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Seasons in Horror Fiction: John C Adams Reviews

Many a modern horror tale provides a journey through the calendar of early Pagan and Celtic festivals.

The place of pre-Christian festivals in our cultural identity is well established.

Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream take it for granted that we'll enjoy watching fairies and other oddities abroad on the eve of Midsummer, for example.

And, of course, the horror writer will never allow themselves to be outdone by the mainstream!

Samhain, which gave birth to our modern Halloween, is a great first stop for any tour of the Celtic festivals' relationship with horror fiction.

The festival was originally closely associated with child sacrifice and it still plays a central role in Halloween today.

Agatha Christie's Poirot murder mystery Halloween Party features the murder of a brother and a sister, and the attempted sacrifice of another child by her natural father.

Horror fiction isn't slow to connect Halloween with child sacrifice in honour of its Samhain origins either.

In Ramsey Campbell's The Parasite, by late October the heroine Rose regards her unborn child with horror.

Rose becomes convinced that the best way to prevent this spread of evil is to sacrifice the baby and herself with it.

Samhain has more of a hold over our modern incarnation of Halloween than we sometimes care to admit.

Another Celtic festival, Walpurgisnacht, is on show in Ralph Adams Cram's natty little ghost story No 252 Rue M Le Prince.

Here, the best traditions of the haunted house tale are fully honoured. But, more than that, the story is steeped in traditions of pagan times.

The narrator's good friend Eugene has inherited an old Paris hotel from his aunt Mlls Blaye de Tartas. During her lifetime, the place was left deserted for most of the year. Just once a year its doors were thrown open: on Walpurgisnacht.

Then music and mysterious chanting were heard. The same was strangely true this year even though the old woman had died by then.

This oddity spurs Eugene, the narrator and two friends to spend the night inside to investigate. They soon feel the presence of the supernatural.

The dark forces within the hotel have their origins in the rites performed there every Walpurgisnacht:

"Like a hideous and implacable engine of death the eyes of the unknown Horror swelled and expanded until they were close before me, enormous, terrible, and I felt a slow, cold, wet breath propelled with mechanical regularity against my face, enveloping me in its fetid mist, in its charnel-house deadliness."

Frankly, I'm not surprised that Walpurgisnacht has such dark power to torment the human soul.

It could be said that our whole lives are unconsciously built around its calendar of pre-Christian year through its festivals.

In H P Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror, the life of the terrible Wilbur Whateley embodies the Celtic year and his life is structured around its calendar:

"But what thing - what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensioned earth - was Wilbur Whateley's father? Born on Candlemas - nine months after May-Eve of 1912, when the talk about the queer earth noises reached close to Arkham - What walked on the mountains that May-Night? What Roodmas horror fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?"

As a young child Wilbur goes up to Sentinel Hill with his mother to conduct strange rites and to light bonfires:

"For a decade the annals of the Whateleys sink indistinguishably into the general life of a morbid community used to their queer ways and hardened to their May-Eve and All-Hallows orgies. Twice a year they would light fires on the top of Sentinel Hill, at which times the mountain rumblings would recur with greater and greater violence."

In keeping with its calendar, the Dunwich Horror comes in 1928, between Lammas and the equinox. It doesn't disappoint.

We already know that the old festivals are an integral part of the lives of Dunwich folk, even if they sometimes have their own names for them. The narrator's ironic lack of respect for their power seems rather foolhardy given what transpires:

"These tales of course are obsolete and ridiculous, because they come down from very old times."

Think that if you will but I intend to be a whole lot more cautious. We ignore the raw power of the old festivals at our peril.

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Seasons in Horror Fictiob

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