The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness.
So reads the charming first sentence of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. A perfectly gothic yarn that seeks, through the hop skip and jump adventure of a group of young boys and their sinister guide, to convey the true meaning of Halloween.
It is Halloween night and Tom Skelton and his group of boys are dressed up and ready for adventure. Leaving their poorly friend Pipkin behind, they run, as boys will, out of the town to a great ravine where they find the house of Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud. Dark and sinister, Moundshroud’s garden is filled by a Halloween Tree festooned with a thousand leering pumpkins. The boys do not know the true meaning of Halloween. Why, Mounsshroud asks, is Tom wearing a skull face, why are the other boys dressed up as a witch, a gargoyle, a ghost? Mounsdhroud can show them but suddenly Pipkin appears, running to join in. The boys watch as Pipkin is chased and dragged away by a mystery captor into the night. Now the boys have two missions: to understand Halloween and to save their friend.
What follows is a wild adventure as the boys fly on the tail of a kite through the night and into the past. Their journey is dictated by the costumes they have picked. In Ancient Egypt they see mummies shut away in sarcophagus. Next they are carried by the wind to the witch hunts of bygone times. They zoom on brooms to Paris and build the Notre Dame, where all of the daemons of the city awaken to climb the spires and freeze to stone. At each place they see Pipkin, swinging from the bells of Notre Dame or crying out in the corn fields of druid England. But they boys cannot save Pipkin until finally Moundshroud offers them a terrible choice.
As ever Bradbury’s writing is sublime. I felt as if I had read a far greater number of words than The Halloween Tree can possibly possess for the prose is jam-packed with imagery. Bradbury has the power to make the mundane magical. It is hard to explain without quoting. Here Bradbury describes a porch:
Meanwhile the wooden floorings of the porch sank and wallowed beneath their weight, threatening at every shift of proportion to give way and fling them into some cockroach abyss beneath. The planks, each tuned to an A or an F or a C, sang out their uncanny music as heavy shoes scraped on them. And if there had been time and it were noon, they might have danced out a cadaver’s tune or a skeleton’s rigadoon, for who can resist an ancient porch which, like a gigantic xylophone, only wants to be jumped on to make music.
In one short passage Bradbury encapsulates his atmosphere. In any one line the Halloween spirit of cadavers and creepiness is there to make the spine tingle. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas springs instantly to mind for that same juxtaposition of eerie humor. Burton’s frightening but benevolent pumpkin king could well have taken some inspiration from Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud.
The Halloween Tree is an homage to Halloween and a veiled attack at the tacky, candy-filled holiday of modern America. Bradbury engenders a respect for death and our ancestors’ attempts to understand and remember those who lived. In fact beneath the fabulous storytelling, the message can turn preachy, although it is a message certainly worth thinking about.
“O Moundshroud, will we EVER stop being afraid of nights and death?” young Tom asks.
Have we always been afraid of death, asks the story, and “yes” is the answer. In true Bradbury style we are encouraged to think and learn about ourselves and our past through this adventure. But this is surely the best history lesson you’ll ever have, conducted by the most enigmatic teacher. Plunging, soaring, leaping, I can only recommend letting Bradbury take you around the world in oh-so-spooky style.
I absolutely loved this story from Sci-Fi hall of famer Ray Bradbury. Katie painted such a wonderful picture of this story with her review last year that I went right out and bought myself a copy. It took me a year and a half to finally get to it, and I have only one regret: that I hadn’t discovered this book when my kids were younger.
Bradbury mixes genuine creeping horror with fantastical childhood whimsy and significant splashes of insightful history to create a uniquely poetic story of Halloween. In search of their sick friend Joe Pipkin, who’s always just out of sight and hidden within the historical mysteries of the foundations of our modern Halloween, a handful of friends follow Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, death incarnate turned teacher/tour guide, across a worldwide and time-travelling tour celebrating the celebrations of the dead.
Moundshround, melodiously speaking in riddles and suggestions, guides the boys:
If we fly fast, maybe we can catch Pipkin. Grab his sweet Halloween corn-candy soul. Bring him back, pop him in bed, toast him warm, save his breath. What say, lads? Would you solve two-mysteries-in-one? Search and seek for lost Pipkin, and solve Halloween, all in one fell dark blow?
Where and when does Moundshround take the boys?
The Undiscovered Country. Out there. Look long, look deep, make a feast. The Past, boys, the Past. Oh, it’s dark, yes, and full of nightmare. Everything that Halloween ever was lies buried there. Will you dig for bones, boys? Do you have the stuff?
Moundshround takes his boys across the world and through time on a kite made of autumn leaves, to witness Egyptian burial rights, the ancient Scottish feast of Samhain, living stone gargoyles of Notre Dame in Paris, and Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos — The Day of the Dead.
Apparently I haven’t read enough Ray Bradbury. The Halloween Tree is absolutely terrific. I can’t say enough good things and have notes to write a review that far surpasses the all-too-short 134 pages of the book itself. But Katie’s review is beautiful and perfect, and I simply urge you to buy or borrow this book before next Halloween and make this a part of your annual seasonal family reading.
One final note: I bought a version of The Halloween Tree published in 2015 with an absolutely wonderful series of illustrations by Gris Grimsly. As Katie points out, the book already has a very Tim Burton-feel about it and Grimsly’s lively drawings will cement that imagery.