Saturday, November 25, 2006

The HALLOWEEN TREE

Every October in the weeks leading up to Halloween grimacing skeletons and gap-toothed pumpkin-heads seem to proliferate everywhere…

In only a few years, Halloween in this country has gone from being a totally American and utterly un-British (and therefore inexplicable) holiday to being up there in the UK marketing and merchandising league with Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day.

There was a time when the only glimpse those of us on this side of the Atlantic ever got of the trick-or-treat world of Halloween was in Charles Schulz’ annual Peanuts strips in which Linus vainly waited in the pumpkin patch for the arrival of his own mythical invention, the Great Pumpkin!


Even though our stores are annually full of Halloween paraphernalia, there is precious little cultural knowledge in Britain about the Catholic feasts of All Hallows (or All Saints) and All Souls celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November or of the European traditions, superstitions and amusements that preceded them on the 31st October known as All Hallows’ Eve or Hallowe'en…

Those who would like to understand more about the origins and multi-faceted accretions that comprise the dark festival of the turning year can, obviously, look them up in on-line or on-shelf encyclopaedias...

But, if you'll take my advice, you'll, instead, hitch a ride with the mysterious Mr Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud in The Halloween Tree, an autumnal conjuring trick by literary magician Ray Bradbury with haunting tombstone black-and-white illustrations by Joe Mugnaini.

The cadaverous Moundshroud leads a group of youngsters on a frantic time-travelling jaunt through the “deep dark long wild history of Halloween,” beginning within the shadow of the Halloween Tree…

The pumpkins on the Tree were not mere pumpkins. Each had a face sliced in it. Each face was different. Every eye was a stranger eye. Every nose was a weirder nose. Every mouth smiled hideously in some new way.

There must have been a thousand pumpkins on this tree, hung high and on every branch. A thousand smiles. A thousand grimaces. And twice-times-a thousand glares and winks and blinks and leerings of fresh-cut eyes…



By wing and kite and broomstick they fly on the winds of lost centuries from the darkness of the cave before the discovery of fire, and the rituals of Druid England with its scythe-wielding October God of the Dead, to the gargoyle-encrusted towers of Notre Dame; from the bone-and-mummy-dust tombs of Ancient Egypt through the Grecian Isles to the City of Rome and away to South America and the candles and sugar skeletons of El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead...

It is a journey that memorably explains how light and darkness, faith and fear have shaped a festival more wildly celebrated, perhaps, than understood…

So, maybe when the little terrors come around knocking our knockers next Halloween, we should slip a copy of Mr Bradbury's classic into their Trick or Treat bags - then they might know why they were doing what they were doing and, if nothing else, at least it wouldn't rot their teeth!

I find that re-reading The Halloween Tree - just as happens every time I re-read any of Ray's books - is an invitation to allow a bony finger to stir and prod among the leaf-mould and mummy-dust of my memories...

I travel back in time twenty-six years,,,

It is 1980 and, after six years of corresponding with Ray Bradbury, we met for the very first time when I interview him at the offices of his London publishers.

The book which I take with me on that occasion to ask him to inscribe is the first UK edition of The Halloween Tree...


Six years later, we meet for lunch in a restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and waiting for me under the napkin by my plate is an American edition of the book with an inscription and a golden Halloween Tree drawing by the author, studded with grinning pumpkin lantern stickers!


No wonder this book has always been special to me...

That lunchtime gift was given twenty years back and this year came another gift from Ray Bradbury: an e-mail in which he recounted a short history of how the Halloween Tree came to be planted and how it grew and put forth its unique autumnal fruits...

Here, with Ray's permission, is that story...

The Halloween Tree came about because I had lunch with [legendary Bugs Bunny animator] Chuck Jones forty years ago; he had just become a new friend.

The night before, an animated [Peanuts] film - The Great Pumpkin - had been on TV. My children disliked it so much that they ran over and kicked the TV set, along with me, because the whole idea of the Great Pumpkin supposedly arriving and then not arriving was incorrect to me. It was like shooting Santa Claus on the way down the chimney!

Chuck Jones and I agreed that we didn't like The Great Pumpkin, though we did admire Charlie Schultz, the cartoonist, very much. Then Chuck said, "Why don't we do a really good film on Halloween?" I said, "I think we could. Let me go home and bring something."

So I went home and brought Chuck a large painting of a Halloween Tree that I had painted down in the basement with my daughters a few years before.



Chuck took one look at it and said, "My God, that's the genealogy of the holiday. Will you write a screenplay on this?" I said, "Yes, hire me!" So Chuck Jones and MGM hired me to write a TV script called The Halloween Tree.

Several months down the road, MGM decided to turn its back on animation, so they closed their unit and fired Chuck and me. I had nothing to do then so I took the script and wrote the novel of The Halloween Tree.

Later I wrote a second script for the final animated film, which was done by Hannah-Barbera a few years later, for which I received an Emmy Award for the script.

About three years ago I produced Something Wicked This Way Comes at a theater in Santa Monica and on Halloween night my biographer, Sam Weller, drove me to the play and then home again at around 10:30 at night and on the way, in four different yards we saw that people had placed pumpkins, real ones or papier mache, lit with candles in trees in their front yards.

Now, there are Halloween Trees beginning to appear all over the United States and I realized that with my story and that picture that I painted down in the basement with my daughters more than forty years ago, I've changed the history of Halloween in the entire country.

I've discussed this with the Disney people and suggested that they invite me to Disneyland on Halloween night and put up a tree full of papier mache pumpkins and have me there to turn on the whole thing. They would make themselves and me part of the future history of Halloween because no trees existed forty years ago -- they began to appear only after my book and my film.

The Disney people haven't reacted so far because, I believe, the notice is very short. If we don't do it this year I'm hoping that Disney will invite me out next Halloween and initiate the birth of the Halloween Tree and the history of the holiday.

It's been an interesting experience for me and it thrills me to think that 100 years from now there will be Halloween trees all across our world...



For more information about Ray Bradbury and his books, read my profile of him on Gateway Monthly; and many pages of information on the excellent Bradbury Media.


[Images: Peanuts © 1971 United Features Syndicate, Inc; illustrations to The Halloween Tree by Joe Mugnaini, © 1972 Alfred A Knopf, New York; the cartoon of Ray Bradbury is by myself and accompanied my first interview with him in 1980; the autumnal Tree was painted by Ray in c. 1960, the green Tree, some years later and both are featured in a superb limited edition of the book from Gauntlet Press.]


[Images: ]

Sunday, November 19, 2006

DR JEKYLL and MR HYDE

Amongst the paraphernalia of Halloween this year, I noticed - in addition to witches’ hats, devils’ pitchforks, vampire fangs and warty hag noses - a whole range of masks that take their inspiration from the horror folk of literature: Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Creature, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: all of whom represent far more than the mere fear engendered by the genuinely terrifying and ruthlessly violent aspects of their various sagas.

Each of these characters is a symbol of some facet of the fears and phobias that assail the human imagination - among them death and deformity and, in the case of those experimental doctors, Frankenstein and Jekyll, the potential threat of technology and science…

The warring psyches of Jekyll and Hyde as described by Robert Louis Stevenson, have never lost their fascination in the 120 years since the story was first published.

It has been the subject of many films and television versions and a number of illustrators have attempted to capture the terror of Henry Jekyll’s struggles to control his murderous alter ego. An artist who succeeded with dramatic brilliance was Mervyn Peake.

Peake illustrated Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the Folio Society in 1948 with a suite of drawings that demonstrate that the artist clearly understood the need to resist the temptation to merely draw the monster that was the flip-side of the man.

So, whilst he depicted the haunted Dr Henry Jekyll (above right) when it came to Mr Hyde, Peake chose only to hint at the horror, depicting him as scuttling off down alleyways (top left) dwarfed by the city he terrorizes yet, at the same time, casting a towering shadow; or - as shown in the book’s frontispiece - pausing beneath the guttering gas-lamp, the only indication of disease being the hunched shoulders and the unkempt demeanour.


Peake’s economy of design and simplicity of line - almost Japanese in style - and his use of a disturbingly sickly-yellow wash is inspired as can be seen in the illustration of Hyde before the mirror (itself almost animal in form) considering his shrunken frame draped in Jekyll’s too-large clothing….

Or, again, in a cunningly contrived drawing of Hyde slumped on a park bench in which the full grotesqueness of his brutish depravity still remains hidden from us but is noted by the upright Victorian gentleman who gives a disturbed backward glance as he passes by with his wife and child…


And so, when Mervyn Peake finally reveals Hyde to us in his bestial form - the simian features, the crab-clawed hand clutching the fateful, upraised phial - the effect is all the more terrible for our having waited for the revelation…


[All images: © The Mervyn Peake Estate]

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

ROCK STAR

Some people might be surprised to find a copy of Jackie Collins' 1988 novel Rock Star on my shelves. Admittedly, it not quite my type of book but it is inscribed, "For Brian with love, Jackie" and is a memento of a fascinating encounter.

I was to interview the author for a programme on the BBC World Service and, to begin with, it did not look set to go well. On her arrival, Ms Collins was clearly in a far from happy mood and snappily observed that she hope that this interview was going to go better than the one she had just recorded for another BBC network.

"Oh," I asked innocently, "What went wrong?" Back came the whiplash reply: "The idiot interviewing me asked: 'Well now, what can I possibly ask Jackie Collins, that she's never been asked before?' To which I replied: 'Why ask me? I thought that was your job!'"

Ho-hum, I thought... I guess I can't do any worse than that! And, mercifully, I did a good deal better - maybe because I'd taken the trouble to actually Ms Collins' chunky doorstop of a novel.

Towards the end of the interview - by which time Jackie and I were clearly getting on considerably better than expectations - I commented on a remark made by one of the characters who had observed:

“Sex is the most important thing in the world - more important even than money…”


“So," I cheekily enquired, wondering if I dared ask the question, "what’s most important to Jackie Collins ---- sex or money?”

Both!” she replied without a second’s pause, “and, preferably, together!”


"Thank you," I purred.

"No, thank you!" she purred back. "And shall I sign your book...?"

GEORGE'S MARVELLOUS MEDICINE

It starts out as the interview from Hell and ends up with a passionate conversation about the joys of chocolate over a Tupperwear-box crammed full of Smarties, Crunchies, Mars Bars and Kit-Kats

It is 1988, and I am travelling to Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire to interview Roald Dahl for the BBC. I go with numerous warnings hammering in my head: the creator of Willy Wonka and the BFG is known to be difficult with interviewers. If he doesn’t like you or your line of questioning, you can easily find yourself being shown the door quicker than you can say “Oompah-Loompas!”

Of course, I know my stuff (I’ve been reading Dahl long before the writer achieved his status as the country’s premiere children’s author), but I’m anxious - TOO anxious - to impress… So, I have thoroughly boned up on dozens of articles about the man and made copious notes drawn from other people’s assessments of Dahl’s genius. I am absolutely determined to leave nothing to chance…

I arrive and am shown into the sitting room, where I set up my recording equipment. A few minutes later, Dahl enters wearing a cardigan and smoking a cigarette. He is considerably taller than I’d expected and I am intrigued by the way in which he sits down, collapsing his considerable height into an armchair rather as you might close up a large umbrella. The atmosphere is polite, if a little frosty; the eyes are gimlet-sharp rather than twinkly.

And so, the interview begins…

Referring to my numerous notes, I say in as confidant a tone as I can muster: “One commentator has noted that, essentially, your characters are all archetypes----”

I get no further.

“Are WHAT?” growls Dahl suspiciously.

“Archetypes…” I repeat lamely…

“Oh! That’s not a word I’m accustomed to using myself,” snaps Dahl waspishly. “What exactly does it MEAN?”

“Well…” comes the fumbled reply, “It means - um… That is - er… Well, an archetype is…”

The gimlet eyes bore deeper and my voice trails away.

“I see!” snorts Dahl. “You don’t seem to know what it means either! So, do you have anything YOU want to ask me, based on your own knowledge, as opposed to other people’s opinions? Or shall we forget this interview, rather than waste any more of each other’s time?”

Desperate measures are clearly called for…. Abandoning my notebook, I blurt out the first thing that comes into my head: “At the end of George’s Marvellous Medicine, you say that George felt as if he had reached out and, with the very tips of his fingers, had touched the edge of a magic world… Is that what you want your young readers to do?”

There is a long pause. Dahl gives a wry half-smile. I await the inevitable explosion. Instead, comes a question: “Do you drink?”

It has just gone 10.30 in the morning, but I nod.

“Whisky?”

I nod again.

Two large glasses are filled and the interview begins all over again - as if the uncomfortable prologue had simply never taken place - and continues for an hour-and-a-half, with Dahl talking freely and incisively about his books and how he writes them: "Whatever age group I'm writing for, I can instantly and precisely project myself back into what it felt like to be a child of three or seven or nine and then write for that child..."

He talks his philosophy of life: his love of libraries and good teachers and his passion for chocolate which stems from a childhood ambition to work as an inventor in a sweet factory just like the one in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for which he wrote the screenplay: "Oh, God, but that was an awful movie!"

His ultimate appraisal of the books he has written is almost self-deprecating: "I think one or two of them may outlive me and even come to be thought of in a 'classicy' sort of way..."

He also reveals some of his pet-hatreds which include - in addition to the unthinking use of such words as ‘archetypes’ - virtually everyone involved in politics, bad teachers, bad parents and all instances of facial hair, such as the beard sported the terrible Mr Twit and, indeed, by the hapless interviewer!

“I have to tell listeners,” Dahl confides into my microphone, “the gent who is talking with me now has a face COVERED in fungus! It’s really quite DISGUSTING! I can even see part of his breakfast in there! I dare say if it wasn’t smothered in all that ghastly hair, it would be quite a NICE face, but there’s absolutely no way of knowing!”

“Do you have a razor?” I daringly quip.

“Shave in your own time, not mine!” parries Dahl with a chuckle.

“I wasn’t thinking of shaving,” I instantly reply, “I was thinking of CUTTING MY THROAT!”

Dahl roars a long, deep, smoker’s laugh.

At the end of the interview, Dahl signs my copy of his very first book, The Gremlins that was originally to have been made into a Disney WWII animated film.

He inscribes it “With love, Roald Dahl”, asks my date of birth and then adds it to the inscription - but cunningly backdated six years to 1943, the year of publication.

“There!” he bellows triumphantly, “If they come across this after you’re dead, that should screw things up nicely for whoever’s trying to sort your affairs!”

Not wishing to push my luck, I make my thank-yous, pack up my tape-recorder and prepare to leave -- only to be invited to stay for lunch!

A deliciously long and jolly meal eventually concludes with a dessert in the form an outsized Tupperware-box stuffed with sufficient sweets and chocolate bars to satisfy even the great Mr Wonka!

An unforgettable encounter - and a most valuable warning against the irresponsible use of the word ‘archetype’!


© Brian Sibley 2006
[Illustrations (except 'The Gremlins'): © Quentin Blake]