Halloween, as it’s celebrated today, is a relatively recent development. Our great grandparents, as children, probably never heard of it and never went trick-or-treating or dressed in costumes. Over the past 100 years, All Hallows Eve has gradually transformed into a holiday for all ages filled with partying, candy and disguises. But its roots lie deep in the past.
In Texas, we’re more aware of those roots than in many other parts of the country. We celebrate both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. For us, the connection between Halloween and the dead is much clearer and runs deeper than skeleton costumes and white-sheeted ghosts. Now that Halloween is almost upon us, we reread one of our favorite holiday stories: Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.
Bradbury is perhaps best known for his stories The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. But he was also a master of the small town fantasy where his youthful characters are faced with great peril, and those who rise to the challenge take giant steps towards a larger, more mature vision of the world. Bradbury’s stories are, by turns, poetic, dramatic, wise and downright scary. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a favorite in the genre, and The Halloween Tree is a close cousin.
In it, boys intent on Halloween thrills get far more than they expect. One of them is spirited away, and his friends travel through space and time to rescue him, with the help of Mr. Moundshroud. Their journey carries them to ancient Egypt; to our distant ancestors, the cave dwellers; to the Celtic Feast of Samhain; into the company of witches and gargoyles; and on to Mexico where the boys decide that Mexican Halloweens are better: “Up in Illinois, we’ve forgotten what it’s all about. I mean the dead, up in our town, tonight, they’re forgotten. Nobody remembers. Nobody cares. Nobody goes to sit and talk to them. Boy, that’s lonely. That’s really sad. But here – it’s both happy and sad. …Up in the graveyard now are all the Mexican dead folks with the families visiting and flowers and candles and singing and candy. I mean it’s almost like Thanksgiving. And everyone set down to dinner and only half the people able to eat.”
The book was first published in 1972, and was based on a screen play penned by Bradbury for an animated feature film by Chuck Jones. The film was finally made in 1993 by Hanna–Barbera and won a daytime Emmy. The book is beloved by many who read it as children and found it scary but also comforting.
Bradbury loved storytelling and writing, and his well-crafted novels and stories are difficult to put down. He creates an immersive experience where the need to know what happens next is matched with visually evocative images that play out in the imagination like a film. Here’s a taste of Bradbury’s magic. The boys of The Halloween Tree have reached Notre Dame in Medieval Paris but see that there are no gargoyles. The call goes out and:
“…all the dead statues and idols and semigods and demigods of Europe lying like a dreadful snow all about, abandoned, in ruins, gave a blink and start and came as salamanders on the road, or bats in the skies or dingoes in the brush. They flew, they galloped, they skittered.
…And obedient to the summons, the mobs, the flocks, the prides, the crush, the collection, the raving flux of monsters, beasts, vices rampant, virtues gone sour, discarded saints, misguided prides, hollow pomps oozed, slid, suckered, pelted, ran bold and right up the sides of Notre Dame. In a floodtide of nightmare, in a tidal wave of outcry and shamble they inundated the cathedral, to crust themselves on every pinion and upthrust stone.”
So if you’re looking for a short Halloween tale to enjoy yourself or to read aloud as a family, The Halloween Tree just might be the book for you. It’s a reminder that “Night and day. Summer and winter. Seedtime and harvest. Life and death. That’s what Halloween is, all rolled up into one.”