Book Review by Kerey McKenna
October is Halloween, so I thought I’d kick off the month here at Nerds Who Read with the Ray Bradbury classic The Halloween Tree. It isn’t just a story of the occult, and thereby Halloween-themed. It’s a ghost story of Halloween: an exhumation of the ancient traditions, civilizations, and very primal fears that gave rise to the Dance Macabre and harvest festival that lie just below the surface of Halloween the American Holiday of door-to-door candy collection. Our story begins in small town America. The small town America that is no place in particular and yet so very specific:
|It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern 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. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across.|
In this idealized American town lives of course the most idealized American boy since Huckleberry Finn took his famous raft ride, Joe Pipkin. Pipkin leads a cohort of eight rambunctious boys who are always up for whatever game, adventure, or practical joke a group of twelve-year olds will swear was a good idea at the time.
But this Halloween, the band of brothers is without their fearless leader: Pipkin has fallen seriously ill. Or so they thought: the Trick-or-Treating boys could swear they saw him run into the old, dilapidated, and therefore, surely haunted house with the gnarled, twisted tree in the backyard. A tree from which hang jack-o’-lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Something they have never seen before but can name instantly because it is so self-evidentially…a Halloween Tree.
There they meet the mysterious Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud who reveals that if they do not learn the origins of Halloween and find their friend Pipkin’s wandering soul, they will lose him forever.
The gang (the boys are named but rather interchangeable save for their costumes: Ghost, Witch, Gargoyle, Devil, Ape-Man, Mummy, Skeleton, and Grim Reaper) are whisked away on a magical journey by Moundshroud, chasing the spirit of Pipkin through the ages, learning about the ceremonies, fears, history, and religions that formed the iconography of Halloween as we know it today in America. But at the end of what could possibly be the most engrossing presentation on the cultural anthropology of a holiday, the boys will have to make a bold sacrifice to retrieve their friend.
The common wisdom of drama is that both magic and horror lose their power if the audience sees what’s really going on. So does explaining the origins of the ghosts and goblins of our autumn holiday rob them of their danger and mystique? Not really, since Moundshroud’s thesis statement is that humanity’s contemplation of its own mortality is the root of all these traditions. Behind all the fearsome monsters isn’t a harmless old huckster pulling the strings like the Wizard of Oz, but rather Death itself. That this quest for knowledge is also an attempt to rescue a beloved friend from Death’s clutches raises the stakes and makes the boys acknowledge their own mortality, in a way they never had before, and as an important step into adulthood.
As I mentioned in my review of Lovecraft Country, I find there is something special about having a ghost story read to me. I therefore chose to “read” The Halloween Tree with my ears, via the audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot (yes, the one from Perfect Strangers). Pinchot does an excellent job capturing all at once the ominous Moundshroud, the Norman Rockwell naivete of the boys, and the sometimes lyrical, often purple prose of the narrator.
I would highly recommend seeking out this story during October to get you into the Halloween spirit. In addition to paper, Kindle, and audio versions, there is an animated adaptation from the 90’s that is still generally available commercially and sometimes still gets air time. It features Leonard Nimoy as Moundshroud and Ray Bradbury himself as the narrator. But regardless of which incarnation you choose, this story is for anyone with little boys and ghouls who find it a treat to learn something from scary Halloween tricks.
Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds Who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.