By Ray Bradbury (Alfred A. Knopf; 1972)
This kid book trifle isn’t Ray Bradbury’s best work, but is nonetheless an extremely readable and erudite display of imagination and phantasmagoric imagery. In other words, the book is somewhat lacking in the narrative and characterization departments, but is still very hard not to like.
At a breathless 145 pages with copious black and white illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini and larger than average printing, you certainly can’t fault the novel for being hard to read…even if it does contain some annoying stylistic quirks. Said quirks occur mostly in the opening pages, which lay out the rural Midwestern setting a bit too lyrically: “And it was the afternoon of Halloween…And all the houses shut against a cool wind…And the town full of cold sunlight…But suddenly, the day was gone.” Yet once the scene is set and the protagonists–nine costumed boys–are introduced, the book (literally) takes off.
The kids happen to be exploring a haunted house on the outskirts of town, and a nearby “Halloween tree” with grinning pumpkin heads hanging from its branches, when one of the brats, the irrepressible Pipkin, is snatched from our reality by some otherworldly force. With the help of a freaky dude named Moundshroud, Pipkin’s buddies are whisked away on a big kite to track down and save their friend.
This entails being taken back in time to witness the origins of Halloween, first in Ancient Egypt, where the boys find Pipkin mummified, then the time of ancient man, for whom “Every day was Halloween.” From there the kids move forward into Druid Britain, where (in the book’s most striking passages) they witness the God of the Dead Samhain smiting the land with a giant scythe. Next it’s on to the persecution and witch-burning that gripped Medieval Europe as paganism was overtaken by Christianity, leading to the construction of the gargoyle speckled Norte Dame cathedral (where Pipkin appears tied to a church bell), and, finally, the Day of the Dead ceremonies of Mexico–inspiring one of the boys to observe that “Mexican Halloweens are better than ours!”
There’s a happy ending of course, with the newly knowledgeable boys glad to be deposited back home safe and sound, Pipkin among them. There certainly exist better Ray Bradbury novels than THE HALLOWEEN TREE, which is a slight work by any standard, but in the category of Halloween themed kid lit it’s an unquestionable standout.