I never had an idea of what a jack o'lantern "meant" as a symbol, and I still don't put a lot of weight onto it-- it's always been a friendly leering face of a rotting vegetable, crudely animated by a flickering candle to simulate consciousness. I don't think it has to be anything more than that. I guess by its proximity to the idea "a light in the window" I take it to mean "weird spirits welcome here"? But at the same time, by association with gargoyles, it's like "there are already weird spirits here, keep moving". I can imagine a synthesis of these meanings, maybe it's like "here's what we're like in here, if you're like this, hi."
OK, I looked it up and it seems like the story starts with weird lights observed over bogs (Hell yeah) and then got extrapolated out into an Irish folktale involving a creepy guy carrying a weird light, then that folktale got turned into a common prank involving sneaking around with a weird light, then that became basically just "we love weird lights" or just No Reason. I still love it :)
Here's the story, which I offer here with the inevitable edits and amendments common to the format:
Stingy JackThe titular "Jack" of the lantern was a character named Stingy Jack, who lived in [location of narrator] in [long ago]. Jack was a famous drunkard, but he wasn't a floppy "I love you" kind of drunk, he was a shitty bitter lying shitbag. Drink didn't dull his wits, only his empathy, which unfortunately happens in some people. We don't need to blame the drink-- he was drunk all the time so that's just who he was- a bad, conniving, hateful weasel. Maybe he would've been like that anyway, we don't have the data on that. Jack's village was very religious, and Jack was too, in that he believed in God and Christ or whatever. But he didn't go to church or exhibit human niceness, to say nothing of grace-- the extent of his religiousity was carrying a crucifix, an act that he thought would keep him from Hell. I'm sure we all know people like this.
Anyway I'm sure you can see where this is going, the Devil loves to hear about this sort of thing. So one day Jack is stumbling off somewhere and he sees a dead body in the road. Jack's like "great, I don't have any money, let's see if this guy has some" but as he gets close enough to the body to rob it, he sees that it has a horrible open grin and firey eyes, friendly but inhuman. Jack says "are you the Devil?" and the body, which is the Devil, says "Yes".
So the Devil gets up and him and Jack are talking for a little bit, and then finally the Devil says "ok, time to die". Jack asks for a last request, which is a drink at a nearby tavern, and the devil acquiesces, because it sounds fun-- they go there arm in arm. One drink leads to another and both Jack and the Devil are soused. After a while there's simply nothing left to drink in the whole place-- they emptied the kegs, wrung out the sponges, and ate the soap. The bartender hands the tab to Jack who hands it to the Devil, but neither of them have any money. The bartender's mad. So Jack tells the Devil, "just turn into a coin, I'll pay the guy, then you can turn back into a handsome devil, and we'll go." The Devil likes the plan so he turns himself into a silver coin spinning on the table. Before the bartender can pick it up though, Jack grabs the coin and puts it in his pocket, right next to his crucifix. The devil is trapped in the form of a coin, by the power of the cross, and the bartender is like "just leave right now". Outside Jack and the coin (the Devil) make an agreement-- Jack gets 10 more years of life in exchange for letting the Devil go. The Devil's stuck and says OK.
Ten years go by, which is nothing to the Devil, and one night Jack is stumbling around some stupid street and sees a dead body in the road. It happens like the last time but this time the Devil says "no drinks this time". Jack says "well how about an apple? I don't want to go off on an empty stomach." There's an apple tree right there so the Devil says OK. As soon as the Devil clibs the tree, Jack rings the trunk with 12 crucifixes, which he started carrying for this exact purpose. The Devil's stuck again.
This time Jack had 10 years to get a plan together, so he makes the Devil promise to leave him alone, to not kill him, to not take him to Hell. Well it's embarrassing for the Devil but again he says OK. Jack takes down the crosses and the Devil disappears in a puff of smoke.
Later, Jack dies in a totally common regular non-supernatural way, it doesn't matter how, let's say "old age". He marches up to Heaven and shows them his crucifix, but they say that's not enough, and send him away. Jack says "Well, all my friends are in the other place", and besides he has fond memories of drinking with the Devil, so he heads off towards Hell. But the Devil also tells him no entry. "You made me promise not to let you in." The darkness of death is rapidly enclosing him and his Earthly buzz has worn off completely, but Jack is told "go find your own Hell". In a panic, Jack asks for a light to guide his way. The Devil gives Jack a glowing piece of coal, which he places in a hollowed-out turnip. And Jack sets out, to wander the Earth in dim lighting, sober as a judge, forever.
🎃I guess there's a lot to upack in here but one possible moral is "you can't get to Heaven on the letter of the law". I support that.
Favorites of years past
We haven't carved our jack o'lantern yet, but the plan is to pick up a pumpkin this week. I can't wait! In the meantime, here are some jacks o'lantern from years past. I don't like the super elaborate modern style of carving-- I reject specialized tools for this endeavor, I think you should be limited to knives and gouges you already own. That's my Dogma 95 for pumpkins. It's scarier that way. Also I strongly believe you should toast and eat the seeds. Not only do I like the toasted seeds it but it seems proper, respectful even.
2015's beloved pumpkin rots away:
There's no jack o'lantern in this one but I ate a sandwich in this cemetary on Halloween, with these goth geese. I told John M about it and he thought I said "goth cheese", meaning "dappled light"... This was 2016 but I think about it all the time.
Scene Report: Swampoodle Heightsby Ana Woulfe
For most of the year I've been picking up work in a food warehouse in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Swampoodle. It is mundane and repetitive work : I send the same people their milks and tofus again and again, unpack the same types of pasta and put them on the same shelf week in and week out, etc etc. I spend a large chunk of my days alone, wearing a mask of many colored stripes, and with my box cutter in my butt pocket and ready to draw whenever there's a belly of assembled cardboard that needs to be sliced. Most of this time alone is in an old electrical room, complete with an incredible fuse box made of long copper bars as well as pipes spouting masses of copper wire with a rainbow assortment of insulation that, naturally, matches my mask in a really cute way. None of this equipment is actually functioning and there isn't even a working outlet in the room, but I like being there and I like being alone and in a time that has seen hellish amounts of upheaval both personally and globally it's been really nice to have some sort of stupid routine to rely on. So I like the repetition, too.
Supposedly there's no clear reason why the neighborhood is named Swampoodle, and most people wouldn't even know if it weren't for the big green street flags that say "Swampoodle Heights, Love Where You Live" alongside a clip art style silhouette of a poodle. I think that this is a particularly obnoxious example of how removed humans have become from our actual landscape - I see no swamps because everything has been paved and manicured, and I don't know where all the poodles went. In fact, most days I sit outside in the orchard by the train tracks and eat my lunch and the most consistent creature I see is the Spotted Lanternfly, an invasive insect that arrived in Philly last summer and who I now see as the first indicator of the incredibly Old Testament life we're living. Just like the neighborhood we're in while we're out in the orchard together, the lanternfly's name is misleading because they actually can't fly at all - they just hop and stroll. They are also totally beautiful and fascinating to look at, a particularly brilliant evolutionary tactic since the general M.O. surrounding them is "stomp the punk" and it's painful to have to stomp such beauty.
The reason for this M.O. is that the lanternfly uses their piercing-sucking mouthparts to suck the sap out of fruit bearing trees and vines. It's classic vampire stuff - so handsome, so destructive - but it's shocking how ubiquitous they've become. I see them everywhere, even in super developed areas with no vegetation ! This is leading to changing behavior in both us and them : take for instance, when I pulled up to the corner of a major intersection downtown and saw a masked crusader trying to whip lanternflies with the tip of a bungee cord. OR, how on that same ride, one lanternfly hopped directly onto my left boob, and another later jumped down my friend's shirt (even more classic vampire behavior!). But the most notable change is that now when I am sitting in the orchard and turn to look at the train tracks I see hundreds of lanternflies walking up and down a massive metal electrical tower. I don't know what they get from this lifestyle choice, but in that moment I feel a deep sympathy and closeness to them because, just like me, they're in Swampoodle, doing the same thing over and over again, surrounded by old electrical equipment. So I finish my lunch and head back inside to do the same.
Ana Woulfe is a writer and artist in Pennsylvania
links / misc
- petition to repeal Rhode Island General Law 42-28.6 "the Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights". [link]
- FANG Community Bail Fund: [gofundme]
- Ana Woulfe has a cool website here: [link] and a bandcamp for her music here: [bandcamp]
- I forget if this is linked anywhere but I have an instagram, if you guys want to follow and see multiple pictures of this year's pumpkin in varying states of composition and decomposition. it's here: [instagram]
OK thanks for reading everyone! Sorry I didn't get a post out last week, I decided to take a breather. If you'd like to get these posts in your email, you can sign up on our substack: [substack]. Each email starts with a link back to the castle so if you want to read it here in the castle you can. And to be honest it's kind of nice to see the email sign-ups roll in, that's the only analytic I have for "are people reading this". Well, that and getting nice notes. To send a nice note just shoot me an email or use the form on the contact page: [link]. --------- end new writing --------------------------------------------->
1961 - present