Thank You, Mrs. Phillips
Halloween is when we're allowed to dream in public.
Sure, there are other outlets -- bragging to your mates about shit you'll never do, painting your face to feel like you're actually part of the winning team instead of just another idiot in the stands, pressing three red buttons on a plastic guitar and thinking that makes you Jimi fucking Hendrix -- but Halloween is the one that gives special leeway to our wilder imaginings. Not 'what if I could play the riff from Voodoo Chile?' Not 'what if I could bend it like Beckham?' But the deeper darker dreams: What if death is not the end? What if this isn't all there is? What if the world is infinitely stranger and richer than it appears to be on the morning commute or another evening down the pub?
Halloween is when we talk to the dead. We don't really believe that anymore, of course. Not literally. We don't lay out food on ritual tables for the returning dead the way the Celts did at Summer's End (or Samhain), and if we did we'd be more than a little surprised if they showed up and ate it. But every year on that single special night we open the door to them still -- the door of imagination at least -- and the ghosts walk with us, not as haunting revenants, not as unwelcome midnight visitors, but as invited and honoured guests.
When I was a kid in the 1960s, Britain didn't celebrate Halloween as openly and fulsomely as did the United States. Costuming and trick-or-treating were known to me only via American movies or books. I gather (I've been an exile for nearly twenty years now) that that's changed over the last decade or so and that these days the darkening hours of any October 31st find the streets of Liverpool and London just as full of midget demons and miniature Draculas as those of New York or Los Angeles. But that just wasn't the way it was when I was growing up. Best I could hope for was a quick game of duck-apple and a bullshit session on a home-made Ouija board.
And then came Peter Phillips' Halloween party.
Creepy little bastard that I was, I was already deeply in love with horror by the time I was eight or nine. The thanks for that go to the usual suspects when it comes to my generation; Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the Pan Book of Horror, Mars Attacks bubble-gum cards, and Castle Films' 8mm movie-digests (Oh, much-loved 50ft. extract of Son of Kong, where are you now?). But in 1964 I was still two years away from my first reading of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, so the thanks for Halloween -- at least as the special and spectacular holiday that it could be for my particular kind of misfit -- go to Peter Phillips' mum.
Thing was, I didn't even know Peter that well. We were in the same class at Heygreen Road County Primary and were friendly without being close friends -- didn't hang out, never been to each other's houses, you know what I mean -- so it was a surprise when he invited me to his party. I like to think, in retrospect, that his mum had told him only to invite people who were likely to appreciate it, but I've really no idea. Pretty small group, though; the only invitees were me, Lynne Robinson, and Barry Armour (Yeah. Armour. I know I make shit up for a living, but that was really his name. Honest).
The Phillips family lived in a flat above a glazier's shop on a corner of Picton Road. To this day, I haven't a clue what the flat looked like in real life, because it certainly couldn't have looked like it did that night.
I'd pressed the bell on the door on the side street quite some time before it was finally opened. It wasn't Peter. It was a woman dressed completely in black.
"Welcome," she said, not smiling. "There are no lights."
Which, I suppose, explained why she was holding in her hand the kind of flaming torch I'd only previously seen in stills from Ghost of Frankenstein in the pages of Famous Monsters.
Yeah, alright, it was a black rubber Woolworth's flashlight with crumpled orange tissue paper wrapped around the bulb housing but, trust me, it was fully and magically convincing to my eight year old eyes.
The street door gave directly on to a narrow staircase which led up to the door of the flat itself. "Upstairs," said Mrs. Phillips -- at least, I think it was Mrs. Phillips; she never broke character all night, God bless her -- and turned to lead the way.
Oh. Little aside to those of us past puberty. I'd love to tell you that this was like following Morticia Addams upstairs but the truth is -- with all love and respect to Mrs. Phillips -- she was actually more Margaret Rutherford than Carolyn Jones. Sorry to rain on that particular parade. But anyway.
The staircase was steep, narrow and dark and the light emanating from the flat doorway was yellow and dim and, as I made my way toward it, I was deliciously, fabulously, terrified.
The flat was a cave. A black cave. Mrs. Phillips must have bought up every sheet of black craft paper in Merseyside and taped them to the walls and ceilings. There were broomsticks, too, and witches' hats. And pumpkins and candles and pictures of black cats.
Sure, there was also a table arrayed with sandwiches and sausage rolls and bottles of pop. And Mr. Phillips was sitting in the corner watching the evening news on a depressingly normal telly. But none of that mattered. This was a Halloween House and I'd never seen anything so wonderful in all my life.
Peter was there, and Barry and Lynne, and I'm sure we played games, ate like pigs, and did whatever else eight year olds do at parties. I can't remember the details. All I remember is that, whatever we did, we did it in the shadowed confines of a witch's cave, overseen by the lady in black and her flaming torch.
Storytellers come in all sorts of guises. Mrs. Phillips, to the best of my knowledge, never wrote a word in her life but she belongs spiritually, I think, to the same tribe as writers do. Not just because she obviously loved Halloween -- and her son -- but because she creatively embraced the idea of Halloween and, in effect, made a narrative out of it, a narrative through which we lucky children on that long ago night could move, imagine, dream.
I'm forty-four years late. But thank you, Mrs. Phillips. Thank you very much.