October 1, 2019 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
In trying to plot out “Book-tober”, one of my first thoughts was to start things off with the stories I keenly recall from my youth – not just because that is the last time I had to read whatever I wanted, but because obviously they shaped my outlook and tastes in fiction.
Speaking of my tastes… I perhaps should have noted yesterday that I’m a bit outside the mold when it comes to my tastes in horror (yes, you may roll your eyes). I enjoy weird tales and have some favorite eerie and terrifying stories, but I am not what I would describe as a horror fan. I suspect this is because certain genres leave me almost entirely cold. In particular, I was very much not a fan of slasher movies, which tended to dominate things when I was young. Nubile teens being systematically killed at a summer camp/haunted house/abandoned amusement park/derelict asylum? PASS. I suspect it all boils down to something I realized about my fight or flight response; I lean heavy on the fight. Put me on a roller coaster and I want to punch the people who built it. (Seriously. I went to a haunted house when I was a pre-teen and ended up kicking some poor discount ghoul pretty hard in the shin when he tried to jump-scare me.) I just don’t get that laughing sense of relief that others seem to when tension is resolved. I just feel jittery and annoyed. Plus, viscera and gore just makes me queasy. Who likes to feel queasy?
The other complication – and yes I am a delight at the movies – is that when I get bored I tend to start picking apart the plot. I don’t accept the conventions of many horror films wherein the protagonists have to make the dumbest possible choices to keep the story moving. Don’t split up. Don’t got back into the house to see if the monster is gone. Don’t assume the killer is dead. Don’t take a shower just after the radio plays a breaking news story about the mass asylum break-out. Don’t smear the gooey glowing meteor innards on your torso just for kicks. And so on. I’ve joked that this is my favorite horror movie:
It isn’t really, but I do find the concept very appealing.
This is all a rather long preamble to explain my idiosyncratic take on horror fiction and how I got to be the reader I am today. I tend to favor eerie stories over gruesome ones. I tend to prefer weird tales over grisly morality tales. I tend to read more for a clever plot than body count. I usually dismiss stories that are too rooted in religion since I have a hard time taking devils and demons seriously. Likewise the author’s sexual fetishes or misogyny dressed up with literary excuses leaves me cold. Nihilism is just exhausting. Fortunatley many things can be made better when leavened with humor… but not everything.
I fear I am going on too long about this point as I’ve got all month to try to make clear my taste (or possibly lack of it) to you dear reader. But I figured that it was better to get this out of the way at the beginning in case you were hoping my top five reads were novelizations of the Saw movies, no doubt written by Alan Dean Foster.
That out of the way, let’s look at where my curmudgeonly analytical take on horror and weird fiction began, “Tippity Witchit’s Hallowe’en” by Olive Beaupré Miller.
Like everyone, my early tastes were largely shaped by my parents. My dad favored mystery novels, my mother historical fiction and biographies. From my dad I got his small but informative collection of mid-twentieth century science fiction and fantasy (The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, some Arthur C. Clarke, and Groff Conklin’s 1952 Omnibus of Science Fiction). My mother had fewer books, but her twelve volume set of “My Book House” books formed much of my early readings – technically these were stories read to me, at least for a couple years.
The books were hers when she was a girl and were, especially the earliest volumes, somewhat fragile, so my sister and I were generally allowed to look but not touch. There was one story that was my favorite, “Tippity’s Witchit’s Hallowe’en”. The author was also the book series’ editor (not that I realized it at the time); indeed the whole series was unusual as the books were divided along the developing skill of the reader – easiest stories in volume one, and so on; read more about the series here.
From a young age Halloween was my favorite holiday. Christmas was nice, of course, and I enjoyed the traditional fare at Thanksgiving (and Easter and the 4th of July), but Halloween had that combination of play and adventure and candy that I found (and continue to find) delightful. Despite the best effort of pious busy-bodies in my home town (who had the temerity to move Trick-or-Treating to Sunday afternoon) nothing could shake my love of what is effectively a morbid harvest festival, imported from Great Britain, Americanized, and partially domesticated.
I suspect some of my love for Halloween is the iconography – skeletons, witches, black cats, graveyards, gibbous moons… the whole thing. Aside from perhaps “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown“, nothing helped cement that set of icons more than this story.
The plot is simple – Tippity Witchit is a little black cat (all black save one patch of white on his tail) kitten who, despite some stern motherly warnings, heads off into the late October night to see the world. Amidst the autumnal scenery of cornstalks, pumpkins and a scarecrow, he encounters sprites and will-o-the-wisps dancing in the moonlight. Soon after he joins them in their dance a witch arrive by broom-stick, with an entourage of bats and a great black cat whose cries call forth a legion of other cat familiars who begin to dance and shriek. When Tippity Witchit is spotted by the old witch, she invites him to join with her and forever be part of her retinue, just so long as she can rid him of the one white spot on his tail.
But before the animated scarecrow can cover Tippity’s white spot in ink (drawn from the shadows), his mother arrives and attempts to warn him away from the witch, saying that if he gives up his white tail tip, he will be the witch’s servant for all time. The witch, annoyed at the mother’s arrival, turn her into a ceramic cat. The witch offers Tippity a broom ride, which the kitten loves. He can see the whole of the farm fields in magical revelry, presumably animated by the witch’s magic:
They circled over the field and Tippity saw below the corn stacked up in piles with pumpkins lying about as big and round as the moon. And the crazy cats and the scarecrows and the little carrots and turnips cam gamboling through the cornstalks. Down dived the witch with a zip, alighting on the ground. Pumpkins lay all around. She flourished her magic broomstick and all at once those pumpkins suddenly started to grim. They had eyes! They had mouths! They had noses! They had little lights shining in them! Turned into jack-o-lanterns, they started to gambol, too; and the lights in their little heads went glimmering here and there, roguishly winking and blinking
Tippity is tempted to join the witch and forever be part of her cats and their dancing but something holds him back – he keeps catching sight of his mother’s imploring eyes. Later on, a mysterious black girl-cat invites Tippity to join in her in dancing. Tippity cannot resist and joins in the dance. The witch signals the scarecrow to finally turn Tipptiy’s white tail spot black when suddenly the crock crows and it is morning. The witch and her minions are gone and that remains in the field are the harvested crops. Tippity and his newly restored mother then return home, perhaps a little wiser.
I loved this story as a kid, probably as much for the illustrations as for the writing. Looking back on it as an adult, I can only dimly recall my terror and delight, fearful that in this latest reading the witch might finally catch Tippity and take him away from his mother forever. Middle-aged me is not the intended audience however. I rank this story so highly as four decades later, I can still recall just how strongly this story affected me. It was one of the few from the book I made my mother read to me over and over again. This is almost certainly my first scary story. Truly, it became a part of me and my imagination.
I would have included a link to the story, but unfortunately it is not in the public domain (the original 1920 edition of the My Book House series is available, but this story was one of those added in 1937 when Miller expanded the line from 6 to 12 books). The illustrations are found in many scanned versions (especially on Pintrest pages for “Vintage Halloween”) online, as is the text of the story on several dubiously legal spots. After some digging I am relatively certain the illustrator was Matilda Breuer, but I cannot find any information on her beyond multiple credits for various books in the 1930s and 40s. Let us hope that is a failure of my research skills and not the internet writ large – you would think someone would want to do a little biographical research on one of the many women who helped create the My Book House series (you did read about the series earlier, right?)
One final note, as someone who only a few months ago lost a black cat (one who would have certainly joined any witch for an eternity of dancing and mischief without any hesitation), little Tippity’s tale had a whole other effect upon me. His black spot was on his chest and not his tail though.
I think that is more than enough for today. Tomorrow we will tackle the first “scary” story I read for myself (that I can remember at least) – The Tell-Tale Heart!