As from the smoke is freed the blaze,
So let our faith burn bright!
And if they crush our olden ways,
Who e’er can crush Thy light? – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The First Walpurgis-Night”
In the Middle Ages, May Eve became known in Europe as St. Walpurga’s Eve for the 9th-century saint whose feast day was on Beltane. As I explained last year, that pagan holiday was simply too sexual to Christianize, so its tamer elements were transferred to the relatively-nearby Easter and the wilder traditions were either suppressed or simply tolerated as features of a secular spring festival (though Protestant clergymen certainly thundered about them in later centuries). The most famous of these is of course the Maypole dance, but in ancient times the fertility of the growing crops was ensured in some parts of Europe by burnt offerings, as illustrated to chilling effect in The Wicker Man (consider this my third recommendation of the film, in the sense of “I tell you three times”). And though we no longer include living creatures in them, the bonfires have remained the center of May Eve celebrations in Germanic portions of Europe, especially Scandinavia and Finland; celebrants dance and carouse around the fires, sometimes all night long and on into May Day!
As so often happens, modern merrymaking has evolved from a serious root; Beltane is exactly halfway ‘round the year from Samhain, and just as the veil between the worlds was believed to be thinnest on Halloween, it was believed to be almost as much so on May Eve. In Germanic mythology this was the day on which Odin, who had crucified himself on the world-tree Yggdrasil in search of wisdom, died; being a god he was reborn the following morning, and looking at the fallen twigs on the ground below he invented the runic alphabet. The night was thus believed to be one on which spirits walked abroad, and the bonfires were intended to keep them at bay. Furthermore, once Christians began to associate witchcraft with Satanism, the secret May Eve celebrations of witch covens and other pagan holdouts began to take on a sinister cast. This was especially true in Germanic areas (most of all Scandinavia) because they had converted to Christianity only quite recently (9th-11th centuries) and still remembered the stories of Odin, the ghosts and the ancient sacrifices that the witches were believed to have continued. The great witch’s sabbats were therefore regarded with terror, and Christian Walpurgisnacht celebrations gave a new meaning to the old vigils. Thus did two groups celebrating in the same way – dancing and feasting around a fire – ascribe different meanings to the same celebrations descending from the same ancient tradition.
The German idea of May Eve as a sort of second Halloween persisted and entered the literature of terror; though it’s become less common in the past few decades, 19th and early 20th century horror stories often depicted dark doings taking place on April 30th. In observation of that motif, I’d like to present this list of what I consider the ten scariest short stories in English, arranged in chronological order. Connoisseurs of horror will note that my preference is toward the more atmospheric and subtle type of tale; indeed, some people of blunted sensibilities don’t even consider the second one horror at all (read it and judge for yourself). In several of them the horror may take time to build, so that you may not be disturbed upon finishing the last line…only to find yourself thinking about the implications in the quiet dark, and haunted by certain images for a long time thereafter. Because there are so many fine tales to choose from I limited myself to one per author (which in some cases wasn’t at all easy), and because they’re all short enough to read at one sitting (as horror tales must be for proper appreciation) I will say nothing further about them.
1) “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) by Edgar Allen Poe (HM: “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat“)
2) “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
3) “The White People” (1899) by Arthur Machen (HM: “The Novel of the White Powder“)
4) “The Willows” (1907) by Algernon Blackwood (HM: “The Wendigo“)
5) “Caterpillars” (1913) by E.F. Benson (HM: “The Face“)
6) “The People of the Pit” (1918) by A. Merritt
7) “The Rats in the Walls” (1924) by H.P. Lovecraft (HM: “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Whisperer in Darkness“)
8) “The Small Assassin” (1947) by Ray Bradbury
9) “The Unspeakable Betrothal” (1949) by Robert Bloch
10) “Sticks” (1974) by Karl Edward Wagner
I’ve provided PDFs for the first seven and the honorable mentions. There was no available PDF for “The Face” and the only one I could find for “The Yellow Wallpaper” was horribly formatted, so I prepared these myself; enjoy them with my compliments and spread them across the internet as you please. The Lovecraft stories are provided in The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, compiled by Cthulhu Chick; the title is a tad overstated because it only includes the prose fiction published under Lovecraft’s own name and therefore excludes his poetry, letters and revision work. The last three stories in my list are still under copyright; Wagner and Bloch died in 1994 (oddly, only twenty days apart) and Bradbury is still alive. To my knowledge, “The Small Assassin” appears only in his first book, the rare Dark Carnival, and its truncated (and far less expensive) reprint, The October Country. “The Unspeakable Betrothal” is woefully underanthologized; I own it in Mysteries of the Worm and To Sleep, Perchance to Dream…Nightmare. “Sticks” is highly regarded by fans and is probably not difficult to find; I own it in Great Tales of Horror and the Supernatural and Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990).
So if you aren’t going to a bonfire tonight choose one or more of these stories, print them out, curl up in a comfy chair (preferably in front of a fireplace if you’ve got one and it isn’t too warm where you live), and soak in the fear…but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
One Year Ago Today
In “April Q & A” I answer questions on the “right” way to hire a hooker, my opinion of referral systems and whether I mind editing your comments for you.