October! How many times in my American grade school was that capital O fashioned into a grinning jack-o’-lantern? October was Hallowe’en and, being celebrated on the 31st, it drove the month. Who were you going to be on the night? Who would collect the most candy? Roving the neighborhood in juvenile bands—a ghost, a princess, a pirate, a cowboy, a glow-in-the-dark skeleton, army men and, of course, astronauts—made their way from door to door, knowing who had the good stuff—M&Ms, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Mars Bars, Tootsie Rolls, Tootsie Pops and “oh, you can have mine” Candy Corn. Only when you returned home, and Mom offered the popcorn balls (“No, thank you”), did the real fun begin—trading. This does not happen to anything like the same extent in England. Here the shops don’t groan with cards, sweets and costumes. Houses are not generally decorated with yarn, vines and fake bones. The economy doesn’t shift a few points under the impetus of seasonal candy and costume sales.
When I first came to England I was sure Hallowe’en was Old English. Didn’t the custom cross the Atlantic with the first settlers? The answer is no, and I am not sure why. Perhaps there are deeper, darker, historic reasons for its emergence in the US. But deeper and darker is always just around the corner here in Oxfordshire, England, too. Take, for example, the Manor Country House Hotel, in Weston-on-the-Green—doesn’t the name alone summon up Hallowe’en for you?—where recently a combined Food Festival and Village Fête was held, something that hadn’t happened, I was told, in twenty years. Why? Well, villagers and manors fall out. Think pitchforks and torches coming up the drive as darkness falls… A recent cause for discontent was a change in the name of the local pub, an act of mischief if ever there was one! The culprit, owner of the Manor, willingly went into the stocks (fundraising for the local church) and met his comeuppance. All in good fun. This is the true spirit of Hallowe’en; the ledger of Good and Evil being evened up.
A short distance away from the Manor, the Ashmolean, the world’s oldest university museum, hosts Spellbound, an exhibition promising magic, ritual and witchcraft, plus a prize-draw for an overnight stay at the Manor Country House Hotel. Reviewed as “irresistibly creepy” and “mesmerizing” by the press, this show is the real thing—human heart in a lead case? Check. Stiletto (not a Jimmy Choo) through a poppet’s head? Check. Sword incorporating a relic—the bone of a saint—that can protect the one who wields it? Check. All of this magical lore is woven into the very fabric of English life. Hearsay claims that a child’s shoe dating back to a previous century was found up a Weston-on-the-Green cottage chimney, put there as a charm to ward off demons, ghosts and witches. Even in the lay of the land, the placement of the Manor, for example—the door must face east!—actions were taken to safeguard and protect against malign spirits. The other sort are tolerated. The Manor, for instance, has a resident ghost: Maud. Ghost hunters visit hoping to catch a glimpse of her—something the housekeeping staff take for granted, saying hello and good-bye to her whenever they enter or leave the building. I’ve never seen Maud there myself; never had a TV or light flicker unexpectedly to life in the middle of the night, but I did once have a strange dream: by my bed, framed by the diamond-patterned leaded glass of the window, loomed a Teutonic knight, who sank to his knees and with the ease of long practice broke my neck. Hotel pillows.
Some say Maud was a witch burnt at the stake in the Manor’s courtyard. Some say she was a simpleton. There is an ancient tree there that will allegedly fail to bloom if a new child is not born in the village in the previous year. The tree returns to life each spring.
My English October is filled with glimpses of deep, dark red Virginia creeper, warming and wandering over ancient arches, casements and walls. Of course, it cannot compare to New England’s pervasive colour burst of fall, the hullaballoo before Hallowe’en. But for sheer spookiness, England can more than hold her own Why, just the other day a villager recounted to me how a sound of mind, upstanding local resident once saw at twilight an old-style landau being drawn by four-in-hand. Pulling up in their car behind this slow-moving vehicle, thinking how unusual, how quaint the sight was—but why was it out practically at night? —she followed it until it took a left by Oxford airport and simply disappeared.
Who needs Hallowe’en when the wall between the living and the dead shifts and dissolves almost every single day here in rural Oxfordshire?
Happy Hallowe’en & Happy October,
On sale, paperback released 28th September
Krista Bourne has always been surrounded by the strength, love and wealth of her family and their homes in New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. She has never had to think for herself. Living with boyfriend Michael and her elderly grandfather, she can also summon up the comforting ghosts of her beloved father and grandmother. In vivid dreams she flies with her pilot father, and when awake remembers idyllic childhood holidays spent with her bohemian grandmother.
When Krista impulsively walks out on her career as a professional dancer, it is the beginning of a new chapter in her life. She feels unsettled and excited by the sense of imminent change around her. This feeling turns to panic, then fear when she realises that she is pregnant and is uncertain whether or not she wants to keep the baby, bringing her and Michael to a crossroads in their relationship. Adamant that she alone must deal with the situation, Krista rejects all offers of support from him, isolating her at a time when she most needs help. Krista’s journey and emotional upheaval take her back to her summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, where she is surprised to find out that she does not know her family history quite as well as she imagined…
Off-Island will appeal to readers who enjoy romance, empowering fiction and extremely relatable characters with situations grounded in reality.
On sale, paperback released 28th September