About ten years ago I interviewed a witch in a cafe in Camden. She was very attractive, and soon told me that this was normal amongst witches: ‘It’s very, very basic to do the glamour, which is surrounding yourself with a layer of beauty,’ she explained. ‘If you’re ugly you’re probably not a very good witch. If you’re dirt poor you’re probably not a very good witch either.’
I remember this at Halloween, when the warty witch-masks come out. I’ve always loved this time of year: it’s close to my birthday, so as a child I often had Halloween-themed birthday parties, with cat-cakes and cobwebs, and my dad would sometimes drive us through the moors to Pendle to go ‘witch-spotting’. I realise now we were mistakenly looking for crones. In my last book, Changeling, I wrote a couple of Pendle poems (there’s one online at Poetry International). Now it’s the 400th anniversary of the witch-trial and everyone seems to be getting in on the act – Simon Armitage, Jeanette Winterson and even Carol Ann Duffy (which officially means Pendle is over as a subject. It’s like with bees).
So this year, instead, I’ve been getting into the Halloween mood by gorging on haunted house stories. I’m writing a short story about a haunting, and have been procrastinating by reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Mark Danielewski’s The House of Leaves. As the door to our new house bangs in the wind, I’ve been getting fairly jumpy – they’re all brilliant, though Jackson writes the most wickedly sharp prose, and Danielewski’s gave me the worst nightmares: its monster is, terrifyingly, a kind of vast existential void.
Last night I also took my research a stage further by going to a séance at The Last Tuesday Society in Hackney. It’s a cramped little shop on Mare Street, based on a 17th century Wunderkabinett, and full of brilliant grotesque curios – a stuffed, two-headed lamb; a shrunken head – as well as things I love to collect like butterflies, fossils, skulls (although the cat skull, at more than £50, seemed a little over-priced – we found ours on a walk through Abney Park cemetery). After a while we were ushered to a back room for the seance, where Philipp Magos channelled the spirit of a medium called ‘Florence’ to mark people’s hands with candle-ash, work out the names of lost loved-ones and scratch on the ceiling in the dark. She also tickled me with what felt like a feather-duster, which made me giggle rather than shudder, but it was a lot of fun – at such events I enjoy succumbing to the creepy atmosphere whilst simultaneously trying to see how the trick is done. (In paranormal matters I like to both have and eat my cake.)
I’ll leave you with a poem that always seems appropriate for Halloween: Keats’ magnificently chilling ‘This Living Hand’. It is, in a way, also a brilliant trick – a sleight of hand.
This Living Hand
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
By John Keats