Halloween is my favorite season and I wanted to write a book about the holiday as well as childhood terrors, about the panic that children feel when the lights go out and they know that something is there, lurking in the dark, watching, waiting to steal them away. That book became Bad Things and it began with a poem.
Winter cold, winter dreary
No sap, no fool
No need to panic
Big Jack sleeps, the little ones too.
March buds, April flowers
So green, so new
Spring veins pump
And children panic
Big Jack wakes, the little ones too.
Summer heat, summer passion
So hot, so hungry
The children cower
Big Jack stands, the little ones too.
Autumn red, autumn brittle
So harsh, so clear
Before he gets you
Big Jack walks, the little ones too.
© Tamara Thorne
As a child, there was nothing I liked better than going outside at twilight, especially in the fall, when the crisping leaves whispered and cackled about the arrival of Halloween, making the night sounds even spookier. Oh, how I loved to scare myself! The good kind of scare, involving misty ghosts, eerie birdsong and, most of all, the greenjacks. The greenjacks were the best. They still are.
I became aware of green men when I was very small; my parents took me into Los Angeles to visit the museums at least once a month. I loved the natural history museum where the dinosaur bones towered and roared, where and the dioramas of cavemen and mammals in that great dark hall threatened to move if I so much as glanced away.
I loved peering into the mummy’s case, waiting for his papery whisper, wondering if he was aware of my shameless stare – and imagining what he might do if he could find the magic to reach out and grab me. At that point I would giggle and flee the room.
But most of all – next to the mummy and dinosaurs – I loved part of the history museum where huge old English tapestries festooned the walls. That’s where I first spotted green men hiding from hunters and ladies and dogs, peering around trees and through the leaves, watching… and waiting. They often had puckish goat legs, and always leered, full of wicked humor. I could – and did – spend hours sitting on a bench studying my latest find, telling myself endless stories about these green tricksters.
At home after dusk, I would go out in our vast backyard and sit cross-legged on the grass and stare at the ivied wall behind the swing set until the faces would come. They moved in the breeze, the shadow-faces, green eyes glinting, green lips moving. I could pretend the soughing wind and the mockingbirds’ cries were their calling voices, and that the chittering leaves were their whispers as they plotted and planned what they’d do if they caught me.
The fear was delicious and I’d fight it, trying to stay put, to remain outside in the dark, but inevitably I’d run inside, frightened in the best way possible. Soon, the thrill would subside and I’d go back out to play the greenjack game again.
Back then, I called them green monsters or green men and I made up stories to tell my friends when we camped out in the backyard on sleepover nights. Inevitably, we’d land in the safety of my bedroom long before midnight, where we’d hold a seance and try to talk to lingering ghosts or call up Bloody Mary.
But the green men were always my favorites. A little research led me to watch for them on the corners of old buildings, so I loved it when we’d go into the city because I could watch for them there too, and make up stories about how, at midnight, they would come to life and climb down to cavort in the meager trees and bushes by the buildings.
When I decided to write Bad Things, the green men became greenjacks. “Jack” is a name commonly used in conjunction with green men in England. “Jack in the Green” was my inspiration. May Day, May Poles, fertility rights are all tied up with this version of the green man.
Around the world, there are many variations on the green man, but mine are American with English and Scottish roots. (In The Sorority, the Green Knight (from the Arthurian tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) makes several appearances and he’s pure Britannia.)
There are plenty of other modern green men. Tolkien’s Ents are probably the best known but the forest sprite, Tom Bombadil, from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, captured my interest even more. Groot, of Marvel Comics fame, is popular in these days of superhero worship.
The Green Man is also known to change with the seasons, becoming a holly king by winter and oaken royalty cloaked in a riot of fall colors in autumn. As the ruler of spring, he is festooned with tender young flowers, and in summer he is seen with bright blooms, corn, and wheat.
I wanted to create my own green man to match southern California since green men are always local deities. My Big Jack would be darkly green and lush, even at Halloween, alive and growing and terrible, and his minions, the greenjacks, would be nature spirits that only a cursed few (like our hero, Ricky Piper) can see. Normal people see only catch glimpses of whirlwinds and dust-devils, if they spot anything at all.
In my lore, the greenjacks, like many “little people” of legend, and Big Jack, their master, are tied to changeling myths, but mine are also tied to All Hallow’s Eve. Poor Ricky is afraid to say anything because his parents already think he’s overly sensitive and imaginative – but he is tormented by these capering, terrifying entities as they search for a proper sacrifice as Halloween approaches. Ricky can’t even enjoy the holiday because of his fears. He is a boy terrified of the dark and what it holds. As an adult, he must confront those fears once more in order to protect his own son.
As Halloween nears, take a moment to sit outdoors and enjoy the leaves on the trees and shrubs and see if you can find any greenjacks. And if you see them, be especially careful on Halloween night – don’t let Big Jack, a monster made of branches and leaves that pulse with green blood, catch you!