OF ALL the festive occasions celebrated during the year, perhaps the one that has changed most is Halloween where the old customs of ducking the apple or finding the ring in the barmbrack have been largely exchanged for an emphasis on horror stories - the more ghoulish the better.
However there is nothing new in this. Irish culture, written and oral, abounds in ghost stories, some of which would stand the hairs on the back of any decent soul’s neck. Think of Sheridan Le Fanu’s work, not to mention Dubliner Bram Stoker, whose creation, Count Dracula, has been a bye word for horror.
Then there is the ‘Otherworld’, the habitat of the Fairies who have to be appeased at all times or the cow’s milk will be soured or the potatoes will rot in the field. William Allingham’s famous lines jump to mind “Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen/We daren’t go a-hunting/For fear of little men.”
Nonetheless, as the horror story becomes more and more divorced from its cultural foundations and enhanced by the immediacy of modern graphics (whether in film or on the internet ), this ghoulishness has developed a sinister element which can have a negative, not to say disturbing, effect, particularly on children’s minds. The sense of innocence and wonder has been compromised by a sense of real terror.
This year, a wee girl, although she will hate me for calling her that, has decided to take matters into her own hands and bring back some of that delicious thrill that marks a really good ghost story.
This girl, calling herself Annie Graves, claims to be a 12-year-old orphan. What’s more, she says she will never grow up and that she is living somewhere in Glasnevin with Much Misunderstood, “the most beautiful toad in the world” and a little black kitten called Hugh Shallbe Nameless. Now I know for a fact this Annie Graves comes from Knocknacarra in Galway and that not only is she growing up, she is doing so at a rate of knots.
To be fair though, before she disappears into adulthood altogether, she founded the Nightmare Club. She says that nightmares are kinda scary on your own and the best way to celebrate Halloween Night is to have a Nightmare Sleepover with your friends with no grownups about so they can share their scary stories. The first rule of the Nightmare Club is that everybody has to tell a scary story. Otherwise they are out.
One year they rang Harold’s uncle Mr Crosse to collect him. “That was,” she tells us in the introduction to her first book of stories, “Because he told us a stupid story. It was about a bat that couldn’t find its belfry or some rubbish like that. Everyone knows that bats don’t really live in belfries. They live right in your own attic. And they swoop down in the night and scrabble about in your hair with their pinchy little claws....”
Just to prove her point she and Little Island Press have put together some of these stories and published them in a small series of four little books under the general title of The Nightmare Club. The books are neatly put together and the stories are all illustrated with kinda scaredy pictures. I say kinda because these books have an underlying sense of humour in them (Annie Graves will kill me for saying that but I am the reviewer and I can say what I like ) which greatly adds to the entertainment the stories offer.
The four books are Guinea Pig Killer, Mirrored, Help, My Brother’s A Zombie, and A Dog’s Breakfast. Despite her best efforts, Annie Graves has grown up some and these stories have their own little morals attached to them, are well written and highly entertaining. Don’t tell her, but I think adults and children can enjoy them together, and what better night than Halloween Night!