Another in my lead-ups to Halloween, so that when the day itself comes I won’t be just another blogger putting up photos of cute jack-o-lanterns or railing against the horrors of candy corn. Do you need some seasonal entertainment? Four suggestions are humbly proffered below:
Roger Zelazny’s final novel, A Night in the Lonesome October, is a perfect choice for the season, especially if you’re a fan of old movies, and in particular Universal’s horror films of the 1930s-40s. The story brings together many familiar monsters, under the thinnest of disguises (“The Count,” “The Experiment Man”) along with an also unnamed but instantly recognizable detective and his assistant. Oddly enough, one of the central characters, and not hidden by any alias, is Lawrence Talbot, title character of Universal’s 1941 film, The Wolf Man, and its sequels. Gahan Wilson, who deftly illustrates the book, clearly bases Talbot’s appearance on Lon Chaney Jr., the only actor to play the role in Universal’s classic horrors. The story gradually incorporates elements of H. P. Lovecraft, while remaining light-hearted and clever. You might think of this book as an unofficial sequel to Universal’s 1945 film, House of Dracula, the final entry in the classic horror series. (Yes, I am omitting Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, and I always will. Ick.)
And did I mention that the main character is a dog?
Japanese Death Poems is exactly what it sounds like. There is a tradition among Japanese haiku poets and Zen monks to write a final poem when they are close to death. This book collects a large sampling of them, with anecdotes about the deaths of the authors where available, plus an introduction covering the history of Japanese poetry and death poems in particular. It begins with the tanka form or poetry, longer and usually self-referential, which was over time superseded by the well-known haiku form. There are many lovely, and naturally brief, poems inside.
People don’t read enough poetry (I know that’s a generalization, but I’m sticking to it) and we avoid thinking about death (also a generalization). This book allows you to do both without becoming depressing or morbid. The equanimity with which so many poets met death is reassuring, even uplifting. Halloween is about fun and bringing a little joy into a seemingly dying season, but it should have its serious side as well.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a surrealist film from the Czech Republic, made in 1970. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval. (I’m writing up the film as I have not yet read the book, a poor position for a writer to be in.) Without spoiling too much, the plot is this: Valerie is a girl just coming into womanhood. The world suddenly seems strange to her. Vampires appear in her town, and she is troubled by possible connections between them and the boy she likes and her own grandmother. The film has the typical attraction/repulsion the surrealists felt toward sex, which is the center of the whole story. Sex is scary and alien to Valerie, and the thought that even people she loves could be involved in it troubles her.
The film is well-made, even charming at times. Making the vampires resemble Count Orlok from the classic horror film Nosferatu was a good touch. If you’ve ever wanted to see a vampire preach in a church, this is definitely the film for you. It is not a horror film, but more a strange dream – Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were another inspiration.
Take a walk in a cemetery.
Let’s face it: most cemeteries are dull. The average gravestone is an unremarkable square block of stone with some stranger’s name and dates on it. Perhaps the top of the stone is shaped; there might be some treacly sentiment in the inscription. But if you are lucky enough to live near a cemetery with interesting graves, October is the time to visit. The air is cold but not frigid (at least where I live) and the reminders of mortality are leavened by the artistry of memorial sculpture. Sometimes sheer age lends an atmosphere to a cemetery. The photo above is of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic. It is there that the tomb of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who in legend created the Golem. There are various books and movies dealing with the Golem myth, most famous of which is the 1920 German film Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He came into the World), starring Paul Wegener.
October is my favorite month of the year. The air turns cool but not icy (most years, anyway), the turning leaves make the woods a kaleidoscope of color. After the lowering skies of summer, autumn skies are bright and infinite. New England, where I live, is especially lovely. And it is this month of all months when darkness creeps in with the lengthening nights to add a little frisson of fright to signify the end of summer’s playfulness.