In human interactions, a first impression, which is the equivalent of judging a person by their appearance, or ‘cover’, is not a reliable gauge of quality. Wait until they open their mouth, and then judge them. With books, it’s a little easier. As long as the editors and designers have some idea of what they’re doing, the cover of a picture book will give you a pretty good idea of what’s inside. And if you’ve seen enough picture books, as I have, the spine alone may be all that is required to cast an opinion. I do it all the time, and I consider it one of the best of my many unemployable skills.
In the fiction section of a bookstore, it takes awhile to figure out what my next read will be, but in picture books, I’m all about snap judgements. I am proud to say I judged Halloween by its cover in a publisher’s catalogue, and when the book arrived, it not only met my expectations, it exceeded them. Halloween is one gorgeous book, and I have yet to see another gourd, ghoulish or otherwise, that can compete with the cover. Or the spine.
“Tonight is the night when the dead leaves fly.”
Thus opens Halloween, written in 1949 by Harry Behn, who, among other things, was a scriptwriter and creative writing professor. The poem is lovely, evoking all the usual Halloween iconography, from pumpkins and full moons, to witches and ghosts. In this particular incarnation, the words are just dustings of inspiration for the art. The illustrations by Greg Couch are like stained glass windows in pagan church. Colours associated with All Souls’ Night like black and orange are, for the most part, minimalized in favour of twilight blues and goblin greens. The heavily textured watercolour paintings are luminous, moonlit masterpieces. Makes me want to take more evening walks. In October. With a pitchfork.
The ancient Celts believed the border between this world and the otherworld became thin on or around October 31st, allowing spirits, both ghoul and non-ghoul to pass through the veil. The night, as Behn’s poem tells us, ‘when spooks and trolls creep out of holes.’ (How the undead became associated with fun-sized Mars Bars is perhaps a discussion best left for another time.) In Halloween, on Halloween, a giant gnome, freshly unearthed, slouches awkwardly across the grass. It’s long
ears, sporadic teeth, and striped nose a stark contrast to the more familiar, and less deranged daylight gnomes that guard our cabbages and herbaceous borders. Other delightfully warped creatures emerge from the shadows: a hairy troll and a goblin host, a rectangle-faced clown and a tiny gremlin holding a jack-o-lantern, all of whom are strangely, and rather sweetly compelling. As the story unfolds, it appears as if the ghouls are in pursuit of three children on Halloween night, but in fact, it is not their intention to scare the bejeebus out of the kids. This is just a bonus along the way to their real goal. After a sustained dirt nap, the good-humoured spooks are ready to party, to blow off some ectoplasm and ‘dance round their queen‘, who is a billowing smoke apparition. And the children are invited to join the otherworldly celebration. Halloween is a picture book after all, not a slasher movie.
Although Behn’s simple, poetic words give Halloween it’s feel and direction, the story is driven by Couch’s double-spread illustrations. It’s not a surprise that Halloween was published by North-South Books, one of the most visually astute publishers of drool-worthy picture books. It is (or was) the home of Lisbeth Zwerger, after all. Primarily a European publisher, Halloween is unusual in that both the author and illustrator are Americans, but beyond their citizenship status and some minor biographical details, there is little else to be gleaned, at least from the internet, regarding the inspired creation of Halloween.
However, from the Out of Picture blog, which appears to be dormant, there is a lovely description of Mr Couch. I am including it here, because there is sod all else available on this amazingly gifted artist:
At a very early age, Greg Couch was regaled with stories of the infamous Algonquin Round Table and its habituates. As such, he became obsessed the works of Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett. Sadly, Greg emulated their drawing styles instead of their written works, which left him at a certain disadvantage professionally. Greg has a thirteen year-old daughter whom he adores. He ate a bug once.”
Greg Couch studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he currently (I think) resides. He has a number of other picture books in publication (Winter Waits, Wild Child, etc.,) but Halloween is the only one in my possession. An oversight I intend to correct as soon as I finish this bag of fun-sized Mars Bars.
Halloween by Harry Behn, illustrated by Greg Couch North-South Books, 2003