Samhain: The danger of the dark

Just over a week until 31st October.  This year the date is doubly scary for me;  it’s the deadline for me to hand in my WIP (working title The Memory of Midnight) and I have been lashed to my computer for the past three weeks to make sure it will be done in time.

A looming deadline is always good for the adrenalin rush, but of course the 31st has associations far beyond the fear of a good ticking off from one’s editor. The shops are full of pumpkins and ghost masks, and children are planning to dress up as witches and goblins and other spooky creatures.  Yes, Halloween is a-coming, the one night of the year when we embrace the supernatural and play with the idea of death.

Traditionally the night of 31st October is associated with the uncanny.   For the Celts, 1st November was celebrated as the great feast of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in or Saw-een) which marked the start of winter.  It was a time when the veil between the this world and the next was at its thinnest, a time of divination and magic, when they called on the spirits of the dead for protection and guidance for the year ahead.

Bonfire by Angie Perkins

Opening the gates between the natural and the supernatural brought risks as well as comfort.  In the dark of the night before the feast, ghosts, fairies and others of the ‘wee folk’ mingled with mortals, some of whom were said to wear witch or ghost masks to try and fool any mischievous spirit into leaving them alone.   Great bonfires were lit to ward off the chaos and magic of this darkest of nights, and to keep the uncanny at bay.

The night before Samhain is one of particular power and danger. Vivien, a modern day witch, warns Grace in Time’s Echo to be vigilant as Samhain approaches.  This is the night when the spirit of Hawise, herself drowned as a witch on All Hallows Eve, will be at her strongest, and Grace is at her most vulnerable as she stumbles through the streets of York and between times, desperate to save the living and to escape the power of the past.

Here she is as she runs towards the Ouse in search of Sophie:

Shoving the phone into the pocket of my jeans, I began to run again.  It was hard going against the wind that was driving the rain in almost horizontal sheets.  I’d never noticed before that the car park was on a slope either, and as I laboured up it, I had an incongruous flash of memory, of running up this same path with Elizabeth, laughing in the sunlight and the certainty that our whole lives lay ahead of us.

But that was Hawise’s memory, not mine, I reminded myself fiercely.  I was desperately unfit, and my chest was heaving, my side aching with a stitch that made me wince with every step.  My jeans and top were sodden and clung cold and clammy to my skin while the rain streamed over my face and down my neck.  My suede boots splashed through the puddles and pinched my toes.

The trick-and-treaters were long gone and the streets were virtually deserted.  The pubs were open, and as I  ran limping past I caught a fleeting glimpse of people laughing and talking, oblivious to the darkness and the danger of the night outside.  I fought the conviction that I was running between two worlds, two times, and if they looked out of the window, they wouldn’t even see me.

Certainly the few people I passed didn’t seem to notice me.  They kept their heads bent beneath their umbrellas and didn’t pause to ask why I was staggering wildly through the streets.

At the bottom of Goodramgate I had to stop.  I put my hands on my thighs and bent over, dragging the air into my  screaming lungs.  I was terribly afraid for Sophie, so I couldn’t let myself rest, but pushed on, not letting myself wonder how I knew the shortest way to the river.

Not letting myself listen to the voice in my head that was shrieking at me to turn back, to run away from the river, not towards it.


© Pamela Hartshorne 2012


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