By Christopher Hill
They found a stone in Minnesota that made them think Vikings had been there. Later, though not as widely known, they found a stone in Illinois that said the Celts and Picts had been there, coming over on currents of night from Ireland and Scotland. The new spirits finding ways to run across the air, to the white frame houses of Illinois and the groves along the country roads that they haunted.
This stone was immediately re-buried in the soybean field where it was found.
The first taste of cold, the charged air, the golden light and the early dark, sets our activities off in high relief. The umber autumn days outline us sharply. Ordinary activities seem strangely poignant and charged with meaning. Our simple actions are like gestures from ancient theater against a deep rich background, a background that has the effect of bringing out the pathos in whatever we do. Waving goodbye to someone feels like part of a liturgy, or like it was learned from a Minoan fresco. We stand out against the days, like ivory figures inlaid into mahogany or the black dancers on Grecian red ware. We are lit from a low angle, as if we stand before a row of Edwardian music hall footlights, limelight glow against the dark velvet curtain of the days. What we do now we seem not to do for practical necessity but for the sake of the story. Though the plot may be obscure, there is a far-off dim sense of dramatic action moving toward its climax. Everything suggests something else. There is meaning in the folds of your clothing. Life takes on a quality of illustration. Days are not like time passing but like pages turning, discreet chapters each with its own mood. This autumnal ambiance settles over life like a shroud of fine cobwebs. The atmosphere is close crowded with presence. If there were barometers of spirit you could measure the pressure. The doors and windows are mostly closed now. By mid-March we will be soul-sick of our late-winter fug, but now, this is the close kind of atmosphere for reading and dreaming, for dozing in the lamplight. Things that were far off come close, right up to the tip of our noses. Things that were unseen are on the edge of our vision. Layers of experience are compressed. The ticking of clocks is pleasing not because it tells the time but for the sweet sadness that it lends to the day.
In October the plain Midwestern land takes on the depth and character of European landscapes. There seem to be folds and hollows in the land that you were oblivious to before. The secondary roads off Interstate 80 are dotted with poetically decaying houses, as many hauntings per mile as any lonely Scottish glen or bleak moorland. There are legends of the Driftless Region just as there are legends of the Highlands, memory soaks into the ground here too, and returns too.
In fall the carnivals come. You may not see them anymore, but in this town where I live the Catholic parishes invite these lords and ladies of misrule back into town once a year. I used to walk with my children down the midway between the booths and what seems tawdry at midday is a panoply of bizarre excitements in the golden moonlight. The pumping and swirling of the music, the screams of riders on the rides, the smell of cotton candy, straw and mud. Autumn dissolves the ordinary chronological separation of different times, what we think of as “past” is brought close. A carnival on an October night feels like you are part of a pattern of festivity that was set sometime before you, maybe in 1921, maybe much longer ago than that. On an October night you can sense carnival’s origin in the old rites of the world turned upside down. The October moonlight catches a glimmer beneath the grubby surface, the strange electricity that sent Jack Straw and his peasant rebels off to London with their effigies and their masks. When you go home, the silence is deeper because of the cacophony of the carnival grounds, which you can still hear in the distance after you turn out the lights.
One theme in the autumnal music is of course age, the years that you yourself have seen, and the passage of them. It is not so bad to be growing old at this time of year; you see how the accumulation of past years can be an element of vision. At the spring and summer, we elders are spectators (we try to be cheerful and not bitter spectators), we can smile and breathe the fragrances and try to be content with our knowing that this profusion of flowers and sunlight is not primarily for us. But fall is when primacy is yielded to the grandmother by the fire or the old man with his pipe sitting on a wall. Because now it becomes clear that neither memory nor present experience are complete in themselves, they need to be woven together. The gnosis of the season comes from the braiding of memory with the present moment. The present moment is just the latest in a long long chain of present moments that goes back to the beginning of moments. Without memory we cannot stand back and see the present in all its surprise and strangeness. Memory is where we can learn to see the layers and folds of meaning beneath and behind the present. It trains our vision.
Autumn is about the power of the past in the present moment. The vivid presence of the past is what accounts for almost all the autumnal phenomena. The past is what turns the colors of the trees—it is the lingering chlorophyll from summer in the leaf. It is what tints the sky that vinous blue—it is distilled from remembered skies. It is what calls up the slanted golden light. What other variety of daylight has such an effect? It has it because at this time of year there is a door opened that lets the light of your past days into the present–it is an aged light that shone on you in your childhood, that falls in photographs from old albums, that shone on your parents, that dried up the grass in the vacant lot where you played. It is not plain light. It was perhaps once mundane noonday light but now it is like gold.
Part of October knowledge is knowledge about death. Each autumn we are given the chance to rehearse our passing. Autumn’s close relationship with death lets us see that death is really something very different than what it is commonly taken for—the end, nothingness. Perhaps death is really just part of a bigger process whereby ordinary things become a story. If we want the tale, then we have to accept that our individual extinction might be a part, even an incidental part of it. Then you begin to understand “O death where is thy sting?” Because if it is death that we feel the nearness of now, then death is what gives the mystery to the autumn path through the woods. Death is the hub, the point, of all stories, even if it is never mentioned. Without death there would be no story. Drama depends on death. I’ll tell you what the light of eternity looks like, seen from this side–it is the light of October, coming in on a slant so that it just might push us right off the surface of this world. Do you really want these days to go on simply succeeding each other forever? No what you want is your days made into story by autumn light, and for that some kind of death is required.
Fall is terribly exhilarating, terrible and exhilarating. It is the nearness of nature to extinction in the fall that makes it glorious. It is a terrible exhilaration in the way that certain people find war exhilarating, it is close to that sinister part of each of us that feels a dark joy at catastrophe, an excitement that mustn’t be admitted or even named. It is like the people who lived through the Blitz in London and thought it was the greatest time they ever knew. It’s like there is a dark army poised just outside the gates of every town, you hear the distant rumble of the guns. The dense excitement of life during war time. Disaster threatens every fall, and disaster always comes. The city always falls. The awareness of its proximity adds weight to the individual moments.
Just like you may be unsure of the regional source of a person’s accent, where they hale from, in October you may not automatically be able to sense the native era of the person you are talking to, where they belong in time. And your instinctive sense of your own temporal location may be less sure; it will seem like the reasons why the current year cannot be 1892 are not as automatically compelling as usual, this is an effect October sometimes has. You may suddenly remember something incongruous in the dress of one of the older ladies you were talking to in the parish hall after church. You wonder, could you match her to a stone in the cemetery on the hill behind your house?
And so we must talk about ghosts. Don’t tell me you don’t know that ghosts live in every day from autumnal equinox to winter solstice, Michaelmas to midwinter. We think of the past as dead, as having gone out of existence, but this isn’t true. Like the “dead” at Halloween or on Christmas Eve, past moments are all around us but most of the time we can’t see our feel them. Autumn is the time that this felt sense returns; it is the corner of time that is set aside for those discontented with single reality, the perverse changelings who complain and starve on a diet of the real, who sometimes yearn for the presence of ghosts in their house. Shirley Jackson says at the beginning of The Haunting of Hill House that the ability to dream keeps us sane. Fall is where the year dreams. Summer with its flat brightness has made you weary of the real—your eyes are tired from squinting into the glare. Summer that wants to fill in the dark corners, summer that orders everyone out into the plain commonsensical light. Autumn returns to remind us annually that reality is not one but two, that there is a second world. There is the present obvious world pressed up against our noses but there is something else behind it–the world we sensed as children, the deep world, where things are real and metaphorical at the same time, a world where sunlight is not simple light, but where light makes illustrations out of the day, where a day is as real as an imagined day. This is the second reality and is the world of ghosts, where ghosts come from. All the other quarters of the year, at their best they are about present happiness, or they are about present misery, or present boredom, but whichever, it is just that one thing, it works within the equation that you know, adding and subtracting, getting and spending. Autumn is the thing itself, but then also something else. The present things become symbols, sometimes even warnings, of things that are not present, but that may be closer now than at other times.
Maybe it is the memories of the start of the school year, that presence in the pit of the stomach where dread and excited anticipation are indistinguishable. This is what fall still feels like. One lesson of October is that something like fear is close in the spectrum of feeling to where the great things are. Take a step one way into the October night and you might find terror. A step in just a slightly different direction and you are where you long to be, where the night orchestras are tuning up and the breeze knows your name. The sidewalk that begins under the streetlight in front of your house will in just a few steps take you as far as you like into the night
When the book of Exodus talks about God in the thick darkness they were on to something, and it isn’t just the primitive dread of dreadful Yahweh the storm God. There is also the sense that fear is one of the porters at the gates of the holy. This is the beginning of our love of ghost stories and tales of terror. Terror is only the preliminary to what we really want. Fear is just the threshold.
October opens long hallways into the past, long dark hallways that stretch away behind us, with many rooms, chambers that guests are usually discouraged from visiting. But this is the time to go back in and explore them. It is like going through a house after a parent dies and finding a cache of old letters. They have voices you can hear, the voice of someone you knew and loved and yet the letters reveal a stranger, too.
Ghosts are how we sense the knowledge fall gives us. Faulkner said the past is not dead–it’s not even past. This is ghostly knowledge, October knowledge. When you walk into an old and empty house you can feel the pressure of the past, the stories the walls want to release. In fall the world is that old house.
Sometimes in slide projector carousels two slides would jam into one slot and for a moment your eye would try to make sense out of the two superimposed images. In autumn, there is the apparent present moment, but always another kind of moment behind. That second image, that is the world of ghosts. There are ordinary trees but with flaming trees burning through them. There are people, and there are the ghosts of people. There are houses, and there are the haunted houses inside them. (All houses have haunted houses inside them. The haunted house is the house that imagination and memory make out of your house.) There is the world and there is the unseen world, which though we may not see it with eyes of flesh, still sometimes makes our hair stand up with the sense of its closeness.
There is a solemn sequence as the year closes down which, if you are interested in meanings that the year holds, offers something of an original meaning. It is like music or drama or rite, it precedes the moment when art and ritual broke off from each other. One step will prepare you for the next. October, November, December. It is about time coming to an end. Winding down to that moment in the woods in December where trees creak in the big silence. Would you like to arrive there? Start with me here in the middle of October. It is the expectation of that moment that makes the mood of fall. Autumn is expectancy, a slow, gorgeous catastrophe, the stage is cleared of its props, the altar is stripped. It will prepare you for that reverse cyclone of the sun that spirals down to a moment of no time as the sun sets on December 24th. Time narrows down to its origin point until it is finally, for an instant, unmoving. It’s the work of autumn to bring us to that moment, it is that moment that colors all of fall. It is the process of the world, and you have always known it. And in it we play roles as ritualized as mourners at a Victorian funeral.
You’re asked to imagine, these autumn nights, things that are perhaps not completely comfortable to imagine, but it is for a purpose. You will be prepared then for what happens as we move down that slow golden spiral, smaller and smaller circles until it vanishes completely. This is how the year works, its purpose and function. It is a subtle instrument, designed to bring you to a place–the eye of the needle at the solstice, where you just pass through.
Scotland and Ireland were the homelands of Halloween, but I think that the upper Midwest was too, perhaps in the 1920s (when Ray Bradbury was growing up in Waukegan).
When you look at the illustrations on the old Halloween postcards from that time there is an unmistakable depth of feeling for the season, deep excitement as the year begins to make its turn. They are in a way very much like Christmas cards, there is a stress on the uncanny separateness of these days from ordinary time.
I think Halloween migrated here and took up residence in the attics of white frame farm houses, or in the dark Victorians that line the shady streets in town, or in the shacks by the rail yards with a jack-o-lantern flickering and grinning by the front door. It was Midwestern Halloweens of that time that made Ray Bradbury’s imagination, that opened up to him the October country. It was through Halloween that Bradbury’s Green Town, Illinois was connected across gulfs of space and time with Egypt and Ireland. Halloween was a door for Bradbury, as it has been for many other children.
Illinois where Bradbury and I grew up is a dry place much of the time, the flat fields yielding up their moisture to the sun day after summer day. It is not a land of green refreshment for the imagination, like well-watered Ireland, for instance. Not a place where the imagination grows in florid riot like vines along the edges of old manuscripts. In the stories of the Gaelic storytellers there was a panoply of entities, one for every cranny of the landscape. Not like Illinois. Yet at one moment in the Midwestern year, every year that I have known so far, like the tumblers of a lock, the wheel of the year clicks into place with all the greater and lesser wheels and cycles between here and eternity, like tumblers that open a lock they click into alignment so there is a direct opening from the great powers all the way down to the soy fields of Illinois.
Or it might just as easily come down onto the dry pages of a dry old book that has lived on a grandmother’s bookshelf, waiting for the day a child would find it, a child bored, visiting for a week in summer, no friends around, the worn shiny buckram of the binding draws his eye, the book comes into his hands. He thinks it might be something he shouldn’t touch, something he might be scolded for opening. The frontispiece is a picture of a little girl pushing a large pumpkin bigger than she is, and at the back of the book there were short plays for Halloween that he almost understands but even in the places where he doesn’t he feels a deeply pleasing meaning; there is a music that he already recognizes, it matches something he feels on fall days but doesn’t yet know how to say (when his music teacher at school plays the class the Danse Macabre he understands the mood immediately). In the book he begins to find the key to the time; he is only dimly aware now but it will grow over the years into a knowledge. A way to interpret the fall, a Rosetta stone, the autumn stone.
It was also when he began to see how the Midwest fits into the long story. Where a pumpkin in DeKalb is equal to a turnip in Limerick or Lochalsh. The wind across the flat land, though dry-as-dust in the day, at night is a dark river, like the Lagan, the Boyne, the Liffey, the winding Moy or the Shannon, rivers of the mad autumn people, the Celts. And it carries all the old secrets of the time, until finally it is swirling around his own house, his white frame Illinois house
I have been out in those towns, out in their secret haunted places off the country roads, groves in the soy bean fields, where the litter of bottles and cans tells you that this is a place where teenagers come to look for ghosts or sex, either would be fine, or maybe both. Where they come to brush up against great October.
The morning after Halloween, though your street may have been quiet all night, when you step out your door it always looks as if the carnival had passed by. The leaves on the sidewalks look like the aftermath of revelry, they have that same look of abandoned exhaustion as party streamers that have been trampled under dancing feet.
These are the traces left by the secret revelers, the carnival of spirits, Harlequin’s meiny, the sabbat, the benandanti, the witches who in old Europe would come in and help themselves to your wine while you were sleeping; the revelers who are not really there and yet are, like so many of the entities that make the end of the year their home, the ones who make the world two, not one. It is the same unseely host that tramps out the crop circles in the south of England. Both real and imaginary, you do not have to choose. Here they were or may have been in your unenchanted ordinary town, maybe a suburb where you thought the only spell that was ever cast was by the wizards of banality back in the 1950s, no place farther from Sleepy Hollow on most days. Yet sometime in the night the visitors performed their secret ministry and now they have left, scouring the place clean of any lingering banshees and now it is bare and bleak black-branched November. November 1, all saint’s day in the cold drizzle, a day for funerals.
The danse macabre, the night carnival where we danced with skeletons, that music for now is over. After Halloween, the swirling symphony having risen to its highest pitch like the climax of “A Day In the Life,” it drops you into solemn umber November, a month like the endless ringout at the end of Sgt Pepper’s. The great calm of November, preparing for advent and the expectant quiet that gathers itself then into a new music, the first distant carols.
But that is another story.
Christopher Hill is the author of Into the Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock & Roll (Park Street Press, 2017)