Time's Fool

By Alys Earl

A novel for M R James fans who sometimes want something a little more modern and edgy from their weird fiction

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Hallowe'en - we are in novel time

Time's Fool is a novel for the dark half of the year. It is set in the listing light of autumn and winter, and deals with themes of darkness, secrets, and death, and was written (in first draft) through one glittering, Norwich November, when the trees blazed like fire and the nights were frost spangled.

Fitting then, for the plot proper to start on Hallowe'en - the ancient festival of Sanhaim, when the veil between the worlds is at it thinnest. Sanhaim is the Pagan new year, a tipping point, a liminal space when the dead things and the dark things can come through and intrude upon the waking world. It is also the time when we can - if we wish - face the shades of our beloved dead.

We guise and dress up as things we are not - or perhaps as those things we truly feel ourselves to be, walking the line between horror and enjoyment. We let the usual social rules slide - allowing children to demand sweets from strangers with implicit threat, Trick or Treat. Hallowe'en is a festival of misrule, marking the start of the festival season, and as such is a balance of the comforting and the sinister - the usual rules do not keep us safe, but neither are we constrained by them.

Were not for the competition from its mirror-festival of May Day, it would easily be my favourite day of the year.

Oddly, I more or less grew up without it. My parents, like Steven's, are quite devoutly Christian (although mine are of a more liberal stripe) and when I was quite young, they left the Anglican church and joined a Baptist congregation. Therefore, between the general culture of Hallowe'en=evil encouraged by the church, and the feeling that it was a somewhat vulgar, American import, it was never much marked in our house.

However, at school, my teacher once told me that - when Britain had converted to Christianity - the church leaders had given the people one day of the year where they were still allowed to follow their old feasts, their old gods and divinatory practices: Hallowe'en. Raised montheist and Anglican/Baptist, this fascinated me. The idea that faith was an option and that one could, just for a day, slip out of it into something other carried a thrill I'd never experienced before - that of licensed transgression.

All innocence, therefore, I relayed this astonishing thing to my dad, who looked puzzled and explained that, no, it wasn't a day of permitted heathenry, rather it was the Pagan festival of the dead - something that was interesting, but strictly out of bounds.

A few days later, the local vicar came in to Assembly and asked if any of us knew what Hallowe'en was really about. Good little swot I was, my hand was in the air, and - called upon - I repeated what my dad had told me, to a somewhay shocked silence. Once again, I was gently corrected, and told that it was an abbreviation of All Hallow's Eve, an unquestionably Christian affair - much perverted by commercialisation and nonesense about witches.

But the hook of it was already in my mind, and, all this time later, I think my teacher had the right of it. Over the years, I gently pestered my parents for Jack o' Lanterns, Hallowe'en parties and (unsuccesfully) trick-or-treating. Meanwhile, my interest in the Gothic, ghost stories and the occult flourished - and what began as an annual dose of misrule spread out in to the rest of my life.

Hallowe'en, however, is the day that we let it in, and like all these things, it must be invited.

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