Danse Macabre – Historical Notes

Tales of the Deadland was intended to be sort of out of continuity stories, shorter and less character focused than the rest of Deadlands. It was an excuse to take concepts that might take more fleshing out and still get to play with them. I have a handful of ideas for more tales, including with characters we have not met yet.

Danse Macabre is a rather famous concept, the French translation of “Dance of Death”. According to Wikipedia (I know), the horrors of the 14th century, which included famine, the Hundred Years War, and the Black Death, brought forward a didactic poem to remind us all of the inevitability of death. Visual examples started popping up in the 15th century, showing up in paintings, on churches, and on walls. The idea is that it does not matter who you are, if you are rich, if you are a king, you will inevitably perform the dance of death.

The version I borrowed heavily from was the version written by French composer Camille Saint-Saens in the 19th century. From the wiki page for that:

According to legend, “Death” appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle (here represented by a solo violin). His skeletons dance for him until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year. The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times (the twelve strokes of midnight) which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The solo violin enters playing the tritone, which was known as the diabolus in musica (“the Devil in music”). The first theme is heard on a solo flute, followed by the second theme, a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The first and second themes, or fragments of them, are then heard throughout the various sections of the orchestra. The piece becomes more energetic and at its midpoint, right after a contrapuntal section based on the second theme, there is a direct quote played by the woodwinds of the Dies Irae, a Gregorian chant from the Requiem that is melodically related to the work’s second theme. The Dies Irae is presented unusually in a major key. After this section the piece returns to the first and second themes and climaxes with the full orchestra playing very strong dynamics. Then there is an abrupt break in the texture and the coda represents the dawn breaking (a cockerel’s crow, played by the oboe) and the skeletons returning to their graves.

You can listen to it here.

I stole largely from Henri Cazalis’ poem associated with the song to do the poem within the story. It has been a good long time since I’ve attempted poetry, and it felt fine to stretch those muscles again.

If you are wondering if Halloween was celebrated in the old west, the answer is not really. According to Lesley Bannatyne, it arrived in America in the 1870s, where it was viewed as an immigrant holiday, particularly of the Scottish and Irish. It was printed about in newspapers as a sort of trend piece. But Victorians were searching for new rituals and romance, and in the 1880s Halloween became conflated with romance and passion.

Halloween celebrations in the Victorian age seem to be made of one part romantic inspiration, one part reconstructed history, and one part Victorian marketing. Halloween stories became almost operatic with regard to passion, and less concemed with actual ghosts. In and amongst the stories offered to female readers, which had such titles as “Love’s Seed-time and Harvest,” “Love Lies A-Bleeding” and “If I Were a Man I’d Shoot Myself,” lie gems like “The Hallow-e’en Sensation at Gov’ner Dering’s.” In this tale the heroine is determined to live loveless because she believes the man she loves does not care for her. She takes up a dare to go into a dark, secret passage on Halloween night. The lady disappears, the guests grow fearful, but then the hero climbs into the dark after her, finding her frail form crumpled and faint from a fall. Love ensues; Halloween triumphs.

I’d heard of things like looking into a mirror while eating an apple at midnight on Halloween to see your future husband, but I hadn’t heard of other things, such as following yarn through dark barns to find handsome men, and it seemed like more of an excuse for more parties and to offer more mystery to their romance. Disguises and costumes appeared in the early 20th century. History.com places our current Halloween traditions as growing in the 1950s:

By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during this time. By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow.

I went with a more generic All Soul’s Day, thinking Gabe and Violetta probably didn’t bother with Halloween if they even knew about it, but still wanting to give the Danse a distinct day on the calendar. For those not raised Christian or anyone who wasn’t given a crash course in this, All Soul’s Day is commonly on Nov. 2 as a part of the Allhallowtide (Halloween, Oct. 31; All Saint’s Day, Nov. 1), which also matches up with the Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico. These are distinctly religious holidays and, if you’re Catholic, you may also know it as The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Anglicans and Protestants also celebrate these days in slightly different ways. I borrowed a little from the Day of the Dead as well, with the altar being made of flowers and leaving out of offerings for the dead, as well as giving the skeleton woman a sort of La Calavera Catrina look to her.

I wrote this at the same time I was writing December’s chapter of Deadlands, and they may end up having a few things in common symbolism wise. I don’t know if I’ll be posting between now and December 21st as I have a few other projects I’m working, projects that can be viewed at both Black Cat Fiction, my sister blog where I post short stories and various concepts, and Welcome to Fear Street, a blog where I read, recap, and review every Fear Street book from the 90s and beyond. I do hope to be posting more Cryptid Corners in the future, and if there is any monster in particular you like hearing about, I would love to do the research.

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One thought on “Danse Macabre – Historical Notes

  1. Pingback: Fear Street Sagas #2 – House of Whispers | Welcome to Fear Street

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