RAY BRADBURY’S HALLOWEEN HIJINKS
Ray Bradbury recalls his family’s zeal for Halloween
I HAVE ALWAYS CONSIDERED Halloweens wilder and richer and more important than even Christmas morning. The dark and lovely memories leap back at me as I recall my ghostly relatives, and the things that creaked stairs or sang softly in the hinges when you opened a door.
For I have been most fortunate in the selection of my aunts and uncles and midnight-minded cousins. My grandma gave me her old black-velvet opera cape to cut into bat wings when I was eight. My aunt gave me some white candy fangs to stick in my mouth to make the most terrible smiles. A great-aunt encouraged me in my witchcrafts by painting my face into a skull and stashing me in closets to induce cardiac arrest in passing relatives or upstairs boarders. My mother corrupted me completely by introducing me to Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was three.
In sum, Halloween has always been the celebration for me and mine. And those Halloweens in the late 1920s and early ’30s come back to me now at the least scent of candle wax or aroma of pumpkin pies.
AUTUMNS WERE A combination of that dread moment when you see whole windows of dime stores full of nickel pads and yellow pencils meaning School Is Here and also the bright promise of October, that stirring stuff that lurks in the blood and makes children break out in joyful sweats, planning ahead.
For we did plan ahead in the Bradbury houses. We were three families on one single block in Waukegan, Ill. My grandma and, until he died in 1926, grandpa lived in the corner house; my mom and dad, and my brother Skip and I, in the house next door to that; and around the block my Uncle Bion.
One of the prime Halloween years was 1928. Everything that was grandest came to a special climax that autumn.
My Aunt Neva was 17 and just out of high school, and she had a Model A Ford. “Okay, kiddo,” she said around about October 20. “It’s coming fast. Let’s make plans. How do we use the attics? Where do we put the witches? How many corn shocks do we bring in from the farms? Who gets bricked up in the cellar with the Amontillado?”
“Wait, wait, wait!” I yelled, and we made a list. Neva drew pictures and made paintings of the costumes we would all wear to make the holiday truly fascinating and horrible. That was Costume Painting Night. When Neva finished, there were sketches of
Halloween didn’t just stroll into our yards. It had to be seized and shaped and made to happen!
Grandma as the nice mother in “The Monkey’s Paw,” paintings of my dad as Edgar Allan Poe, some fine grisly renderings of my brother as hunch-backed Quasimodo, and myself playing my own xylophone skeleton as Dr. Death.
After that came Costume Cutting Night, Mask Painting Night, Cider Making Night, Candle Dipping and Taffy Pulling Night, and Phonograph Playing Night, when we picked the spookiest music. Halloween, you see, didn’t just stroll into our yards. It had to be seized and shaped and made to happen!
My grandparents’ home, then, was a cauldron to which we might bring hickory sticks that looked like witches’ broken arms and leaves from the family graveyard out where the banshee trains ran by at night filling the air with bereavements. To their house, upstairs and down, must be fetched corn shocks from fields just beyond the burying tombs, and pumpkins. And from Woolworths, orange-black crepe serpentines and bags of black confetti that you tossed on the wind, yelling, “A witch just sneezed!’’
OCTOBER 29 AND 30 were almost as great as October 31, for those were the late afternoons, the cool, spicy dusks when Neva and Skip and I went out for the final procuring.
“Watch out, pumpkins!”
I stood by the Model A as the sun furnaced the western sky and vanished, leaving spilled-blood and burnt-pumpkin colours behind. “Pumpkins, if they had any brains, would hide tonight!” said I.
“Yeah,” said Skip. “Here comes the Smiler with the Knife!” I beamed, feeling my Boy Scout knife in my pocket.
We reached our uncles’ farms and went out to dance around the corn shocks and grab great armfuls and wrestle them like dry ghosts back to the rumble seat. Then we went back to get the harvest-moon pumpkins. They burrowed in the grass, but they could not escape the Smiler and his friends. Then home, with the cornstalks waving their arms wildly in the wind behind us. Home past real graveyards with real cold people in them, your brother and sister, and you thinking of them and knowing the true, deep sense of Halloween.
The whole house had to be done over in a few short, wild hours. Then, everything set and placed and ready, you run out late from house to house to make certain that the ghosts and witches will be there tomorrow night. Your gorilla fangs in your mouth, your winged cape flapping, you come home
Preparation was 70 per cent of the mad game—more enchanting than the stampede itself.
and stand in front of your grandparents’ house and look at how great and spooky it has become, because your sappy aunt and your loony brother and you yourself have magicked it over, doused the lights and lit all the disembowelled pumpkins. You sneak up onto the porch, tiptoe down the hall, peer into the dim parlour and whisper: “Boo.”
And that’s it.
OH, SURE, HALLOWEEN ARRIVED. Sure, the next night was wild and lovely and fine. Apples swung in doorways to be nibbled by two dozen hungry-mice children.
But the party was almost unimportant, wasn’t it? Preparation was 70 per cent of the mad game. As with most holidays, the getting set was sweeter, sadder, more enchanting than the stampede itself.
That Halloween of 1928 came like the rusted moon up in the sky—sailing, and then down like that same moon. And then it was over. I stood in the middle of my grandma’s living room and wept.
Later, I went to bed. “Darn,” I said in the middle of the night.
“Darn what?” asked my brother, awake in bed beside me.
“A whole darn year until Halloween again. What if I died, waiting?”
“Then,” said my brother, after a long silence, “you’ll be Halloween. Dead people are Halloween.”
“Hey,” said I, “I never thought of that.” I thought: 365 days from now. Gimme a pad, some paper. Neva, rev up that Model A! Skip, hunch your back! Farmyards, grow pumpkins! Graveyards, shiver your stones! Moon, rise! Wind, hit the trees, blow up the leaves! Up, now, run! Tricks! Treats! Gangway!
And a small boy in midnight Illinois, suddenly glad to be alive, felt snailtracks of his tears…a smile. And then he slept.