I’ve always loved ghost stories, so it’s not surprising that autumn in general, and Halloween in particular, is my favourite time of the year. This love of spooky things started early: one of the first “grown-up” movies I remember watching is the 1963 classic The Haunting, when I was nine years old. Although the movie is undoubtedly terrifying in many places, I was more thrilled than terrified as I watched Shirley Jackson’s haunted house story play out on screen.
At about the same time, my mother read me Edgar Allen Poe’s classic tale of suspense and terror “The Pit and the Pendulum”, which I loved. I can’t say for sure whether these two events sparked my lifelong love of all that is mysterious and spooky; all I know is that I began seeking out scary stories. I found myself drawn to the elegant nightmares penned by British writers in roughly the period 1890 to 1945: writers such as H. R. Wakefield, A.M. Burrage, E.F. Benson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and probably the greatest ghost story writer of them all, M.R. James.
Their stories were, for the most part, set in the British Isles, with the odd excursion to the Continent, and this was fine with me. Ruined castles, ancient universities, barren moors, isolated manor houses, and musty crypts were in short supply in the suburbs of Vancouver where I grew up, but they seemed the natural haunt (pun intended) of ghosts, spectres, vampires, and all manner of other-worldly creatures.
I don’t know how old I was when I stumbled across Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo”, but it was after I had lived in Ottawa (1974–1977), where I was able to spend some time around the Great Lakes. Blackwood was an Englishman through and through, but he lived in Toronto for a time in the 1890s, and during his stay there found that he preferred his time outside the city, either on hunting trips or exploring the wilderness north of Toronto. He learned about some of the native folklore of the region, and that — combined with his hunting expeditions — inspired him to write “The Wendigo”, a classic of supernatural fiction.
The Wendigo is a mythological man-eating creature or evil spirit spoken of by the Algonquian tribes of Eastern Canada and the Great Lakes area. The short story concerns four men on a hunting expedition somewhere in the Ontario wilderness in winter, who cross paths with the creature, and as the tale proceeds the suspense and tension ratchet up to nearly unbearable levels. My favourite supernatural stories are those where suggestion, implication, and the reader’s imagination do most of the work, and “The Wendigo” is a superb example of this kind of tale.
More important to me, in some ways, was the fact that this was a tale of the kind I loved, only it was set in an area and landscape that I actually knew. My imagination was vivid enough to convincingly conjure up the cloistered British haunts with which I was familiar from so many stories, but the fact that I could picture, from first-hand knowledge, the landscape of “The Wendigo” gave the tale an air of familiarity I had never before experienced, and which brought home its quiet horror even more.
I’ve read several supernatural tales set in Canada in the years since (I particularly recommend Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ “The Eddies”, set at the top of the CN Tower; he turns the prosaic setting into something terrifying), and have written a few myself, many of them set in or around Ashcroft. In the hopes of giving neighbourhood trick-or-treaters what M.R. James described as “a pleasing terror” on Halloween night, the front yard of my Ashcroft home is decorated with some spooky denizens and props, and it’s good to see other neighbours taking the same tack. For one night of the year, I know that I’m not alone in relishing ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night, and it’s fun to be able to share that with so many others.