Halloween in Literature

The day has finally come! Here at The Gothic Library, I’ve been celebrating all month—taking my faithful readers through a tour of ghost stories, horror films, and haunted houses. Today I want to explore some of the literature surrounding the holiday itself. Below are a few works from the past three centuries that celebrate or take place during this spookiest of nights:

  1. “Halloween” by Robert Burns (1785)
Robert Burns
Robert Burns, the Scottish poet.

The word “Halloween” comes from the Scottish term for this holiday—the evening before All Hallows’ Day, also known as All Saints’ Day. Given the holiday’s etymological origin in the Highland, it is appropriate that the first work of literature I want to discuss is a poem by the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns. “Halloween” was first published in Burns’ debut volume of poetry, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, now commonly referred to as the Kilmarnock volume. Like many of Burns’ works, the poem is written in a blend of Scots and English. Beginning, “Upon that night, when fairies light…” the poems highlights the role of fairies in the Scottish (and as we’ll discuss next, also the Irish) conception of Halloween. The poem also describes popular Halloween traditions of that era, such as burning nuts and pulling up plants to tell fortunes with. The focus of the poem, perhaps surprisingly, is on the courtship of young lovers and their various attempts to win over their loves, get frisky in the haystacks, or predict their future spouses. Today, Halloween is not usually thought of as a romantic holiday, but maybe we should bring that bit back…. You can read the full poem here.

  1. “The Child That Went with Fairies” by J. Sheridan le Fanu (1870)

the-child-that-went-with-the-fairies-coverThis short story by the author of Carmilla does not explicitly mention Halloween, but one can assume that the story takes place around this time. The story features a rural Irish family consisting of a widow and her four children who live not far from a fairy hill called Lisnavoura. In Irish tradition (as in the Scottish), Halloween is a time when the barrier between worlds may be breeched—this refers not only to the barrier between the living and the head, but also the barrier between the humans and fairies. On Halloween, one could expect the Fair Folk to be roaming about and causing mischief. Such was the case in le Fanu’s story, when one October evening the youngest of the widow’s children is lured away by a beautiful fairy princess. The boy is never seen again, except by two of his siblings who occasionally catch him silently peering in at his family. The story serves both as a cautionary tale about playing out and about where fairies might be and as a dark tale of a mother’s worst nightmare. You can read the full story here.

  1. “Halloween in a Suburb” by H. P. Lovecraft (1926)
H. P. Lovecraft, of Cthulhu fame.
H. P. Lovecraft, of Cthulhu fame.

Lovecraft is best known as the author of short tales in his Cthulhu mythos, but he also wrote a number of poems as well. Many of these poems, including “Halloween in a Suburb,” were first published in the horror-themed pulp magazine Weird Tales. This poem provides a spooky description of Halloween night, using the type of ominous language Lovecraft is well known for is his stories. On this night, monsters such as vampires and harpies fly about and the dead rise from their graves. Particularly chilling are the lines describing Halloween as a time “when a spectral pow’r / Spreads sleep o’er the cosmic throne / And looses the vast unknown.” If we’ve learned anything from Lovecraft’s stories, the “vast unknown” is not something to be messed with. Check out the poem for yourself here.

  1. The Halloween Treeby Ray Bradbury (1972)

the-halloween-tree-coverThe name Ray Bradbury is generally associated with his dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451, which you may have read in school. But while a future in which books are burned is certainly scary, I want to talk to you about one of his lesser known novels, The Halloween Tree. In this fun young adult fantasy, a group of boys must abandon their trick-or-treating to find their missing friend by traveling through time and learning a variety of Halloween-appropriate lessons along the way. They experience Egyptian, Roman, Celtic, Mexican, and several other cultures and the role that death plays in them. This book is a fun way to learn about different cultural traditions and the origins of Halloween while also enjoying an epic adventure story!

What are you reading this Halloween? Do you have any other suggestions for Halloween-related literature? Let me know in the comments!

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