“Halloween. Sly does it. Tiptoe catspaws. Slide and creep. But why? What for? How? When! Where did it all begin?”
In his typically enlightening and always entertaining style, Ray Bradbury puts his cold hand in ours and leads us through the darkness of a million wind-swept October nights in The Halloween Tree, a classic novel of dark fantasy. Recognized as a living legend of imaginative fiction, Bradbury is one of those few, precious authors who delivers the thrills he promises. Revered for such novels as Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, and Fahrenheit 451, the author breathes such life into his fictions that we can’t help but share the enthusiastic energy exploding from his pen.
Expanding on the superb dark vision first exposed in Dark Carnival, a collection of exquisitely sculpted terrors published by Arkham House in 1949, The Halloween Tree continues Bradbury’s love affair with the darker side of our candy corn souls.
It’s Halloween in a nostalgically-described Illinois town, and eight young boys enjoying the liberating freedom of this greatest of all nights are searching for their friend. Where is Pipkin, the last boy you’d expect to miss Halloween? Journeying past a dark ravine (which so often turn up in the author’s darker fancies), the children, each graced with enough detail and personality to convince as living, breathing characters, arrive at a deliciously described haunted house. This is the Bad Place of our childhood memories, complete with towering gable and Marley hand knocker.
In this scene, as through the entire novel, Bradbury delights in twisting our emotions like pretzels, injecting excitement and the potential for discovery into settings and situations that would crumble in the hands of less capable authors. Weaving dark magic with lighthearted spirit, Bradbury makes the sinister appealing as the children meet an ominous old gentleman with the delightful name Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud. This leering, cackling bag of bones convinces as one of the most colorful, ambiguous hero/villains conceived this side of Dickens.
As we gape in awe at the gigantic branches of a tree, each carrying the carved eyes of swaying Jack-O-Lanterns (and something else), we know something special awaits us: a treat and a trick on the darkest of all nights. And doesn’t one of those gutted pumpkins resemble dear, lost Pipkin? Sure it does, but I won’t give away any surprises!
Somewhat reminiscent of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, employing structural divisions of past, present, and future to move the tale and complicate plot, the novel combines excellent, colorful imagery with thoughtful subtext, and reads as both supernatural adventure and serious character study. Pipkin’s fading soul has entered the Undiscovered Country, that secret geography where time and space merge beneath the whisper of the reaper’s scythe. Braving external and internal dangers of supernatural threat, prejudice, and ignorance to retrieve his fading soul, the children follow Moundshroud, who is quickly identified as a likable (though no less dangerous) symbol of Father Death, through border lands of time. Both Reaper and paternal father-figure, Moundshroud creates a satisfying source of tension and surprise as we’re whisked through the whole, dark history of the human condition dressed up in grand holiday style.
Tom Skeleton, the major protagonist and temporary leader of the children, struggles with self-understanding and responsibility beneath Moundshroud’s guiding hand.
Caught up in the plot, we change with him. Like any great fiction, this story isn’t about any one thing. Instead, complexity of character and conflict explore several problems and desires familiar enough to strike a nerve. Near the conclusion of this enjoyably morbid novel, Moundshroud speculates on the nature of fear itself, hinting that we’ll only cease being afraid of the dark when we’ve traveled it. The poetry of the dialogue alone is worth the price of the book.
On a midnight safari through history, the children are exposed to several cross-cultural customs, beliefs, and folk-ways associated with the Samhain. Lovers of folklore and custom will appreciate the charming yet seriously charged meanings of “Broom Dancing Festivals” and “Soul Cakes,” and lovers of the macabre will appreciate the moody (if innocent) chills. A who’s who and what’s what of our subversive nature and all things unknown, All Hallows Eve is stripped down and allowed to dance in it’s old bones before us. Following Tom and the gang, we sit beside ancestors telling tales to ward away old ghosts and older guilts, and then creep through ancient Egypt where blazing fires welcome back the sun. Before we know it, we’re watching stone gargoyles build Notre Dam, and celebrating Mexico’s “Day of the Dead.”
Despair not, for never does this cast of millions or the constantly shifting time perspective ever confuse or deviate from the major crises. Even when Bradbury decides to let loose and have some fun for the sheer sake of revelry, his clean, crisp prose reminds us that a child’s life hangs in the balance. Each scene titillates without distracting, and throughout, we’re made to sweat the outcome of this bizarre dance: will Tom and the others be able to save Pipkin from that melancholy country from which no one returns, or will Moundshroud keep his Autumn due? During a climactic scene where a boy’s love is matched against the primal fear of the dark we find an answer both hopeful and grim.
Sometimes the narrative threatens to drown in its own energetic display of emotion, yet sentimentality manages to triumph in Bradbury’s capable hands. Is he wordy? Sure! Does he indulge in emotional excess? Yes, but so feverish is his love for emotion itself that you surrender and follow where he points.
This gem of the macabre mixes modern faerie tale with spiritual adventure story, combining exciting surface story with thought-provoking questions of mortality. Evoking believably-depicted haunted landscapes, fantastical characters, and supernatural thrills, The Halloween Tree takes itself seriously at the same time that it comforts, so as not to repel children. Whereas many contemporary novels of the Fantastic (especially those for younger readers) condescend to their audience, diluting potentially moving and controversial issues with sleight of hand and wink of eye, this tome looks unflinchingly at such historical realities as the Inquisition and loss of loved ones. The reason it doesn’t come across as melancholy or heavy handed? Precisely because the fantasy elements provide a sense of hope in despair, and a flicker of light in the dark. Unlike a grim, realistic tale of psychological terror or a traditional supernatural novel striving to disturb, the focus in this book is always on entertainment. Therefore, I unhesitatingly recommend it for children.
A must for young and older readers alike, this book belongs in your hands right now. Run, skip, leap to your book seller! Jump into it as you would a great heap of October leaves. If you begin to look at Halloween or yourselves in a secret, new way, then thank the grand old man of Fantasy for the privilege.