THE BLOG
10/30/2013 12:41 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Literary Origins of Halloween

'It was a dark and stormy night...' as Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford (and, in doing so, gave us perhaps the most famous -- or infamous -- opening line of them all). In honor of Halloween, I thought I'd share some of the season's most eye-wateringly ghoulish literary associations.

Halloween -- or Hallowe'en, as in All Hallows' Eve -- is a Scottish term, first recorded in print in 1556 (where it's spelled, almost unrecognizably, 'Halhalon'). This Scottish origin of the specific word 'Halloween' was picked up by a later writer, when Robert Burns wrote a poem titled 'Halloween' in the late 18th century. Halloween, since its first appearance in print in the mid-16th century, has turned up in literature down the ages. It's mentioned by Shakespeare, in Measure for Measure.

The first reference to a Jack-o'-lantern (or pumpkin lantern), is, unsurprisingly, American: it's found in a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne published in 1837. Hawthorne also wrote numerous ghost stories which make for fine Halloween reading: the very short story 'The Haunted Mind' is a particularly unsettling offering.

In Cornwall in the UK, Halloween is celebrated by some Cornish residents as Allantide, a similar holiday which, like All Hallows' Eve, has ancient, pre-Christian roots. Martin Luther chose this day to start the Protestant Reformation: he nailed his provocative Ninety-Five Theses against the Catholic Church to the castle church door at Wittenberg on All Hallows' Eve 1517, because he knew many people would visit the church that evening for Hallowmas.

Halloween, or the 31st of October, is also the day of several literary birthdays: diarist John Evelyn was born on this day in 1620, John Keats was born on Halloween 1795, and thriller writer and jockey Dick Francis was a Halloween baby in 1920.

The word 'horripilation' is a suitably horrific-sounding Halloween word; first recorded in a dictionary of 1656, it refers to the sensation when the hairs on the back of the neck stand up, through fear, cold, or excitement.

But what we really want at Halloween, to make the flesh creep, is some interesting information about horror stories and weird tales for this ghoulish occasion. Let's start with vampires: the first vampire novel was written by John Polidori, who took part in the famous ghost-story contest in 1816 which also involved Lord Byron and the two Shelleys, Percy and Mary; as well as producing Frankenstein, this competition also gave the world The Vampyre, Polidori's novella, which was published in 1819. To his chagrin, Polidori's name didn't appear anywhere in the book and instead it was assumed Byron had written it (somewhat ironically, since Byron hated the story, not least because the central character in the book was modeled on him). Curiously, Bram Stoker's more famous vampire novel didn't sell particularly well upon its publication in 1897: Dracula was outsold that year by Richard Marsh's tale of oriental horror, The Beetle, a work which (until recently) was largely forgotten.

The first Gothic horror novel was Horace Walpole's 1764 work The Castle of Otranto, which was originally passed off -- successfully -- as a genuine historical document describing real events. Walpole had, in reality, made up the whole thing, as he revealed in the preface to the second edition. Sales dramatically dropped. But Walpole's legacy is impressive: Strawberry Hill House, his home in London, gave its name to a branch of neo-Gothic architecture (Strawberry Hill Gothic), and he even coined the word 'serendipity' (he is also credited with being the first to use other words including 'beefy,' 'malaria,' and 'souvenir,' as well as the phrase 'fairy tale').

And what better reading matter for Halloween than an unnerving ghost story? Not one with a happy resolution and goodwill to all men in the Christmas Carol line, but a ghostly narrative or weird tale which leaves the reader with an enduring chill down the spine. Oliver Onions' The Beckoning Fair One (1911) is a personal favorite which deserves to be more widely known: it features a struggling writer who rents a mysterious flat and starts to be haunted -- in a strangely sensual way -- by the sound of a woman brushing her hair. I have written about this story in my recent book. But I'd also recommend W. W. Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw (1902), about a magical paw which grants the owner three wishes that come with a price (memorably adapted for a Simpsons Halloween special in 1991).

What's your favorite ghostly tale to sit and read in front of the fire on this dark autumnal eve? Leave your ghoulish recommendations below...

An earlier version of this post originally appeared here.

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