The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury is a tale of eight boys who spend Halloween night following death through the past to save their friend Pip.
10 out of 10 stars. If you’ve seen the cartoon version of this novel then you have an idea of what a treat it is. The novel is more detailed and yet more vague in what the boys are meant to learn from each place. Both are charming and perfect for adolescent boys to read and watch. I was a tomboy as a child and I loved it.
Ray Bradbury sets up All Hallows Eve in this small Midwestern town perfectly:
It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of…
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.
Night came out from under each tree and spread.
On this night, eight boys anxiously meet outside at the edge of town to go trick-or-treating when they discover the ninth kid, everyone’s favorite, is missing. So they all run to Tom Pipkin’s house and discover he is a paler version of himself and holding his right side as though he’s in pain. He tells them to go ahead and he’ll catch up so they go to the edge of town and find a very scary house with a 100-foot tree next to it. That tree has thousands of pumpkins and they all light up from within with candles, smiling back at the boys. It’s a Halloween tree.
The boys are all around 12 or 13 and are dressed as a skeleton (Tom Skelton), witch (Henry Hank Smith), apeman (JJ), gargoyle (Wally Babb), beggar (Fred Fryer), death (Hackles Nibley), mummy (Ralph Benstrum), and ghost (George Smith). Each of their costumes tie in later to a place they will go and a festival they will see.
They knock on the house door and Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud appears. They say, “Trick or treat” and he says trick. The trick is the tree lighting up with candle-lit pumpkins. Pip appears and disappears, and Moundshroud tells them that death has kidnapped him for a ransom. So they chase after him with Moundshroud who tells them to take the pieces of old carnival paper and build a giant kite. They do and the boys make up the tail. The kite, which looks like a pterodactyl, rises into the sky and takes them to 2,000 BC Egypt, the Valley of the Kings.
Pip leads them into a tomb where the story of Osiris plays across the wall. Osiris is the sun god and moves across the sky all day long only to be murdered by his brother the moon at night. Then he is reborn the following day to repeat his trek across the sky. They witness mummies being pulled out and sitting with their families at dinner tables. Then they watch a burial ceremony with a mummy wearing a gold mask that looks just like Pip.
Back in the tomb an earthquake happens and suddenly they are back in the Caveman era with carvings on the cave walls. A sabretooth tiger appears and they frighten it away with fire, man’s greatest weapon. Moundshroud explains that the birth of fire was what separated man from beasts. They look through a lens forward in time, this time to Greece for the Feast of Pots.
In Greece, the people are leaving pots of food outside their doors to keep the dead at bay. They cover their door posts with black pitch so the ghosts will stick to it and thus won’t be able to sneak inside. Suddenly they are looking at a different time in the lens, to Rome, Italy. People are placing food on graves. Mr. Moundshroud tells them that in olden times, November first was the New Year. Happy New Year.
Eventually they fly away to the British Isles and to the ceremonies held on Samhain. Samhain was the Druid God of the dead. He carries a scythe and as the children watch he attacks the fields and turns souls into little bugs that he squashes. Over the hill they hear the druid priests chanting and suddenly a Roman army appears. The Roman soldiers attack the Druid priests in the name of Seutonius and kill them. They burn down their holy oak tree. Samhain is the tree. A branch from that tree suddenly flies Pip away and then other brooms appear taking the boys chasing after him.
As they fly forward in time, Moundshroud explains how Romans forced the Druids to follow their new customs and fed Christians to lions in huge arenas. Then the Christians took over and chased the Romans into hiding. Christians burned witches, who were nothing but intelligent people who disagreed with the ruling populace. Christians burned women, babies, and virgins in fire.
The brooms fly them to Paris to the Notre Dame Cathedral, then the brooms lay down and die. Bricks from the road form a staircase, taking them to the top of the cathedral which is covered in gargoyles. Moundshroud tells them to whistle so they whistle and even more gargoyles appear. Pip disappears and they have to chase him, but the kite is in pieces, so they put it together and fly to Mexico to the Day of the Dead.
All across Mexico, people are lighting candles in cemeteries to honor the dead. They put out food, flowers, and papier mache skeleton heads filled with treats. It’s really a festival of skulls. There are skeleton skulls everywhere, including little candy skulls the boys eat. Families hold little mini funerals on the graves of their loved ones. There are pinatas in trees.
Pip runs into the catacombs under the city and Moundshroud urges the boys to follow. There they find hundreds of mummies, dead people who were piled into a hole when their families couldn’t afford to pay for their graves. They won’t let Pip out and the boys are frightened. Moundshroud suddenly tells them Pip is dying and to save him they must each give a year off the end of their life. Without hesitation, they agree. Moundshroud breaks up a candy skull and gives each of the eight boys a piece. They eat and feel part of their souls leaving their bodies, then suddenly Pip is able to break free, rise into the air, and return home.
Moundshroud becomes a cyclone whisking the boys back to their own time to their own town to his house where they land. He tells them to go run and find out about Pip, so they do. Pip’s appendix burst right at the moment that they struck the deal with Moundshroud and they realize it was not a game, but reality. Pip is alive but the doctors thought for sure he would die. The boys sit on the lawn until midnight, talking to each other about how they saved Pip. Then they go home. Tom looks up into the sky and sees Moundshroud disappearing into the moon. He asks him who he is and Moundshroud sort of answers death. He tells him not to worry because when he goes to heaven he’ll never be afraid and death himself will die. 🙂
10 out of 10 stars. Beautiful story. I never tire of it.
Joe Pipkin was the greatest boy who ever lived. The grandest boy who ever fell out of a tree and laughed at the joke…His hair was a great hedgehog bristle of bright brown-blond daggers sticking in all directions. His ears, pure peachfuzz. His hands, mittened with dust and the good smell of airedales and peppermint and stolen peaches from the far country orchards.
Pipkin. An assemblage of speeds, smells, textures; a cross section of all the boys who ever ran, fell, got up, and ran again.
Bradbury goes on for several paragraphs describing the way Pipkin makes every other boy feel special and this makes even me want to save him. 😉
If you’ve never read Ray Bradbury, I encourage you to start with his short stories. He has a way with words. Here are some examples:
Night came out from under each tree and spread.
The night swallowed him.
The tall man’s laughter took hold of the ground and gave it a shake.
See what I mean? You feel like you’re there. 🙂