I’m not really into Halloween celebrations, but I’ve read so many posts about Halloween lately that I feel the envy to join in a little bit.  BE WARNED, this post might make you… smile!

Recently, I reviewed Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood.  One of the stories in this collection, “The Headless Horseman”, is about Halloween.  You might here recognise the reference to Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, which was most famously adapted by Tim Burton.  Steph coincidentally wrote a post about it today if you want to know a bit more about it.

Anyhow, the narrator in “The Headless Horseman” is familiar with Irving’s story, which she has studied at school, and she decides to dress up as the Headless Horseman for Halloween.  Despite the great care she puts into making her outfit, people fail to recognise whom she is dressed at, maybe because her costume is not that recognisable or they might have never heard of the story.  However, the head is kept and enjoys a second life after it is found by her little sister in the trunk room.  The head becomes Bob, one of her sister’s play companion.  She is very protective of it and takes personally any mockery about the head.

This story, which alternates between past and present, is the occasion for the narrator to remember how awkward her sister was as a kid.  She had difficulties to socialise and to differentiate between play/fiction and reality, a theme recurrent in Atwood’s work.  There is of course a lot more to this story but I let you discover this for yourself.

Here is a little extract from the story, which I hope will make you smile and release the tension on this Halloween day:

I tried on the entire outfit in front of my mirror, with the head held in the crook of my arm.  I could scarcely see myself through the eyeholes, but the dark shape looming in the glass, with two sinister eyeballs staring out balefully from somewhere near the elbow, looked pretty good to me.

On the night itself I groped my way out the door and joined my best friend of the moment, whose name was Annie.  Annie had done herself up as Raggedy Ann, complete with a wig of red woll braids.  We’d taken flashlights, but Annie had to hold my arm to guide me through the darker patches of the night, which were numerous in the badly lit surburb we were traversing.  I should have made the eyeholes bigger.

We went from door to door, shouting, ‘Shell out!  Shell out!’ and collecting popcorn balls and candy apples and licorice twists, and the Halloween toffees wrapped in orange and black waxed paper with designs of pumpkins and bats on them of which I was especially fond.  I lovedthe sensation of prowling abroad in the darkness – of being unseen, unknown, potentially terrifying, though all the time retaining, underneath, my own harmless, mundane, and dutiful self.

There was a full moon, I think; there ought to have been one.  The air was crisp; there were fallen leaves; jack-o-lanterns burned on the porches, giving off the exciting odour of singed pumkin.  . . .

I was disappointed, too, at the response of the adults who anwered the doors.  Everyone knew who my friend Annie was portraying – ‘Raggedy Annie!’ they cried with delight, they even got the pun – but to me they said, ‘And who are you supposed to be?’  My cape had a muffling effect, so I often had to repeat the answer twice.  ‘The Headless Horseman.’  ‘The headless what?’  Then, ‘What’s that you’re holding?’ they would go on to say.  ‘It’s the head.  Of the Headless Horseman.’  ‘Oh yes, I see.’  The head would then be admired, though in the overdone way adults had of admiring a thing when they secretly thought it was inept and laughable.  It didn’t occur to me that if I’d wanted my costume to be understood immediately I should have chosen something more obvious.

However, there was one member of the audience who’d been suitably impressed.  It was my little sister, who hadn’t yet gone to bed when I’d made my way through the living room en route to the door.  She’d taken one look at the shambling black torso and the big boots and the shiny-haired, frowning, bodiless head, and had begun to scream.  She’d screamed and screamed, and hadn’t been reassured when I’d lifted up the cape to show it was really only me underneath.  If anything, that had made it worse.

I was lucky to see Margaret Atwood read an extract from this story when I was in Toronto.  I also learnt that day that she did actually dress up as the Headless Horseman one Halloween when she was a kid.  I enjoyed the reading a lot, but what I enjoyed the most was to hear her giggling while she was reading.  I tried to capture her laugh on video.  They’re short but sweet and always make me smile. 

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