To get you in the mood for Hallowe’en, try out this first paragraph of a ghost story by Robertson Davies, called The Refuge of Insulted Saints (like a scorpion, the sting is in the tail of the paragraph):
“It all began this autumn, on the thirty-first of October. To be more accurate, it was a few minutes after midnight, and was therefore the first of November. The date and time are important, for of course the Eve of All Hallows, when evil spirits roam the earth, extends only until midnight, after which it is succeeded by All Hallows itself — All Saints’ Day, in fact. I was lying in bed reading an appropriate book, the Bardo Thodol. For those of you whose Tibetan may have grown rusty I should explain that it is the great Tibetan Book of the Dead, a kind of guide book to the adventures of the spirit after it leaves this world. I had just reached the description of the Chonyid State, which is full of blood-drinking, brain-pulping and bone-gnawing by the Lord of Death, and as I read, I munched an apple. Then I became aware of a rattling at the College gate.”
And what or who is rattling the gate? Why, a horde of insulted saints! More accurately, former saints, who were stripped of their high status by Pope Paul VI and demoted to the category of mere legend. They are back now at the gate of Massey College of the University of Toronto, demanding refuge, and they are angry!
Among them are Christopher, erstwhile patron of travelers; Barbara, ex-patron of artillery and gunners; and George, formerly patron of England (and of maidens about to be devoured by dragons). Not only are they back, but they have brought their attributes with them: Barbara’s tower, Catherine’s wheel, Agnes’ breasts, George’s horse and maiden and dragon. The ensuing chaos in the college precincts is handled deftly (if he does say so himself, and he does) by Robertson Davies, the Master of the College.
Canadian Robertson Davies, who died in 1995, was a novelist, dramatist, essayist, journalist, actor, academic, and full blown eccentric. An antic Dickens, an irreligious Chesterton, a witty and cultured and highly literate man, his books are characterized by exuberant language, fantastical plots, eccentric characters, a touch of grotesquerie, and if they are to your taste, they are utterly addictive.
Since Robertson Davies is a writer unlike any other, his ghost stories are equally unlike any others. His bouquet of ghostly narratives, eighteen of them, are collected in a volume called High Spirits, hard to get but worth the effort.
His ghost stories are surely the funniest ever written. He wrote them, one a year, and told them at the annual Christmas party at Massey College. This one was also told at Christmas, but it began (as related above) just as All Hallows’ Eve was ending, and therefore is suitable as a Hallowe’en treat for those of you who can buy or borrow or somehow lay hands on a copy of High Spirits.
Light-hearted, light-spirited, this treat — but for another, darker view of Hallowe’en, try this.