On Halloween night, eight trick-or-treaters gather at the haunted house by the edge of town, ready for adventure.
But when a dark Something whisks their friend Pip away, only one man – the sinister Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud – can help the boys find him.
Transported from ancient Egypt to the towers of Notre Dame to Mexican catacombs, an enchanting journey into the history of life and death uncovers the strength of their friendship and the true significance of Halloween.
What could possibly go wrong?
‘The Halloween Tree’ should have been the perfect read: a gorgeous cover, a title and plot that were a perfect match for a square on my Halloween Bingo card and written by Ray Bradbury, whose Science Fiction I gorged myself on when I was a teenager. Plus, this is a much-loved classic.
What could go wrong?
Well, me, apparently.
I could not get my imagination to where this book wanted to take me. The harder it pulled the more I resisted its charm. When, at 65%, when I finally abandoned it, I felt the same relief as if I’d let go of a kite that was pulling me along in a strong wind.
Then I thought, “I’ve just chosen not complete a classic book. And it was only 148 pages long. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I love this charming, well-written, loveable book that many other people cherish?“
That’s the power of classics for you. If you don’t like them, it must be your fault. Right?
Except, the reason this book didn’t speak to me isn’t that it’s a voice from an alien universe but that it’s selling a view of the world that, I was surprised to find, I greatly dislike.
And the heart of that dislike can be summed up in one word: boys.
What does that mean?
Let me answer that question by walking you through my experience of reading ‘The Halloween Tree’.
Progress 14%: Failing the Voight-Kampff Test.
You know the Voight- Kampff Test the Replicant takes at the beginning of the 1982 movie, Bladerunner? The one that’s designed to provoke a specific emotional response and test for normal human levels of empathy? That’s what ‘The Halloween Tree’ feels like to me. I’m fourteen per cent through the book and, like the Replicant, I’m failing the test.
The writing is gorgeous, like brightly embroider velvet. Read this and you’ll see what I mean:
And it was the afternoon of Halloween.Bradbury, Ray. The Halloween Tree (p. 1). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
And all the houses shut against a cool wind. And the town full of cold sunlight.
But suddenly, the day was gone.
Night came out from under each tree and spread.
Behind the doors of all the houses there was a scurry of mouse feet, muted cries, flickerings of light.
But I cannot accept the boys. These are mythical boys. The kind I’ve never met. The kind I wouldn’t have enjoyed meeting when I was a boy myself and the book celebrates them and I keep asking: WHY?
What’s so great about their boundless, purposeless energy? What’s to be admired in the way they submerge themselves in a pack and run on instinct, free from thought and judgement? And the boy they’re all supposed to love so much, what is it about him that they love? He seems to be the idea of BOY written large: unfocused, unstable, unable to stay still. Yet he’s like a magnet, pulling the other boys in his thoughtless, purposeless wake. And they seem pleased, even privileged, to be able to let go and follow along.
Ray Bradbury clearly loves the idea of these boys. They are his sunrise, the smile in his sleep, the hope that fends off the dark, the beauty that brings joy just by existing. I understand that. I just can’t feel it.
Here’s Bradbury’s description of Pipkin
“Pipkin, oh, dear Pipkin, finest and loveliest of boys…
…Pipkin. An assemblage of speeds, smells, textures; a cross section of all the boys who ever ran, fell, got up, and ran again.
No one, in all the years, had ever seen him sitting still. He was hard to remember in school, in one seat, for one hour. He was the last into the schoolhouse and the first exploded out when the bell ended the day.
Pipkin, sweet Pipkin.
Who yodeled and played the kazoo and hated girls more than all the other boys in the gang combined.
Pipkin, whose arm around your shoulder, and secret whisper of great doings this day, protected you from the world.
God got up early just to see Pipkin come out of his house, like one of those people on a weatherclock. And the weather was always fine where Pipkin was.
Pipkin.Bradbury, Ray. The Halloween Tree (p. 7). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
To me, this seems like a medieval love poem worshipping a romantic ideal.
I not only don’t see the appeal but ‘Sweet Pipkin’ is the kind of boy I would always have avoided.
Progress: 38% I feel like the only one not under Moundshroud’s spell
I love the storytelling style. It’s energetic and dramatic. It’s the way I imagine stories being told by a performer in front of a camp fire or on a wagon at a country fair. It’s larger than life and proud of it. It’s full of flourishes that will add coins when the hat is passed around afterwards.
Some of the time, the storytelling feels old. Not late-Twentieth Century old – hell, I was still a boy myself when this was published in 1972 . – but old like from another era – like a medieval Mystery Play with a post-Christian script or an epic poem. Some of the time it feels modern(ish) – like Rohal Dahl meeting Looney Tunes or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory“ meeting “The Snowman”.
It’s the content that keeps me at a distance from the story.
I don’t understand why these boys are letting themselves be swept along in this journey towards death in its various manifestations. Why do they not see Moundshroud as a threat, as a deceiver? What’s to trust about a man who promised the boys only tricks, no treats?
This is how Moundshroud was first described:
“An evil smile came and hung in the doorway before them.
Behind the smile, the tall man hid in shadow. They could see his eyes now, small pinpoints of green fire in little charred pits of sockets, looking out at them.
“Well,” said Tom. “Er—trick or treat?”
“Trick?” said the smile in the dark. “Treat?”
The wind played a flute in a chimney somewhere; an old song about time and dark and far places. The tall man shut up his smile like a bright pocketknife.
“No treats,” he said. “Only—trick!”Bradbury, Ray. The Halloween Tree (pp. 16-17). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition
I loved that description for its menace and malevolence. ‘shut up his smile like a bright pocketknife’ is wonderful. But boys who trust a man with a smile like that have no sense of self-preservation
And I hate the use of the dying Pipkin. It seems mawkish.
If this book was not so short, I’d stop now.
Progress 63%: a vegan in a steakhouse
I’m done with this.
There’s nothing for me to stand on. The writing sparkles most of the time but the longer I read the more it feels like a slim layer of icing on a bland cake.
I don’t care about the boys and I’m bored by the whistlestop tour of the origins of Halloween.
I know this is a much-loved story by a talented writer but I feel like a vegan in a steak house – none of the smells make me hungry and some of them make me want to leave.