As September fades towards its dying embers, it is almost impossible to escape the thought that summer is but a memory and that the autumn season is upon us. This is a cause of sorrow for many and, accordingly, in art autumn is a season that is traditionally associated with melancholy. In Keats’ poem To Autumn, for example, he describes the season as a time of “mellow fruitfulness”; while the autumn-themed poetry of W B Yeats and the French poet Paul Verlaine is similarly characterised by a strong sense of sorrow. In contrast, I for one always look forward to the beginning of October as being, in my eyes at least, the official start of autumn in this country. Summer wanes and the year slouches on towards winter, green things fade and twilight comes earlier, but I don’t see this as any reason for despair. On the contrary, with the promise of Halloween and Bonfire Night casting their long and delicious shadows over the season, for me it is a time to revel in the still cold night and the falling leaves which echo the fall of the year. If you listen closely, you can already hear the steady beat of the drums of autumn.
Fall, as it is known to those in North America, is in fact the older term for this season and is an Old Norse word (its exact meaning is somewhat uncertain but the closest translation is “fall of the year”). Autumn, in contrast, being of French derivation, is a younger word but I have to say that I prefer it – I’m not sure why, maybe it just sounds a little more archaic (even if it isn’t). For some reason, across the ages autumn has consistently been regarded as a good time for fear, a poetic time even, when the veil between worlds traditionally grows thin in anticipation of All Hallows’ Eve. This in turn was influenced by the older Celtic Festival of Samhain (pronounced “sowen”), when the spirits of the dead briefly walk the earth. It was also sometimes called Nutcrack Night, because young people put nuts on the hearth to see if their sweethearts were true to them. If the nut burned normally, all was well, but if it burst or rolled away the sweetheart was untrue. Whatever it’s called, October 31 is everyone’s favourite horror holiday – the one time each year when the mundane is overturned in favour of the bizarre and anyone can become anything they wish. Whilst, at its core, Halloween seems to be a chance to confront our most primal fears (and often attempt to mock them!), it is also a holiday which encompasses many other things, including ancient beliefs, religious meanings, a multitude of ethnic heritages, diverse occult traditions and the continual influence of popular culture.
Other festivals associated with the autumn season include Bonfire Night and the Day of the Dead. In Britain November 5 is Bonfire Night but, for centuries before Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament, huge bonfires had been lit on the hillsides for folk to dance around in the belief that this would keep evil away. Farmers would then carry blazing brands from the bonfire round their farms and, in some places, masses of flaming straw were carried to a height and flung into the air, while all present knelt on the bare ground and prayed, Wicker Man-style. When these ceremonies were over, everyone returned home to a feast of seedcake, roasted apples and spiced ale. The Day of the Dead, meanwhile, is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout the world in other cultures. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honouring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts. In yet another example of ancient traditions influencing a modern-day festival, scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Dead.
Autumn has played a central role in fantasy and horror fiction for many writers, the foremost among them in recent years being Ray Bradbury. Works like Something Wicked This Way Comes and the stories of The October Country, for example, are nothing less than a series of passionate love-letters written about the season of autumn and all of its associated thrills and dread. For those of a more classical bent, the autumn-themed work of the aforementioned Keats, Yeats and Verlaine is full of inspirational poetry and prose that will put you in the right mood for the harvest season if anything will. Lastly, no post of mine concerning autumn would be complete without a mention of Charles de Lint’s Yarrow. By no means the finest work of this writer, this ‘Autumn Tale’ is nevertheless full of all of the seasonal themes that I’ve discussed above – fear, rebirth, sorrow and beauty. Readers familiar with De Lint’s more recent work, in particular his Newford series, will also be surprised (pleasantly I hope) at how well this book works as a horror/thriller as well as his trademark urban fantasy. As a writer, I’ve always found the central conceit of this novel, that something out there could simply steal away your dreams and creativity, particularly horrifying.