leapt out and placed the bridal over her head, turning her in to a rather startled mare. Leaping upon her back he then rode her homeward across the moors, sparing neither kick nor whip and when he reached civilisation he made her gallop up and down a ploughed field until she was all of a lather. On the way he stopped at another forge and had the smith fit a fine set of horseshoes to her front hooves before completing the journey and releasing the blacksmith’s wife to slink, exhausted, in to her bed.

The honest blacksmith rose soon after and went to work but was concerned when his wife did not also rise. She claimed illness and a doctor was called who, seeing her pale and dishevelled state, wished to take her pulse but she refused to let him see her hands. Despite his entreaties she kept them beneath the bedclothes until he grew exasperated and pulled back the sheets. To their horror they saw the horseshoes attached to her hands and the bruises on her side. The brothers told their tale and the witch was duly punished in the time honoured fashion. The younger lad was nursed back to health with butter made from the milk of cows grazed in the churchyard, a sovereign remedy for those who have been hagridden.

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Filed under Folk Tale, Halloween, Witch

Let’s Talk About Ghosts!


Well, there is not much I can tell you about the festival of Samhain or Halloween that you won’t hear or read elsewhere, in much greater depth than I have space for, over the coming month. There will be programs on the TV about it’s pre-christian origins as a time of remembrance, its Celtic status as the new year celebration, and more besides. The old argument that trick or treat is an American abomination will be (erroneously) trotted out again while a pitiful few of us will staunchly shun the transatlantic pumpkin in favour of our native swedes and turnips (the adventurous might even attempt a parsnip lantern, their long, tapering shape is very effective). However you chose to celebrate it, summer is gone, the nights grow cold and long, the mists rise and the veil between the worlds grows thin…

Let us talk about ghosts.

It’s a funny thing but if you take an average room full of people and ask “do you believe in ghosts?” only a few will say yes. Take the same room full of people and instead tell your story of strange, inexplicable noises in an empty house then one by one the majority will recount their own personal experiences with the not-so-departed.

Oh yes, we’ve pretty much all had at least one brush with the supernatural, or know someone who has. Here in Devon we purportedly have more ghosts per square mile than the rest of the country; a country which has more ghosts per square mile than the rest of the world! If you live down this way and haven’t met one yet I suspect it can only be a matter of time…

The problem for a storyteller is that the vast majority of these spectral interludes boil down to the same two stories:

“We saw a ghost… then we heard someone had died!”

and

“Someone died… now there’s a GHOST!

Frustratingly, nothing else happens. Searching for a ghost story with some action in it, an event worth expounding to an audience as more than conversation (or evidence in the case for the existence of solidity-challenged persons), is a long and repetitive process.

Thankfully some of the folk tales featuring post corporeal people have a bit more to them and, as ever, come with advice for those who care to listen.

The Dauntless Girl* earns her name by taking on a bet to retrieve a “skull bone” from the dead house in the middle of the night. Despite a disembodied voice repeatedly telling her to leave the skulls alone as they are it’s relatives, she achieves her goal, blows out the candle and locks the voice in, before returning to the warmth and light of the farmhouse where she claims her winnings.  The voice, it turns out, was the verger, bribed to scare the girl off, now dead from fear having been shut in with the bones in the dark.

Which brings us neatly to our first piece of advice should you meet with the physically disenfranchised:

1/ Do not be afraid.

Those that expire in ghost stories usually do so as a result of their own fear, not any action on the part of the previously deceased.   As the Dauntless Girl says to the shade of her master’s mother in the next bit of her story “Why should I be afraid of you? You’re dead and I’m alive”. (but I’m getting ahead of myself. Ahem.)

Having proved her worth, the Dauntless Girl is now hired by a rich man whose mother, despite her recent relocation to a subterranean residence very close to the church, is still turning up at the house and frightening away the servants. Since the girl shows no fear, the phantom matriarch can at last reveal the whereabouts of the savings she wishes her son to take possession of and move permanently to the next plane of existence; and the Dauntless Girl gets to keep a share of the booty!

Which marvellously illustrates my second piece of advice:

2/ Ask them what they want.

Frankly, I’m surprised more people don’t do this. It’s obvious the spook is hanging around for a reason so why not find out what it is? At the worst you may find yourself listening to the chilling tale of their horrible murder but you never know, perhaps, if you dare follow the apparition in to the cold, dark cellar with nought but their unearthly glow to light the way, you may be shown their hidden store of gold. Either way, you are going to have a better ghost story to tell than anyone else next time the subject comes up at a party.

Speaking of parties, should you go to one around the 31st October, remember that part of it’s original purpose was to contact the ancestors, making use of the thinning of the veil to glean wisdom from those that have gone before. But be aware: there is a sub set of travelling ghosts, such as the husband murdering Lady Howard who turns up in a coach of bones complete with headless driver, these non permanent residents of the netherworld seem to have a free pass at the gates of Hades and should you climb in to their carriage you will surely be whisked away to an eternity of torment.

So so my last piece of advice for the spooky season:

3/ Do not accept a lift from a dead person.

This may seem to contradict Advice No.1  but there is a line between fearlessness and stupidity, and this is where it is!

*Found in the comprehensive Penguin Book of English Folktales Excellently annotated by Neil Philip

http://openlibrary.org/books/OL9797884M/The_Penguin_Book_of_English_Folktales

http://www.neilphilip.com/Neil%20Philip.html

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Autumn, Folk Tale, Ghost stories, Halloween, October, Samhain, Spooky