“The Halloween Tree”: A Love-Letter to Ray Bradbury

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Portrait by Lou Romano

“We are an Impossibility in an Impossible Universe”

I don’t remember when Ray Bradbury’s stories entered my life. It’s one of those strange occurrences where an author of a book, a object that does not exist naturally but through the effort and persistence of the human need to communicate, becomes a static fixture of your life simply for having existed from so early on in it. Bradbury for me, and undoubtedly countless other readers and writers, remains an enduring testament to the power of stories and how they can reveal not only the character of their conduit (as all authors are in some way the siphon of their environment) but shape our own.

Ray Bradbury was an author with the rare talent of coaxing a particular emotion out of even the most stoic of adult hearts estranged from the whimsicality inherent in youth. He was able, through his stories and his poetry, to bend back the folds of time however temporarily and transport his readers to that mythic phantom country between the borders of childhood and adolescence.

Reading a Bradbury story we miraculously, as if by some magical force, are compelled to shed our disapproving tastes and sour dispositions as though shucking a calloused husk we have come to call adulthood. We suspend our disbelief willing and delve into worlds of both horror and honesty, of virtue and imagination. Bradbury had never, as Einstein would have put it, “lost a holy curiosity” but instead imbued that sense of precocious wonder of the unsaddled heart in each of his books.

Ray Bradbury, maybe even more so than C.S. Lewis and R.L. Stine and J.K. Rowling (Seriously, what’s up with these double-initial pen-names), first taught me how to imagine as a kid. I remember reading excerpts from Fahrenheit 451 and being awed by the vision of a kerosene-soaked fireman named Guy Montag, silhouetted against the the blazing light of a door frame torched in the radiant heat of a thousand burning books, saying nothing else but simply,

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“Why would someone ever burn a book?” I asked my teacher when she read it to my class. “Because…because ideas can scare people, Toussaint.” And looking back I love her for giving me that answer almost as much as I love Bradbury for giving me with that question.

To name Bradbury’s body of work is to name a series of enduring classics, stories as immovable and ephemeral as the gesture of pointing to the stars at night to chart the shape of constellations.

The Martian Chronicles. Fahrenheit 451. Dandelion Wine. The Illustrated Man. Death is a Lonely Business. Golden Apples of the Sun. Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Each name conjures up a memory of reading from my childhood, or of watching these stories performed in my later years, as Bradbury was a writer prolific not only for his writing but for the wide enduring love of his adapters and collaborators. But there is one book of his that I regrettably have never read in it’s entirety. However Through my off-hand occasions of catching the tail-end of an animated adaptation by chance, this story has stuck with me not only because it speaks volumes about the origin of Bradbury’s creative well but also, simply, about the stubborn enduring persistence of love and friendship.

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The Halloween Tree is the story of eight children who seek to save their mutual friend Pipkin on the eve of Halloween Night. I remember the jack-o-lantern ornaments baubled on the ends of string tied to the jutting forked branches of the Halloween Tree. I remember a child stepping perilously over the edge of a broken cathedral step only for a block of cement to rush up to meet his feet as if by magic, I remember the looming specter of Mr. Moundshroud and the barter of a year of life each for the life of a friend. I didn’t know why this story resonated with me so much, having only seen a smattering of disconnected scenes formed into an impression of understanding, but now in my young adulthood, late but never too late, I think I do.

The Halloween Tree is Ray Bradbury’s love letter to childhood, to his favorite holiday, to the simple enduring virtues of our youth and how they resonated long into our adult lives. Halloween is a time where we shed one mask and choose one of our own. For a night, we celebrate the impermanence of identities, emulate the shape of our darkest fears with some measure of reassurance of the binding of their substance. How with enough face-paint and a keen re-purposing of used clothing we can utterly transform ourselves, if only for a night.

I’m going to quote from one of my favorite shows The Venture Brothers, where at the end of a one-hour special the character of Dr. Orpheus imparts the true meaning of Halloween on a company of his supernatural compatriots,

This is a night of true magic. Halloween is the night we discover who we are. Are we people who make zombie armies. Are we those who condemn others? Or are we beautiful children in resplendent costumes collecting candy? Are our choices in costumes provocative? Do we dress up as our ideal self? Or are we not ready to decide what to be? Do you see it now? We use this one enchanted night to perform the greatest feat of magic there is. We become ourselves. Halloween is the true magic. It is the night we discover who we really are!

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I love you Ray Bradbury. We love you, and miss you dearly.

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Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 3

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In this week’s installment, there’s a rumor of angels in the city as quiet as death and heads are sure to roll. We’ve got delapidated farms in ethereal dust storms, Caribbean favelas with non-euclidean geometry, and a telepathic unicorn named Steve. The Tor Stories Let’s Read just keeps rolling on, so let’s roll with it…

9781466852709Ø. “A Rumor of Angels” by Dale Bailey

 A teenage boy walks away from his father’s wasted farm to follow the other travelers heading west where there is a rumor of angels.

Tom Carver is a young boy living with his father, a farmer, during the period of the Great American Dust Bowl. As all hope seems lost, Tom finds himself compelled by the strange “magnetism” of rumors, whispers of work not only westward but the specter of angels roaming the countryside with great and terrible power. After abandoning his father and being taken in by the Overtons, a displaced family of roaming farmers not unlike Tom’s father, the four continue to push forward west in hopes of collecting on the promise of whispers, hearsay, and myth.

Great winged monsters, they say, and they never stay for long and the more devout among them messengers from the Lord and this required no abjuration, for God had perished in the dust, in the wind-torn wheat and in those smudged handbills that fluttered across the prairie. God? God had perished in their hearts.”

Bailey’s writing is nothing short of immaculate, communicating depths of despair and hope, futility and that unique, stubborn human endurance of the spirit to bear with grace the weight of the unbearable.  Visions of Steinbeck and McCarthy by way of Mark Helprin come to mind when reading Bailey’s prose. The central driving question that hangs in the air, “Will we meet angels?”, is as ephemeral and omnipresent as the story’s namesake. I really enjoyed this one. I strongly believe that this story deserves to be read in literature courses as a sterling example of fantastic realism and how to capture the by-and-large ineffable spectrum of human emotions in a few, choice words. Tom himself is a gifted storyteller, adept at the “spendthrift flow of words” not unlike his long-dead mother. A Rumor of Angels trumpets the power that stories have to uplift us, to allow us to travel to places far beyond our physical location, drawing strength from the invisible well to which all words are in part a doorway.

Do yourself a favor today; Take some time out and read this story. You’ll thank yourself afterwards. I know I certainly did.

9781429924986140. “The City Quiet As Death” by Steven Utley & Michael Bishop

Between the incessant music of the stars and the spectre of a giant squid caught inside a locket ball, it is difficult for Don Horacio to maintain a restful mind.

Jesus-Jackrabbit-Pole-vaulting-Christ, in “The City Quiet as Death” Utley and Bishop have channeled Lovecraft’s cosmic-fueled death ramblings and done him one better. Stories like this are the reason why I even started this read through series in the first place.

Horacio Gorrión is a taciturn, reclusive misanthrope and the sole beneficiary of a massive inheritance living in the city of Infante Sagrado, the capital city of Isla Arca, a fictitious island nestled in the Caribbean Sea. For years Horracio has alone been hounded by unceasing music of the spheres, the clamorous static of the stars, the unbearable dog-tone of the Big Bang. Basically,Horacio is living inside a Lovecraftian nightmare and even makes a overt comment on this.

After his repeated, perpetually-abandoned attempts to claim his own life, his sole companion and family maid Adelaida requests the aid of Doctor Vega and Father Casares to appeal to him on behalf of his mortality and sanity. Each offers something to Horacio, either the promise of answers through business or the potential of salvation through faith. Both of these offers orbit in some way around Adelaida’s locket, a gift from her long-deceased husband who may or may not have tamed the offspring of a particular Old God and confined it within the necklace.

The prose in this story is unbelievably tight and well-written, to pick one particular passage to demonstrate the deft mastery of implied horror that Utley and Bishop possess feels like a disservice in divorcing it however momentarily from the entire piece. I seriously loved this story and have made a serious mental note to check out whatever Utley or Bishop write in the future purely on the strength of this one story alone. It covered all the paces of a satisfying supernatural horror story and in true Lovecraftian fashion, it ends in total madness.

Go check this story out. Seriously, go right now and read it.

1609368977. “Heads Will Roll” by Lish McBride

Lena’s not your typical animal trainer. And when she and her unicorn partner, Steve, decide to enter a fight, it’s definitely not your typical fight….

Lena and her unicornis companion “Phantom”, cheekily named “Steve” in reality, have entered into a dangerous cage fighting tournament that pits endangered mythological creatures against one another in order to fight for freedom from the inside. Things go successfully, though not entirely predictably, according to plan.

“That was the thing about humans. They found it so easy to discard the implausible and the unbelievable. People ignored anything that made them uncomfortable. A forgetful, ungrateful race that looked at unicorns and saw purity, and looked at me and saw the weakness they thought inherent in my sex. Gone is the memory of the unicorn as the protector of the forest, the guardian of the weak and innocent. Vanished are the warrior women of antiquity. The furies. The morrigan. The valkyries. Violence was in our blood, but humans have forgotten all that.”

McBride certainly wasn’t kidding when she titled this story. Violence, carnage, and pandemonium abound and it’s frickin’ fantastic. Lena and Steve make a wonderful pair of fantastical vigilantes bringing the fight to the people and creatures on the wrong side of celestial law, kicking ass and taking names when they have the time. I definitely would look forward to reading about more of their adventures in a longer-form narrative. I’ll have to investigate and see if McBride has anything like that in mind. Hmmmm.

And once again, another chapter in the epic saga of the Tor Let’s Read is concluded. These three have got to be some of the heaviest hitters in this series so far, I sincerely hope they only get better from here on out because this is quality of writing is nuts. I’m still up in the air as to which three stories I’ll be doing for my next installment. Weird shit or Weird Noire? Heads or Tails? A flip of the coin, a decision suspended in mid-air….

See you next Sunday, September 29th!

‘The Gone-Away World’ is Awesome and Damn near Impossible to Describe

[Yes I know, this is not the long awaited (pffft) installment of my Oryx and Crake read-through series. Ho Hum. However, take comfort knowing in the fact that I have indeed finished the book and that it is all manner of poignant, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking.

If you’re a fan of any those descriptions wrapped up in a tasty sci-fi tortilla shell, I highly recommend that you read it (though not in a time of great personal tumult, for it will sufficiently wreck your shit).

To retread now on so many past month’s worth of  postings would come at the supreme disservice of the abundance of things to talk about in the NOW, and right NOW I just finished reading a bitchin’ awesome book that I just have to talk about with YOU, anonymous online reader!]

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The Gone-Away World is the debut novel from Nick Harkaway, son of author John le Carré and self-titled “The World’s Worst Ninja”. the book is what happens when you pour a post-apocalyptic setting, existential paranoia, mimes, ninjas and a childhood friendship into a blender and press “pastiche purée”.

The story drops the reader in a nameless bar (no literally, that’s its name) in an indeterminate future. The narrator, a fairly nice guy aside from failing to introduce himself, is playing pool with a couple of his close friends/workmates when the power goes out.  This spells disaster. Something has happened to the backbone of the world. The bar is quickly descended upon by a small army of corporate funded thugs and pencil-necked bureaucrats who enlist the aid of the narrator and his band of problem-solvers on a dangerous mission to make the world right again.

Words like ‘Jorgmund’, ‘Livable Zone’, ‘Reification’ and ‘The Go-Away War’ float up in between the conversation, peppering confusion and intrigue that slowly become familiar and revelatory later on.  Right as the group depart for the debriefing of their newest job, the narrative jumps some 30 years back to the narrator’s first meeting with his best friend Gonzo Lubitsch, and a good portion of the book is spent detailing the misadventures and trials that lead these two men to that fateful day in the Nameless bar.

The book is a long-gamble that ultimately pays off. It had equal parts of some of the things I look for most in my leisure reading ( a compelling premise, intriguing questions, big science-fiction ideas spelled out across the backdrop of large world filled with eccentric, likable and memorable characters) and succeeds in pulling together all its assorted thematic threads and tying them up in a neat and satisfying bow of resolution.

Harkaway is a writer who I am reluctant to compare to the likes of Vonnegut and Adams (not for lack of his ability, oh hell no). It’s because his characteristic wit and  easy going charm speaks so much more about him than it does of the influence of his genre forbearers. He creates a world that is both comical and vaguely terrifying,  characters that are equal parts ridiculous and relatable, embarrassing and admirable. The novel moves seamlessly between being a coming-of-age story, a war story,  to an adventure novel with comedy and romance sprinkled throughout without breaking the overall tone. I loved it.

One criticism that I do have of the book is its reliance on tangent stories, which can be considered both a fault and a strength of novel’s execution.  Enjoying and ultimately finishing the novel hinges on the reader’s trust that these seemingly incidental and inconsequential diversions ultimately rope back into whatever the hell the character’s were talking about beforehand. And for the most part, they do. In their best cases, these vignettes define a character or circumstance that speaks volumes more about them than what their appearance would lead you to believe, but at worse they’re annoying, boring, and the punchline is outpaced by the novel’s momentary self-indulgence.

Take it for what you will. I can state from personal experience that some early (and even one later) portions of the book are a chore to slog through, but the payoff for the whole of the book is well worth those bumps in an otherwise smooth road of narrative bliss.

The Gone-Away World is a triumph for having created a world that teeters on the edge of absurdity and being uncannily close to home, though you’ll undoubtedly notice the moments when it’s lost it’s footing.