The Halloween Tree

Author: Ray Bradbury

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1972

I read it: October 2017

the halloween tree

The ghost. The mummy. The grim reaper. The witch. The beggar. The gargoyle. The apeman. The skeleton. Eight classic costumes for eight boys on a single Halloween night. And little do they know how each costume reaches back through centuries to original incarnations of the autumn seeds that fell and eventually gave birth to Halloween.

A decade after Ray Bradbury worked perfect holiday magic with Something Wicked This Way Comes, he revisited many of the same sights, sounds, and smells to deliver this book for younger readers. It’s even more of a crisp fall fever dream, with a sketch of a plot about boys who chase the vision of their sick friend and get lured into a time travel history lesson by the mysterious Mr. Moundshroud. They are quickly whisked back into the past on a breathtaking tour “from cavemen to Egyptian to Roman front porch to English harvest field to boneyard in Mexico.”

Bradbury’s goal is to remind us all how Halloween got here, and to illustrate its diverse range of influences. The first stop is ancient Egypt to show off that culture’s obsession with the dead, and Bradbury’s writing glows in describing the exotic settings:

The Sphinx, with its great lion paws treaded out on the golden stuffs of desert, was sharp-cut and freshly born out of the womb of stone mountains. It was a vast pup in the bright and empty glare of noon. If the sun had fallen and lay between its paws, it would have cuffed it like a fireball toy.

I was unaware of the Gaelic harvest tradition known as Samhain, and I was intrigued about the framing of witchcraft during the Dark Ages. Bradbury’s interpretation is surprisingly layered, as he has Moundshroud explain to the boys that witches have “wits” and “any man, or woman, with half a brain and with inclinations toward learning had his wits about him,” and therefore might be labeled a witch. A witch could be any intellectual rebel, and some of them “pretended at magic, or dreamed themselves with ghosts and dead shufflers and ambling mummies. … They liked to believe they had power, but they had none, boys, none, sad and sorry, ’tis true.” Bradbury proposes that some “witches” enjoyed taking credit for casting curses on neighbors and bragging about magic, although he also highlights the dramatic persecution of religious dissenters over the years and throughout the cultural turnover of given regions, which would suggest that there were probably many people labeled as witches who would never dare claim the label for themselves given the consequences.

The height of the night is when Moundshroud whisks the boys back across the world and southward so they can experience El Día de los Muertos. Within just a few page they exclaim confidently, “Mexican Halloweens are better than ours!” And the final lesson is delivered when it’s clear that the celebrants of this holiday have embraced the possibilities and purpose of the fall season, and have not forgotten their dead.

“Up in Illinois, we’ve forgotten what it’s all about. I mean the dead, up in our town, tonight, heck, 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—why, shucks. It’s both happy and sad. It’s all firecrackers and skeleton toys down here in the plaza and up in that graveyard now are all the Mexican dead folks with the families visiting and flowers and candles and singing and candy.”

The mix of excitement and melancholy; the pull of the graveyard and the human need to push back against its reality. Bradbury’s book argues that Halloween is a thrilling and necessary holiday, one whose history matters because it deals so directly with mortality. He asks us to be carried on a mysterious wind and to find the human spark inside the skeleton costume.

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