Before I get into this I want to clarify that I might be the teeniest bit biased in how much I loved this book. To start with, Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year, hands down, but more than that, The Halloween Tree was my favorite holiday special as a child. It aired in 1993, but as far as I can remember, it only played one year in Canada. My mom recorded it because that’s what 90’s moms with VCRs did with holiday specials back before the fancy torrents of nowadays—but the recording got mangled and the movie wouldn’t play properly and all I had left were memories of it. Ray Bradbury himself wrote the screenplay for the movie and voiced the narrator, bringing to life the excitement and wonder of childhood adventure that is electric in the book.
I hope I don’t have to point out which one is the book and which one is the movie.
It goes without saying then, that I really enjoyed the book. Like, really enjoyed it. It’s a short read; a matter of hours for an average adult and likely under an hour for a fast reader. The speed of the story is all but tangible in the language, and the great, descriptive metaphors almost create in the words on the page their own character. This paragraph, for example, really stuck with me:
They yelled with delight. They shrieked with ingasped, outgasped terror. They rode across the moon in an exclamation point. They soared over the hills and meadows and farms. They saw themselves reflected in dusky moon-bright streams, creeks, rivers. They brushed down over ancient trees. The wind stirred by their passing shook down whole government mints of coins, leaves, brought showering to the black-grassed earth…
So much of the book, told from the point of view of eight boys trick-or-treating on Halloween night, is expressed in these breathless flashes of description and metaphor, capturing the height of childhood restless energy. This is one of those rare books where the language used is intrinsic to the story.
These eight boys, dressed head to toe unrecognizably in their Halloween finest, chomp at the bit to get started on their once a year festival of costumes and candy. But where is Pipkin? The smartest, fastest, most agreeable of all of them? The one who loves Halloween the most? They couldn’t start without him! As one (the boys are almost a collective character through most of the book) they go to the house of their dear friend to call him out to join them, but tonight Pip is pale. He is slow. His voice is weak! Is Pipkin sick?!
Pip begs his friends to go ahead of him, to start the adventure on their own at the house by the ravine, insisting that he will catch up. Reluctantly, at first, the boys take his reassurances, and whooping, chase themselves all the way to the appointed meeting spot. Once there–sight of sights–they find an incredible, towering tree, where hanging from every branch is a new, freshly carved face of a jack-o-lanturn. Collecting themselves, the group moves to the porch, where they knock on the old knocker and are met by a thin man in black, who promises them no treats, only tricks. He introduces himself as Mr. Moundshroud and offers to take the boys on an adventure to learn the past and secrets of Halloween, the realities beyond the candy, and which are only hinted at in the costumes.
The boys hesitate, but when Pipkin arrives, slow and pale and weak still, and is suddenly whisked away to the Undiscovered Country, the boys at once set themselves to the task of finding and rescuing their missing friend.
The Halloween Tree scoops up the reader along with the eight young adventurers and spirits them away through the ages to explore all the cultural influences of Halloween. Yes, it is a ‘protagonist discovers the true meaning of the season’ story, but with all the different celebrations of All Hallow’s Eve to be found through out the world and history, the ebb and flow of night and day, winter and summer, of druids, and which hunts, mummies, monsters and colorful parades one can almost forget that such an exciting story is also educational.
It’s the raw, rushed ending of the book that gets me the most, however. After having traveled through thousands of years of festivals of the dead, seeing the origins of the costumes, of the candy and of the fear of death that prevails through the ages, the boys are only able to save the life of their friend by giving up a year off of their own lives to Death. As a child, this unexpected, dire twist at the end struck me hard and has had a lasting influence in the themes of my own writing.
This is an amazing book, which I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone who loves Halloween and brilliant writing. Reading it now for the first time I was transported back to the days of my childhood, not only by the memories of a cherished story from my past, but by the free, wild imagination of youth that Bradbury writes into every sentence of The Halloween Tree.
The next book on my reading list is The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sept/Oct 2013