Halloween, what is it really?

All right then. Seeing as I’m a writer of all things macabre and occult (among other things) I thought I’d celebrate Halloween. Along with the fantastic joint promotion with Gryphonwood Press, where we’re giving away loads of ebooks for free, I thought I’d post on what Halloween is really all about. Of course, I can only scratch the surface in the limited arena of a blog post, but I’ll give it a go. So many people think that Halloween is basically a dress up party where kids forget all about pedophiles for one evening and walk around in the dark accepting candy from complete strangers. In some ways that’s actually the scariest thing about Halloween nowadays.

Samhain - pic from Hecatescauldron.orgHowever, let’s look at the history. Halloween is an annual holiday celebrated on October 31st. The name comes from a shortening of All Hallows’ Evening, which is in reference to a Christian tradition, though Halloween is actually the Celtic festival of Samhain. Solemnity of All Saints Day, also called All Hallows, is celebrated on 1st November in Western Christianity. It’s a day that commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. Basically it has nothing really to do with Samhain, but you know those Christians and their love of co-opting Pagan holidays. Popes during the eighth century actually moved the Christian holiday of All Saints Day from May 13th to November 1st to rope in those pesky Pagans. Even later, around 1000CE, the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. All three days (All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints (Hallows) Day and All Soul’s Day) were called Hallowmas.

Ironically, it’s so often the Christians that complain about the Satanic overtones of Halloween (when they have no idea what they’re talking about) and the very next day they’ll celebrate the dead, and mysterious otherworlds like this Heaven they’re always on about. Come on Christians, is a teeny, tiny bit of consistency really too much to ask? Actually, of course it is. Have you read the bible? But I digress.

So Halloween has origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain. The name is from Gaelic meaning “summer’s end”. While the festival had its roots in Ireland and Scotland, it was celebrated throughout the region by most Celts, often considered to be the Celtic New Year. Samhain is a celebration of the end of the long summer days and the start of the long winter nights. This is the beginning of the dark and scary overtones of the festival. The other side of the scariness comes from the belief among the Celts that the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead were at their weakest on Samhain. That meant that all kinds of spirits (benevolent and malevolent) could slip through from the Otherworld to our world on that night. For this reason, good spirits (particularly family ancestors, dead elders and so on) were honoured and celebrated while all kinds of measures were taken to ward off evil spirits. (Some people think that the habit of wearing costumes on Halloween comes from this desire to ward off the evil spirits, as people would dress as those spirits in order to disguise themselves and avoid harm. This is not something that’s universally accepted, however.)

Also during Samhain, people would stockpile food for the winter, slaughter livestock and cure the meat and so on. The preparation for the long, cold European winter was something to take very seriously. It still is, actually, but central heating makes a mockery of old man Winter nowadays.

Pic from www.hauntedbay.comAlso during Samhain, because the veil between our world and the Otherworld was so thin, it was a prime time for Druids to step up and make their prophecies. A lot of divination was undertaken during Samhain. People would build huge bonfires and burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the various Celtic gods that the Druids invoked. The Druids would then pass on their divinations, mainly giving the people some hope for the future while faced with a long, bleak, cold and hungry winter.

One other tradition that I really like from Samhain was that of sharing fire. The massive bonfire would be lit, Druids would do their thing and everyone would party around it. During this time, all the fires in peoples’ homes would be put out. On returning home people would take a brand from the huge bonfire and relight their hearth with it, so everyone had a bit of the same blessed Samhain fire in their house at the start of the dark half of the year. There’s something delicious about that tradition.

The Christians, however, weren’t the first to take a piece of Samhain. The Romans got in there first. In late October the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead in a tradition called Feralia. They also had a day to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. These were wrapped in with the various Celtic traditions around Samhain, then the Christians came along and added their Saints and Souls days and the whole thing blurred together. Now we get precocious little snots throwing eggs at your house if you don’t give them sweets for dressing like little tits. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s all fun and games for the little kiddies, but let’s at least try to educate them on why they’re doing this stuff. Regardless, I think that Halloween is one of my favourite traditional holidays, when viewed from its historically accurate perspective. Not the Americanisation of it, with its costumes and children extorting sugar from their neighbours, but the real ideas of Halloween. I love the concepts, the darkness descending for another winter, the spirits slipping through from the Otherworld, giant bonfires and Druids seeking some knowledge of the future. Come on, isn’t all that so much better than hassling old Mrs Jenkins for a jelly snake with a sheet over your head? Unfortunately, now that I live in Australia, Halloween falls at the beginning of summer rather than the beginning of winter, but that’s life underneath for you.

What are your plans for Halloween? I might slaughter a lamb…


Free ebooks for Halloween

My independent press, in conjunction with Gryphonwood Press in the US, is running a Halloween special where we’re offering all our books in ebook format for nothing, just for Halloween.

Here’s the announcement from the Blade Red Press website:

Here at Blade Red Press we’re very pleased to announce a special offer in conjunction with our good friends, Gryphonwood Press. On October 31st, to celebrate Halloween, both Blade Red and Gryphonwood will be offering their entire catalogues for free in ebook format at Smashwords. The beauty of the Smashwords store is that all books are available in every ebook format, including Kindle-friendly .mobi. That means that you can get any book from Blade Red Press or Gryphonwood Press, in any ebook format, for nothing. Free. No catch, just free.

Here’s the press release for this promotion:

Publishers Provide Halloween Treat!

October 29, 2009 — Ebook lovers will be getting a special treat this Halloween. On October 31, Gryphonwood Press, along with Australian-based Blade Red Press, will be giving away their entire catalog of electronic books for free. The giveaway includes popular speculative fiction titles in a variety of sub-genres, as well as thrillers and an anthology of short fiction. “There is something here for every reader,” says Blade Red’s Alan Baxter.

Books will be available through ebook distributor Smashwords in multiple electronic formats, including Kindle-compatible. Thriller author David Wood sees this as an opportunity for authors from both publishing houses to broaden their readerships. “Ebooks are an integral part of the future of publishing, and I’m excited to be a part of this promotion.” Visit the websites at Gryphonwood Press and Blade Red Press for details.

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To take advantage of this offer you’ll need to enter special coupon codes at Smashwords. For coupons for all the Gryphonwood titles, check this page of the Gryphonwood blog.

For our titles, use the following codes:

RealmShift by Alan Baxter – DK99C
MageSign by Alan Baxter – HH65A
Ghost Of The Black by Alan Baxter – Already free at Smashwords.

Maggots Of Heresy by Michael Fridman – Already free at Smashwords.

You can find all the books under the relevant publisher’s page at Smashwords:

Here’s the Blade Red Press page.

Here’s the Gryphonwood Press page.

So go and treat yourself to some free ebooks for Halloween. And tell your friends!


Guest post – Write Lofty and Carry a Big Chisel by Pat Bertram

A while ago when I did my blog book tour for RealmShift and MageSign one of the people kind enough to host me was Pat Bertram. She hosted the interview with Isiah, the protagonist from the books. I’m very pleased now to return the favour and host a guest post from Pat as she travels on her own blog book tour, promoting Daughter Am I. Here Pat gives good advice about a writer’s tools of the trade.

Pat BertramLike other construction workers, we creators of word worlds own toolboxes filled with necessary implements. We have hooks to hook the reader, glue to glue their attention, a feather or two to tickle their funny bones.
We find nails to nail our points and hammers to hammer them home. We find nuts and bolts to connect our story elements and trowels with which to lay a concrete foundation. And we find pliers for getting the attention of agents and editors, because we all know that task is as difficult and painful as pulling out our own teeth. (Word of caution: Do not use pliers on said agents/editors. They might take offense and refuse to look at your work.)

We need awls and augers (maybe even augurs) to poke holes in our inflated prose, and we need saws to cut away the deadwood. And we definitely need screwdrivers to screw up our courage and we need screwdrivers to drown our sorrows when agents/editors/critics shoot us down again. (A bulletproof vest would also come in handy, but they are too bulky to fit in the box, and besides, they make our clothes fit funny.)

daughter am iBut the most important and versatile tool of all is the chisel. We can use it to knock the chip off our shoulders. Perhaps you’re right and agents/editors are idiots who can’t recognize good prose. But perhaps they are idiots who can recognize good prose, and you’re not writing it yet. (Notice I say you? I, of course, write excellent prose. Agents/editors just don’t recognize my good prose when they see it.)

Chisels will help keep criticism and compliments at more than arm’s length. Too much criticism can kill creativity; too many compliments may keep us from improving. And we can all improve.

A chisel will help pare away verbiage, those superfluous words and elements that blunt the clear lines of our prose. For example, I chiseled away excess from the phrase excess verbiage, since it’s redundant. Verbiage by definition is excess.

And a chisel will help us shape our story into a world so vital and inviting readers won’t be able to tear themselves away.

So, let’s open our toolboxes and get to work.

You first.

Pat Bertram is a native of Colorado and a lifelong resident. When the traditional publishers stopped publishing her favorite type of book — character and story driven novels that can’t easily be slotted into a genre — she decided to write her own. Daughter Am I is Bertram’s third novel to be published by Second Wind Publishing, LLC. Also available are More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire.


Great holidays and bookish treasure

I’ve been away for the last week, enjoying the peace and quiet of the Bega Valley with Halinka and Penry the Spacklehound. We did all kinds of sight seeing, visited cool little towns and gardens, went horse rising with friends and generally had a ball. It was very relaxing. However, the highlight of the trip for me was finding some treasure.

You know how you look at the bookshelves in antique stores, desperately hoping to stumble across that elusive and rare first edition… Wait, is it just me or do other people do that too? Well, it’s what I do. And last week, in an antique store in Cobargo, I saw something on the shelf that made my heart race.

Not quite the first edition that would have been an incredible find, it’s actually a second edition and a little bit scruffy, but it’s so damn cool. It’s a copy of the second edition from Rider & Sons of Eliphas Levi’s The History Of Magic (translated by A E Waite). This book was originally published by Rider & Sons in 1913 and that edition is worth over $2,000 now for a good one. So a slightly scruffy second edition from 1922 is still a very exciting find. Here it is:

history of magic

As you can see, it’s far from a mint condition example, but it is fantastic nonetheless. The full title of the book is The History Of Magic, including a clear and precise exposition of it procedure, its rites and its mysteries. For those of you not so up to speed on the study of the occult, maybe I should make clear why this book is so cool.

It’s by a guy called Eliphas Levi, whose real name is Alphonse Louis Constant. He was a French occultist and he was largely responsible for the revival of interest in magic in the 19th century. He wrote a number of things including The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic, Transcendental Magic, The Key of Great Mysteries and others. Levi “believed in the existence of a universal ‘secret doctrine’ of magic throughout history, everywhere in the world.” It’s worth bearing in mind that Levi’s work has been called “highly imaginative but not very accurate”. Regardless, from a historical point of view, for a scholar of all things occult, Levi’s work is very important. The translation from the French in this case is by A E Waite. Waite was an American occultist, member of numerous societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Freemasons. Incidentally, as a point of interest, Aleister Crowley, one of the Golden Dawn’s most famous (infamous?) members, claimed to have been the reincarnation of Eliphas Levi, as Levi died while Crowley was in utero.

You can learn a lot more about Levi, Waite and Crowley with internet searches if you’re interested. For me, fascinated as I am by all things occult, this book is a genuine treasure. It’s a real grimoire as well as an incredibly interesting historical document. It’s also rare, which makes it all the more delicious. I am an unrepentant bibliophile, after all. Maybe I’m a bit weird, but this is the kind of thing that I get very excited about. (I don’t know this for sure, but I would also bet that this book was a large inspiration for Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel. This book, with footnotes by Waite, could easily be a part of Clarke’s story.)

You can still buy The History Of Magic in paperback from Amazon, so for scholarly reasons you can still read the text. But for me, finding an edition like this, nearly a hundred years old, has a magic of its own. As much as I love ebooks and firmly believe that ebooks will become the mainstream before too long, it’s things like this that will ensure that real books never die.