Friday, October 29, 2021

The Halloween Tree is pure Halloween madness

 I decided to wrap up my enjoyment of Halloween things with Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. As such things tend to be, it was both worse and better than my memories of past readings.

Published in 1972, it describes the fantastic journey of eight boys as they both discover the origins of Halloween and try and save the life of a friend who is on death’s door. The mysterious Mr Moundshroud takes through time and space to see bits and pieces of how Halloween has come to be framed with each boy wearing a costume that reflects stops on the journey.

And one of the things that profoundly struck me was how their choice in costumes was as much characterization as the boys got. Admittedly, it’s a short book and that’s a lot of characters. They end up being an amorphous blob of boisterous kids who make Henry Higgins look like Holden Caulfield.

Something I seriously misremembered was the amount of historical and cultural information in the book. My memory had filled in complete essays on how different cultures remembered the dead. Nope.

Instead, The Halloween Tree has shadow box images with very little actual didactic content. You get verbal snapshots of scenes. I realized that I was filling in a lot of the details with my own casual knowledge of ancient Egypt or ancient Britain or Notre Dame Cathedral or Dia de Muertos. 

Instead of being educational, Bradbury is fully embracing the phantasmagorical and the Grand Guignol. You have to almost fill in the plot connections yourself as he rushes breathlessly from image to image.

Bradbury’s use of language and imagery has always been on of the his strong suits, pretty much since the get go. But in The Halloween Tree, his use of language was so extreme that it almost feels like he is parodying himself.

And, you know what? That is why it works.

The Halloween Tree is a fever dream of over-the-top and hyperbolic imagery. It doesn’t even try to be realistic. And, if it had, it would have diluted the effect. Instead, the game is a mad carnival ride of scenes and the ride never slows down. It is Bradbury’s profound imagination and skill with language on fire.

I understand it was originally written as a screenplay, which explains how visual the work is. And I haven’t seen the animated movie that was made in 1993, which apparently removed four or five the characters and turned one of them into a girl. It does sound interesting and removing the ‘no girls allowed’ feel of the book would be an improvement.

As an outline, The Halloween Tree shouldn’t work. In practice, it works very well because Bradbury’s mastery of language makes it burn like a thousand jack o’lanterns stuffed with fireworks.

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