Interesting Literary Facts for 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). Since Halloween is looming, we at Interesting Literature thought we’d blow the dust off some mouldy tomes in the Gothic library here at the Castle, in order to bring you some of the most eye-watering literary facts and fancies from the season.

Halloween – or Hallowe’en, as in ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ – is a Scottish term, first recorded in print in 1556 (where it’s spelled, almost unrecognisably, ‘Halhalon’). This Scottish origin of the specific word ‘Halloween’ was continued when Robert Burns wrote a poem titled ‘Halloween’ in the late eighteenth century, which can be read here. The first reference to a Jack-o’-lantern (or pumpkin lantern), however, is, unsurprisingly, American: it’s found in a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne published in 1837.

PumpkinIn Cornwall, Halloween is celebrated by some Cornish residents as Allantide, a similar holiday which, like All Hallows’ Eve, has ancient, pre-Christian roots. Halloween, since its first appearance in print in the mid-sixteenth century, has turned up in literature down the ages. It’s mentioned in Shakespeare, in Measure for Measure. 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. Fittingly, Keats wrote a poem called ”Tis the Witching Time of Night’, based on Hamlet’s interesting line in Shakespeare‘s play.

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 Shelley; as well as producing the often wildly misinterpreted 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 modelled 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 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’, as we’ve discussed previously here.

And what better reading matter for Halloween than an unnerving ghost story? Not one with a happy resolution in the Christmas Carol line (we’ll doubtless cover the Christmas Eve ghost story in a couple of months), 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 favourite 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. But we’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).

Discover more curious Halloween literature with our pick of the best Halloween poems and these classic spooky ghost stories.

Image: ‘Happy Halloween’ (C) 2007 by WxMom (Public Domain) on Flickr.


  1. Pingback: Special Halloween Post: The Forgotten Victorian Novelist Who Outsold Dickens | Interesting Literature

  2. Literacy is so very important for communication.I am a writer myself, so am
    fascinated with words, language and their meanings.

  3. This is quite interesting. It is definitely an inspiration opener when you get to see into the, backstories, I would say of some things!

  4. Thanks for visiting our blog. You’re got some really interesting stuff on here. Good for procrastinating.

  5. For Halloween, I love “The Cask of Amontillado.”

  6. Yes indeed, you missed Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla, unremarkable yet a classic of the genre, with these fascinating anagrams. Yet surely one of the spookiest stories of all time is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

  7. Not really a “ghost story”, but a little Gothic for sure…Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls is a favorite to satisfy the need for dark, weird fiction on Halloween.

  8. Reblogged this on Read It & Weep and commented:
    Have a spooky, booky Halloween!

  9. Reblogged this on ambulivictor's Blog and commented:

  10. hello visit my site enjoy the informations about old earth here thanks :)

  11. Anything by Poe, and then there’s “Manfred,” by Byron, “The Cenci,” by Shelley, and “Christabel,” by Coleridge — need to represent the poets! LeFanu’s Carmilla, and of course, Stoker’s Dracula.

    • Quite right – indeed, while we’re on poetry, I think Thomas Hardy provides some ghostly verses. Will have to dig out his Collected Poems and see if there are any particularly haunting ones to recommend (‘Wessex Heights’ is very atmospheric, though not ‘ghostly’ strictly speaking). I should have mentioned Carmilla in the vampiric paragraph above! Love the anagrams going on in that story…

  12. Reblogged this on Merida's Night Writer and commented:
    Great post including the blog followers comments regarding “trick or treat” and other Halloween literature.

  13. Correction: My congrats should have gone to JP and newamericanlondoner not Oliver. Congrats to Oliver for the initial posting. I will re-blog.

  14. Hola from the land of El Dia de la Muerte. Strictly speaking it’s not a ghost story but I’ll throw in Cowley’s “Under the Volcano” because of its setting and Albert Finney’s rendering of Geoffrey Fermin(he was genuinely scary). I really enjoyed your post and will spend some time finding some of the recommendations including those recommended by fellow blog-followers for my Kindle. Of course “Five Jars” will be included – maybe I’ll dress up as an Ipod for the party this week. Congrats to Oliver and the newamericanlondoner for coming to an amicable settlement on “trick or treat.”. So often I’m disappointed on the web by how people handle situations where both POV’s and information have merit. You guys did it so well.

    • Good to hear from you, Bill – and I agree about what you say below. Nice to see such fine, amicable, illuminating, and genuinely fascinating debate going on, especially here on my blog. Under the Volcano is a good call, because the line between hallucination and other types of ‘haunting’ is often not clear, especially in 20th-century literature and, indeed, in fiction since Poe and other writers of the 19th century. I agree about Five Jars – I’m very intrigued by that suggestion!

      Oh, and thanks for the reblog!

  15. Wonderful post! I’d like to recommend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Haunted Mind. It’s a very short story (more like flash fiction) and beautifully written, evoking deep feelings. The Ash Tree by M.R. James is quite fine and YouTube has an excellent narration by Robert Powell in an old English library by firelight! And if you’ve never read Mme. Blavatsky’s Ensouled Violin, you are missing out on a great story. I especially love Claude Seignolle’s The Ghoulbird. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. I read 3 to 4 short stories of horror every week.

    • I love ‘The Ash-Tree’ (being an arachnophobe, the ending terrifies me), but I need to seek out Hawthorne’s short short story by the sound of it! Ensouled Violin sounds an interesting read – I wonder if it’s like J. Meade Falkner’s (author of Moonfleet) The Lost Stradivarius (1895), which features students, ghosts, violins, and a fair bit of late-night terror…

    • I have collected and read supernatural literature for over 40 years and if I had to pick only one it would be “The Monkey’s Paw” (with a serious apology to “O Whistle and I’ll Come to You”). That said, Ms. Gilman’s THE YELLOW WALLPAPER is extraordinary. It is effective taken as a supernatural tale, as a feminist tale of horror and outrage, and as a revelation of the the abuses of mental health responses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is terrifying on every level.

  16. I think it is sad that Halloween has been so hijacked by the US to become a night for trick or treating instead of sitting together telling ghost stories as we once did. I’m an old sentimentalist I know and I realise I was lucky to grow up in simpler times.

    Like Christmas Halloween now also inspires yet more consumerism … my local Sainsbury’s has handy kid-sized costumes at adult-sized prices because where America leads we slavishly follow. So sad!

    Going off to hunt out The Beckoning Fair One … so it’ll be your fault if I have nightmares, Oliver.

  17. As a devoted reader of ghost stories, there are too many favourites, and choosing just one is well nigh impossible. Leaving aside such well known masterpieces as “The Turn of the Screw”, or any of a dozen or more of stories by M. R. James (“Count Magnus” is a particular favourite of mine), I’d like to take this opportunity to mention a story that, for whatever reason, resonates very strongly with me: “One Who Saw” by A. M. Burrage. I cannot find the text on the net, and the only book in which I have seen it anthologised (“The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories”, edited by J. A. Cuddon) has long been out of print. In it, the protagonist finds himself in Rouen, and takes a roon looking out into an interior courtyard. And in the courtyard, he sees sitting on a bench a lady, heavily veiled, and apparently in distress. When he casually mentions this to the hotel staff, they seem perturbed, and suggest that he changes rooms. And then… Well, let’s not go further! I don’t want to build this up too much as we are all frightened by differentthings, but this one particularluy gets to me!

    • I know a friend who has that Cuddon anthology, so I’ll definitely see if I can borrow it from him. You’ve certainly whetted the appetite there! Sounds like the sort of thing that would bring about a fair bit of horror-induced horripilation…

  18. Loved this post. Recommendations? Anything by M R James. “A School Story” always made me hide under the bed clothes.
    “The Monkey’s Paw” is also a good choice, as is “The Beetle”.
    Happy Hallowe’en.

  19. Thank you for sharing! I love your posts. I’m definitely going to check out those stories you mentioned. I haven’t read too much “scary” stuff, mostly because I’m a giant chicken, but Edgar Allan Poe is a Halloween staple for me. Ambrose Pierce also has a pretty creepy story — I think it’s called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Anyway, thank you again for sharing!

  20. Reblogged this on Jelly-Side Up and commented:
    Good evening, readers! You already know I *love* holidays, but Halloween is my favorite. The costumes, the sweet seasonal treats (I currently have candy-corn-themed nails going on–I am nothing if not intense in my passions), and the whole lore and history of Halloween. A fellow blogger wrote a wonderful article about the literary history of Halloween, and I wanted to share it. I hope you find it as fascinating as I did. Join me tomorrow for a special Halloween-themed Top Ten Tuesday!

  21. Ha! I had no idea where the “dark and stormy night” cliche came from, I bet it was pretty effective the first time around.

  22. The anthology Sleep No More haunted many a childhood, including mine and my husband’s. And it is there I encountered “The Monkey’s Paw,” a tale that horrified me for years…glad to see you mentioned it! To my 12-year-old mind, Jacobs’ short story was more spine-chilling than anything Poe ever wrote.

    • I agree, Ann – there is something particularly sinister about Jacobs’ story. A colleague of mine teaches it at Loughborough University where I lecture on his Weird Tale module. I think it’s the first story the poor students study!

  23. Reblogged this on Bibliophage.

  24. M. R. Rhodes’ “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is probably one of the scariest stories ever written and my personal favourite.

  25. A Scottish friend told me today they don’t go trick-or-treating. They go “guising”, a tradition which dates at least back as far as the late nineteenth century. They phrase “trick or treat” is a fairly recent American innovation. I just read The Turn of The Screw last year for the first time and found it very chilling.

    • You are basically correct but the trick or treating actually began in Scotland

      • Basically correct? Your blog says nothing that contradicts what I’ve said.

        • I only skirted on the subject on the blog but did research it thoroughly beforehand. Guising is basically ‘trick or treating’ which you stated they didn’t do. It was the practise as explained on the post of dis-guising themselves and going door to door reciting poetry in exchange for food or alternately threatening a prank instead. That is why it is only BASICALLY true and not wholly accurate.

          • I suppose it’s a question of research then versus the mouth of a Scottish person and semantics vs pedantics. Well, my friend L from Fife says they don’t do trick-or-treating. They do guising, in which – and here’s another interesting fact – they are supposed to perform for their reward of cake/candy/sweet. L always chose to sing a Burns poem. So I don’t think I ever claimed the practice didn’t exist, but that the Scottish are very particular about the name by which the practice is called.

            • I don’t doubt you are correct. It is very regional and as a kid I had never heard of trick or treat, we called it mischief night. The traditions vary from Scotland to Wales, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. I have grandparents from both Scotland and Ireland but there is no doubt the earliest origins of trick or treat come from a derivative of the Scottish practise of Guising or Mumming

              • Fair enough. No kidding? In Jersey, we called it Goosey night (NO idea why), but also trick-or-treated on Halloween. Goosey night was for eggs and toilet paper. When I lived in Dublin, the practise and the whole phenomenon was thoroughly Americanised, except for the practise you point to of the bonfires, which seem to burn for at least a week before in lots of local recreation areas. The fireworks seem to start two weeks before (my Irish mother-in-law tends to stay in for most of October).

                • I have been to Ireland a few times most notably Cork but I worked on the Holyhead ferry to Dublin as well. I love the Irish people and their laid back attitude. My grandfather was such a jolly man and found humour in everything. I haven’t heard of Goosey night but it sounds interesting.

                  • Ha. It’s Jersey speak for Mischief Night. ‘Twas always interesting. I’m a great fan of the ferry. We drive from London all the way to the Welsh coast to take the ferry in the summer time and spend a few weeks in Wicklow.

  26. A lot of work by Oliver Onions deserves to be read alongside such greats as M R James and Blackwood. Classic ghost stories are a favourite genre for me and there are so many good short stories. Jacob’s story is a terrifying tale, I think I have read one other ghost story by him, but the name eludes me, will have to look it up. Personally, I feel that the Trick or Treat thing has ruined Hallowe’en as has the, inevitable, commercialisation.

    • Well said – Onions doesn’t deserve to have been forgotten, save for the occasional anthologising of ‘Beckoning’. Thankfully Wordsworth Classics bringing out his ghost stories in a bumper volume for a very reasonable price may help his work to reach a few new readers. I’d be interested to hear what that other Jacobs tale was called, if you manage to track it down – I only know ‘The Monkey’s Paw’…

      • That is interesting news regarding Wordsworth Classics, I will have to look out for that. The Jacobs story is called “His Brother’s Keeper”, a good little story, though not as spine tingling as Monkey’s Paw. I found it in an old anthology by Odhams Press “The Mammoth book of Thrillers, Ghosts and Mysteries.” This was later published by Chancellor Press as Great Ghost Stories but, oddly, the Jacobs story is not in the this. There is another Jacobs story “The Three Sisters”. Again, I found this one in another Odhams anthology: The Great Book of Thrillers. I spend a lot of time in secondhand bookshops! The “The Mammoth book of Thrillers, Ghosts and Mysteries” was published in the 1930’s and there are editions around, I have seen a couple and bought one on ebay for a couple of pounds.

  27. Pingback: Interesting Literary Facts for Halloween | Interesting Literature | Phil Slattery's Art of Horror

  28. Ichabod Crane of the Legends of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving) may have lost his head but the smashed pumpkin found next day on the road is perhaps unconscious recalling of Halloween tradition?

  29. Reblogged this on Interesting Books and commented:
    What possible effects could literature have had on Halloween? You’d be surprised to find out that it has had a very large effect on the holiday. To find out how check out this blog post from a very knowledgable blog.

  30. My favorite is “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In fact, I try to sit down and read this short story every Halloween. The imagery of the dark woods hiding evils unknown and pious church people turning into devils and dancing among burning pines is brilliant.

  31. MR James is still my favourite writer of ghost stories, though the passage of time has led to his being strangely misunderstood: people will insist on a Victorian or Edwardian setting, probably gas-lit, thinking they are being ‘Jamesian’ but overlooking the fact that his best tales are actually contemporary, though of his time rather than ours: consider ‘Casting the Runes’, perhaps his best, in which public transport features prominently – trams, trains and cross-channel-ferries – and such modern adjuncts as a slide-projector, adverts, a distributor of fliers in the street and a street-hawker are all made agents of the supernatural, while the single scariest moment is led up to by references to a frugal electric company cutting the overnight supply. (James can also be credited with anticipating the iPad and Kindle in his only children’s story, The Five Jars, in which a reading tablet with a screen and moving pictures is precisely desrcribed – in 1921)

    • “Oh, whistle and I will come to you” remains a favourite, the description of the bed linen. The Dolls House is also another good one amidst a great collection. Is the story about the chap digging for an ancient crown also M R James?

      • Yes, the splendidly-titled ‘A warning to the curious’ is the one about the crown. ‘A view from a hill’, though not his best, is of interest for featuring a bicycle.

    • I love MR James too – especially ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ and ‘The Ash-Tree’, though I need to reread ‘Casting the Runes’. I haven’t read The Five Jars, but will be seeking it out now – that sounds like a great Interesting Literature-type fact about the iPad/Kindle!

  32. Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”…

  33. Great post. My post at my Gothic Wanderer blog on “Tales of the Dead,” the book that inspired Polidori and Mary Shelley to write their books, details some of the best ghost stories I’ve read from that volume published 200 years ago. I’ve also just started reading J.S. LeFanu’s “In a Glass Darkly,” which also has some great ghost stories in it!

  34. I love this: interestingness. Bwahaha.

  35. I went more for the origins of ‘Trick or Treat’ which I originally thought an ‘Americanism’.