“For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond,” Ray Bradbury writes in Something Wicked This Way Comes, describing the “autumn people.”
For those of us who may count ourselves among that august (or perhaps October) assembly, for whom “autumn comes early, stays late through life,” there is another of Bradbury’s works that is a perennial favorite of the season, as much a part of the fall months as changing leaves and grinning pumpkins: The Halloween Tree.
"The Halloween Tree is a breathless book; as full of energy as its prepubescent protagonists."
Many people's introduction to Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree may not have been a book at all, but the Emmy Award-winning animated film – featuring the voices of Bradbury himself and Leonard Nimoy as Moundshroud – that first aired on ABC in 1993 and played seemingly every year thereafter on Cartoon Network.
Written and narrated by Ray Bradbury, the screenplay snagged him his only Emmy – though he’s also won just about every other award you can think of, including a National Medal of Arts, a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee, countless lifetime achievement awards, and his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to name just a few.
For others of us, though, before the animated movie there was the book, often a battered black Bantam paperback with orange and white font on the cover, and illustrations throughout by Joseph Mugnaini. A frequent collaborator of Bradbury’s, the Italian artist’s best-known work may be his iconic original cover for Fahrenheit 451. He was also a teacher whose pupils included Norman Rockwell. Perhaps it makes sense that someone who taught Rockwell could capture both the wonder and the nostalgia of Bradbury’s work.
In The Halloween Tree, Mugnaini’s black-and-white compositions include a kite covered in snarling animal faces, formed from old circus posters ripped from the side of a barn; Mr. Moundshroud’s impossibly tall and angular house; the cadaverous Moundshroud himself; the masks that sit above the opening of each short chapter; and, of course, the eponymous tree with its skeleton branches and grinning pumpkins.
"When you read Bradbury’s incantatory prose, you can hear dry leaves crunching under your feet, smell woodsmoke on the wind."
But none of that explains why The Halloween Tree remains a perennial favorite nearly half-a-century after its initial publication in 1972. For that, we have to go to the book itself. To Bradbury’s always-poetic prose, as capable of conjuring ancient Rome as it is nostalgic Americana and – perhaps most important – able to pull in the sudden clarity the sights, sounds, and even smells of the season.
When you read Bradbury’s incantatory prose, you can hear dry leaves crunching under your feet, smell woodsmoke on the wind. The story combines a tale of coming-of-age with a not-so-childish children’s history of Halloween. Gone are the “safe” and sanitized aspects of the holiday, replaced by a whirlwind tour of the pyramids of ancient Egypt, Stonehenge and a witch’s sabbath, a meeting with the Celtic god of the dead, the building of Notre Dame, and mummy-filled catacombs beneath Mexico.
The kids themselves – in the book there are eight, though the animated movie boils them down to four – are little more than broad sketches; skeletons (no pun intended) for us to hang our own childhood experiences upon.
It doesn’t much matter whether our own experiences very closely matched theirs – trick-or-treating in a “small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state” – we all share that hunger for the night, for the liminal spaces and the rich, resonant, haunting and haunted histories that make up the spookiest night of the year. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.
That’s where the titular Halloween Tree comes in. Standing “some one hundred feet in the air, taller than the high roofs and full and round and well-branched, and covered all over with rich assortments of red and brown and yellow autumn leaves,” its branches laden with grinning jack-o-lanterns. “Each had a face sliced in it. Each face was different. Every eye was a stranger eye. Every nose was a weirder nose. Every mouth smiled hideously in some new way.”
The tree represents the various traditions and fears, customs and conjurations that go together to make up Halloween, just as branches join a trunk. For those who have never read it, it would be easy for such a history lesson to sound dry or dusty or pedantic. But anyone who has read Bradbury knows that there’s no such thing as a dry or dusty Ray Bradbury story.
The Halloween Tree is a breathless book; as full of energy as its prepubescent protagonists. It’s a book that can easily be read on a Halloween afternoon. Start it while the air is still filled with cold sunlight and by the time you finish, you’ll find that night will have come “out from under each tree and spread.”
It is that dark night – lit with flickering orange lanterns – that lies at the heart of The Halloween Tree, after all, and who better to represent that night than Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud himself, his name tripping off the tongue?
As tall and gaunt and impossible as his “terribly strange” house, Moundshroud waits like a Halloween spider at the heart of The Halloween Tree. Not quite the villain of the piece nor yet a hero, he is the children’s guide to Halloween night and also its avatar. Able to whistle up “all the old beasts, all the old tales, all the old nightmares, all the old unused demons-put-by and witches left in the lurch.”
Moundshroud acts as a stand-in for the specter of death, for that first realization of mortality – here coming in the form of Joe Pipkin, the “greatest boy who ever lived,” symbol of the seeming invulnerability of youth, who may die of appendicitis if the kids can’t finish their Halloween jaunt in time to save him. Yet Moundshroud is not merely the possibility of death – he is also the pleasant thrill; the fun of being afraid.
And isn’t that juxtaposition what Halloween is all about? In The Halloween Tree it is – and that’s why it’s still an October classic.
"We all share that hunger for the night, for the liminal spaces and the rich, resonant, haunting and haunted histories that make up the spookiest night of the year."
Revisit The Halloween Tree today!