The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury
Night and day. Summer and winter, boys. Seedtime and harvest. Life and death. That's what Halloween is, all rolled up in one. Noon and midnight. Being born, boys. Rolling over, playing dead like dogs, lads.
The other night I was walking downstairs to the basement and I noticed that a spider had trapped another spider in its webbed. The trapped spider was an enormous hairy house spiders, the kind you shudder to find wandering about your bedroom, while the predator was a tiny thing with incredibly long legs that normally seems to hang about harmlessly and do not very much at all. But she was certainly moving now, spinning endless lengths of silk as her elegant legs worked in gruesome efficiency. While her prey fought hard, the ultimate result was inevitable. I have a fearful fascination with spiders and watched this for far too long. It put me in a very specific mood, and one that was perfect for sitting down to read The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury.
It is probably quite clear at this time that I unabashedly adore Halloween. I love the atmosphere, the costumes, the autumnal foods, the spooky. And a book about the origins of this very ancient holiday is of course going to become a fast favourite of mine.
I've never read the book before, although I've seen the cartoon based on it when I was a child. It's rather dark for children, deals for the soul and all, but maybe in fact it's perfect for children with its dark enigmas and also glorious fun of Halloween. It certainly stayed with me for a long time and I enjoyed greatly reading the book.
For one - the language is magnificent! A group of boys is described as "the large perspiration of boys," hah! Nothing could be more perfectly descriptive of what a group of 10 year old boys playing together is like. Bradbury weaves lyrical narrative and poetry together effortlessly. "Fires of fear. Flames of celebration."
"With so many chimneys, the roof seemed a vast cemetery, each chimney signifying the burial place of some old god of fire or enchantress of steam, smoke and firefly spark."
In The Halloween Tree, a group of boys find themselves on a wild ride through time and space - not just for the adventure, but to save the life of a friend who is fading fast. Under the guidance of cadaverous Mr. Moundshroud, the boys explore the origins of Halloween, but when they must face the reality of the situation, they realize that the night's journey was not all fun and games. At times spooky, creepy, delightfully fun and informative, I loved every page of this spell-binding book.
And when I speak of Halloween being an ancient holiday, I really do mean ALL the way back ancient. Halloween has existed, in one form or another, since humans have been able to contemplate their own death.
And fire lights the way, boys. Fire and lightning. Morning stars to gaze at. Fire in your own cave to protect you. Only by night fires was the caveman, beastman, able at last to turn his thoughts on a spit and baste them with wonder.
One of the blessings/curses of our ability to shelter in comfort was the leisure to begin turning thoughts over in our heads. And it the autumn, as the leaves fall from the trees and it seems as though all the world is dying, what perfect time to stop and reflect how we, too, will go the way of so many before us, into our own eternal slumber. "So in the middle of autumn, everything dying, apemen turned in their sleep, remembered their own dead of the last year. Ghosts called in their heads. Memories, that's what ghosts are."
The celebration of Halloween, which has had many different names during the existence of humanity, changes hands from empire to empire - from the pagan druids to the Christian ways of worships, the honour of the dead and our forecoming doom has always been a part of our life.
O autumn winds that bake and burn; And all the world to darkness turn, Now storm and seize and make of me; A swarm of leaves from Autumn's Tree!
Bradbury is masterful at creating a spellbinding tale while also abrogating the fact that spells over existed. After watching over Roman hearth-fires and delving into Druid rites, Moundshroud explains to them what witches were and why they were persecuted in middle ages Europe, as they continued to practice the old ways and Christianity was not having any of it. "The sky was swept clean with brooms. The superstitions of the old ways continue, and were targeted by a jealous religion."
The journey continues through the rafters of Notre Dame Cathedral and finishes in modern-day Mexico, where Dias de los Meurtos is practiced. This ceremony is not exactly joyful but not entirely sorrowful, as the people of Latin America honour and remember their dead. The boys must face their greatest fear at this time and place, and a fearful bargain is made in order to save their friend. Hardly an innocent caper at last, the night ends with a deal with the devil.
In the end, we learn that there is only one absolute way to lose our fear of death: to die.
"...will we EVER stop being afraid of nights and death? ... When you reach the stars, boy, yes, and live there forever, all the fears will go, and Death himself will die."
And so, this magical book effectively shows that there is no such thing as monsters or witches, but Halloween lingers in the human spirit and forever will as it is nothing more or less than the manifestation of our understanding of our own personal doom. The book is brilliant and poetic, and will be reread every October as a holiday favourite.