Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Aging Like A Fine Dandelion Wine

Old Man Winter’s been seriously crotchety in this neck of the woods lately, so it’s somewhat fitting that I’ve finished reading Ray Bradbury’s newest novel: “Farewell Summer”. I mentioned the book in passing a couple of postings ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. (good luck on that!)
The story is set in Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, Illinois, a construct that seems to go beyond mirroring the author’s childhood home of Waukeegan, painted so lovingly, as such an ideal of small town America that it is an offering on the alter of that belief by some ancient Greek philosophers that everything in this world is a mere shadow of its perfect form existing on some other plane of existence. And this isn’t our first trip to Green Town. Many label the book as the sequel to 1957’s “Dandelion Wine”, but Bradbury tells us “Farewell Summer” is more than that, it’s really an extension of “Dandelion Wine” that was amputated by editors due to length and needed decades to mature into its own complementary being. Some critics have gone to lengths to contrast the tones and characterizations in the two novels, but I feel that to be fair, given the long decades that this siamese twin half of the tale has been growing on its own, it must be evaluated on its own, as part the larger family of Bradbury’s Green Town work. For this isn’t the second time we’ve been to this little community. Whether or not the name is used explicitly, we can tell just by its description that the town has been a character in a number of other Bradburian yarns where child-gods romp in endless summers and just around the corner it pulls on a cloak of red and brown leaves and tattered carnival posters to become an October Country full of magic and ghosts lurking around quiet corners trying to live their un-lives as best they can. Here, bracketing the town, there is the ravine, full of mystery and adventure. At its far end, nursing its solitude but keeping close enough to town to lure the bold is the haunted house, home to old Moundshroud in “The Halloween Tree” and other members of The Family in “From the Dust Returned”. With each new short story or novel, Green Town has grown more real. In “Farewell Summer” it reaches an aching apex of solid nostalgia for a way of life that is becoming more and more like the spirits up the hill in the haunted house – existing but in such a tenuous way as to disappear into dust with the slightest whiff of the winds of modern life.
As the novel itself matured in Bradbury’s mind, on his pages, in his files over the decades, “Farewell Summer” is itself about maturity. It is about the journey of Doug Spaulding, who leaves childhood pretty much against his will and takes his first faltering steps toward manhood. Doug begins the tale as one of a pack of boys playing in their Neverland of a summer that’s stretched into October. Girls are hardly a blip on their radar as they charge about, blasting their cap guns. The structured learning environment of school is barely a factor either, mentioned only in passing. Doug is almost pre-literate: getting his knowledge from the words of his grandfather, who is nearly a god with his stock of lore and omniscience when it comes to the goings-on of the boys and the town. In fact, while the books of grandfather’s library are mentioned frequently, and Doug is often called upon to look up an assortment of facts in them, it is always grandfather who passes along knowledge and wisdom verbally. Grandfather knows what is and isn’t, what is and what should be.
Doug begins a war against the town’s old men in the opening pages of the novel by firing his capgun at one of the codgers and causing him to die of a heart attack. Even though the boy assumes the rank of General and leads his chums against the enemy throughout most of the novel, this status as leader is not the catalyst that starts Doug toward maturity. The boys’ raids of theft and vandalism against the elderly are based on childish theories that they can stop time, remain as they are forever and incapacitate their enemies. They entertain wild theories about their opponents, even going so far as to insist that the old fellows on the school board are in fact evil aliens. Where Doug makes his real moves toward maturity are his actions after these attacks, where he has to return the chessmen and repair the clock, and through this begin to give up childish self-centredness and begin to understand older people – to understand other people in general and why things are as they are. He begins to gain empathy and perspective.
Then there’s the climax event that seals the deal for Doug: his first kiss. As he advances on the haunted house, Doug is preoccupied with childhood terrors of what ghastly entities might lie within, and with the classic boyish concerns of “I dare ya” brinksmanship, wondering if the girls are as good as their word and if they’ve shown up too. But young Lisabell drags him into manhood (or at least the wannabe manhood of teenagerdom) by taking the initiative and planting a kiss on him. From that point on, there are no questions of whether he just heard a scream within the haunted house. No, instead it’s as though he has climaxed, after a fashion, sinking dazed to his knees. A brief taste of more important mysteries.
This experience is augmented by his revelation in the tent full of glass jars displaying human fetuses at different stages of development. Doug is propelled forward when he looks into the eyes of the stillborn baby suspended in formaldehyde and begins to get an inkling of understanding that to stay young forever is to be trapped and somehow freakish. He begins to learn one must constantly change and grow to be alive.
And in the end, part of this maturity is the ability to come to terms with his archrival, old Calvin C. Quartermain, leader of the old boys club, sit down for a drink and a quiet talk about life.
Maturity is a central theme in the actions of Quartermain too. True he has lived a long life and has worked hard to succeed in his financial endeavours, but old Calvin is trapped in the same timelessness as Doug in the beginning. To him, the greatest importance is always in looking back at the past. Quartermain makes frequent reference to the American Civil War (and does not understand that war’s implications on his own conflict with the boys for the seeming control of the town). To Quartermain, what is and what will be, what is young and energetic instead of old and steady must be crushed, or at least tightly controlled. He relishes his power as a member of the schoolboard, the ability to shorten holidays as a countermeasure to the long summer. He flies into a rage when his friend Braling dies in the wake of Doug’s capgun assassination and when he himself is knocked over by the boy’s bike, or machine as he calls it. The ensuing battle that takes place over the course of the novel illustrates that Quartermain too is very much a boy. He doesn’t take the adult road and try to understand the boys for what they are and deal with the situation maturely. No, he wants to meet them head-on. He shows that he has not matured at all over the course of his long life when he ignores his friend Bleak’s initial advice to pursue a course of moderation.
Like Doug, Quartermain requires the constant voice of a more mature person to start to bring him around. Bleak’s ability to state the wise course of action as obvious makes him the same kind of god-figure for Calvin that grandfather is for Doug – minus the reverence (until the end when Quartermain is shocked to realize how much Bleak understands that he doesn’t).
The old man also needs a series of actions, both his own and those of others to help him grow up. He intends the birthday party for Lisabell to be a trick to make the boys uncomfortable, but it turns into a platform for learning for himself when Doug demonstrates generosity and maturity by serving Quartermain cake. He is confronted with a boy who is thinking about the needs of someone other than himself. He is confronted with a boy who is willing to make a nice gesture to the enemy. Quartermain then has to figure out what that says about himself and his own actions and how he ought to respond. In hosting the party though, Quartermain is doing something nice for Doug (even if neither realizes it at the time), by pushing the boy into the orbit of a girl, a move that will create the opportunity for Doug to slingshot towards adulthood. And is there something weirdly intimate going on here on a metaphorical level between Quartermain and Doug too? The girl gives the boy an electrifying first kiss (later), changing his life; the boy gives the old man a piece of cake (which he could have kept for himself) shocking Quartermain with the generosity and creating an opportunity for each to see inside the other. Each act involves a gift of something that changes the other person. I’m not saying that there’s an implied May-December romance between Quartermain and Doug, that would be reading too much into it, rather that the parallels of the two incidents seem to be say that there needs to be some sort of personal gesture from another person to kickstart one’s development as a mature human being.
And by setting up the tent full of fetuses, Quartermain again creates a learning environment for Doug and himself begins to understand he may need to change. This later becomes (through yet another conversation with Bleak) an acceptance of the fact that death is a part of life and must be accepted as a part of one’s personal growth in order to have some degree of inner peace.
For Quartermain, his maturity is finally cemented when he gives consideration to Bleak’s suggestion to reach out to family instead of merely dismissing the subject, but most importantly by offering Doug a glass of lemonade on the porch – sharing a drink, the symbolic breaking of bread that binds the two and unites their experiences - uniting the old with the young and taking on the role of grandfather himself by talking about life and passing along what wisdom he has gained from it.
We also see the maturation of the characters reflected in their setting: as the old and young reconcile, the overly long summer (lasting well in October, we’re told) finally begins to give way to a quick autumn and the promise of winter, traditionally a time of reflection when action is necessarily subdued. And the town itself leaves its childhood behind: as Doug waits at the haunted house for Lisabell, he sees, just for a minute, filmy white figures fleeing out the front door – the ghosts have gone. The rite-of-passage of the first kiss has forced the terrifying mysteries of the dark parts of the physical world to yield to the new perils of the adult heart. In some ways, the ghosts, clinging to this world, yet forced to leave by a new power greater than themselves (growth), are like Quartermain’s friend Braling, afraid of death yet kicked into it by the sudden noise from unbridled life. And aside from their status as metaphors for a static life, just as ghosts in and of themselves, though only the briefest of moments is spent on this evacuation of these undead refugees, there’s something poignant about it – there are sacrifices with the loss of childhood, Doug will never see them again, and the ghosts themselves, being in a world that no longer needs them, are without a home and purpose.
In the end (literally), the only thing about “Farewell Summer” that I’m not entirely comfortable with is the passing-of-the-torch of manhood and life from Quartermain to Doug through their penis conversations. I understand what Bradbury’s trying to illustrate: that Quartermain’s loss of his nightly erection is the loss of the last bit of his vitality; that his best years are gone; that he too will shrivel into final impotence and nothingness and that for Doug this is his new ascension into power. None-the-less, it’s a little weird having an old man talk to his penis (I’m reminded of a line from the movie “Innerspace” where Martin Short’s character is having a conversation with the bionaught Dennis Quaid inside him while standing at a urinal. Another man [Rip Torn, I think], obviously not hearing Quaid, looks over in disgust and says: “Play with it, pal, but don’t talk to it!”). Moreso when a boy then strikes up a chat of his own seconds later. A critic could argue the passing of the erection from one to the other has some disturbing metaphorical intimacy implications. In fact, this possibility seems to be hinted at in Sci Fi Weekly’s review of the novel. On the other hand, some would say that’s reading too much into the scene. I tend to agree that it’s an unsettling image, but I don’t think it was Bradbury’s intent to create something creepy. Rather, I suspect that, as stated above, the scene is merely supposed to illustrate that the loss of vitality in extreme old age heralds the approach of death and it is up to the individual to come to terms with that, while the transition to adulthood entails the discovery of sex, vitality, and the new worlds they accompany and create.
Ultimately though, this new vintage, “Farewell Summer”, a counterpart/part of “Dandelion Wine”, is a loving exploration of life, of the need to mature in many ways in order to fully live, set amid a bygone world. Bradbury shows he is still full of vitality in the poetic spirits he conjures.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Modern Pop Culture Takes A Look Backward At SF

I saw a commercial tonight that made me, as a sci-fi fan, sit up and take notice. Don’t know how long it’s been airing, but tonight was the first time I’d seen the new Honda Civic commercial set in the computer world of “Tron”. The spot features a group of Civics being put through their paces on the Game Grid after the fashion of the Light Cycles. It wasn’t a blow-by-blow reproduction of the original sequence from the movie (there were some terrain additions to the ‘Grid and the cars were merely zooming around, not engaged in combat), but I was really impressed with how many of the scenery details and camera angles were faithful to the original. I have to wonder if the commercial producers built on top of original footage or just reproduced the CG from scratch themselves. In either case, brilliant job! I’m not saying the commercial was enough to make me buy one of the cars in question, but I am impressed someone at the ad agency’s creative department was enough of a fan and had enough guts to successfully pitch the idea to the big boys of using a 1982 sci-fi classic to sell a modern car. Couldn’t have been easy, especially given that a lot of Civic buyers tend to be younger people who wouldn’t have been old enough, or around at all, to have seen “Tron” back in the day (either in theatres or in subsequent video release) and likely wouldn’t bother digging it up now. Add to that the likelihood that the percentage of older viewers/consumers who would remember “Tron” is probably pretty small in and of itself, it must have been a challenge pitching what is ultimately an inside joke. I wonder if the back-up justification for the spot was that even for the majority who wouldn’t recognize the visual reference, the commercial just looks cool. In any case, I’m glad to see what is now a classic of sci-fi (and not just a classic because it’s 24 years old, but because it’s a hell of a good flick) get a loving minute in the fickle present-day spotlight.
Another relic that’s recently made an appearance, after a fashion, is that gigantic hunk of cheese from the late 70’s known as “Buck Rogers”. I was trolling through the SF Signal site a few weeks ago and noticed they’d highlighted a feature from YouTube on one of their daily summaries. Seems it was a bit from South Park doing a tongue-in-cheek homage to Buck Rogers. Cartman takes the place of Buck and winds up in the future in a pretty sweet take on the ‘Rogers opening credits. I didn’t catch this particular episode of South Park, so the riff was all new to me. I practically fell off my chair laughing. I’ll admit, as a kid back when Universal was inflicting “Buck Rogers” on audiences, I loved the show. (Except for an episode with a big gooey black blob monster thing that eventually turned into a man. – Scared the crap outta me back then.) Recently, I caught an episode being rerun on TV and regretted every minute of it. The whole thing sparked an ongoing conversation with my brother about the state of TV back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, where he pointed out that it’s possible for those old stinkers, bad as they were, to inspire genius. Case in point: “Battlestar Galactica”. The old show was so cheesy it was well into Limburger country. That being said, it did inspire the new series, which I’ve raved about before so there’s no need to indulge in its merits again. I guess sometimes it takes crap to fertilize the soil good things grow from. Back to Buck, though, as bad as the series was, it’s great to see it revived, even if briefly, by the tender ministrations of Parker and Stone.
With a “Tron” and a “Buck Rogers” reference making their appearances on the pop culture scene, I wonder if this is a trend (aside from the barrage of allusions in any Kevin Smith movie) that will continue, or will classic SF fade from the general public’s short attention span?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Year - And More Bradbury

It’s been a year. The night was buried under fog last year when I stepped onto the soapbox and started this speculative fiction blog. This year… no fog… but waiting. Heavy rain and wind earlier this evening as the Witch of November pounded the Wet Coast with her broom yet again, but it’s since paused… the clouds scudding across the sky and a few furtive stars peeking through as the temperature bottoms out amid rumours of snow. A different night to ponder SF.
But some things are the same: I’m in the middle of a Bradbury book. 63 pages into his newest: “Farewell Summer”. This time it’s a gang of boys/Peter Pan wannabe’s waging war against a small Midwestern town’s old men in an effort to keep summer alive. Last year it was the meanderings of a young writer through the fog of Venice, California to solve the mystery of dead men in nearby canals against the backdrop of a dying boardwalk in “Death Is A Lonely Business”. Neither is speculative fiction (although one could argue there is definitely magic in his poetic prose), but we can look the other way because each is chock-full of beautiful imagery capturing all the colliding flavours of life, and because Bradbury, being among the highest in the sci-fi pantheon, is always noteworthy, regardless of the settings or events of his stories. And the funny thing is, it’s purely coincidence that I’m reading Bradbury again on the anniversary of this blog’s launch. I’d picked up a copy of “Farewell Summer” when it hit the shelves not too long ago, but I had to force myself to wait to read it: Hallowe’en was fast approaching and I had to celebrate the season right by reading either “The Halloween Tree” or “From the Dust Returned”. In either case, it would have been folly to pick up “Farewell Summer” so close to reading one of those two, because I would have OD’d on Bradbury and couldn’t have given it a fair reading. A year’s gone by, but I still maintain that Bradbury is like butter. You’ve got to savour him in measured doses that aren’t too close together. So I forced myself to wait and have contented myself with other fare until last night when I finished reading Niven’s classic “Ringworld”. (Yes, I’ll admit it, it was my first time. I should be ashamed for having waited so long, but there’s always been so much good stuff – both old and new – to read, it was hard to make time for it. I know, excuses, excuses. At least I’ve finally made the time and enjoyed every minute of it.) This morning I woke up and thought it was finally time to crack open “Farewell Summer”, knowing that I’d been away from Bradbury long enough to only carry residual fond memories and to be ready for more.
And after a fun year of babbling about SF in books, TV and movies, I’d like to say thanks to all of you who’ve stopped by during your trips through the internet marketplace of ideas. Thanks to all of you for reading these rants. Thanks especially to those of you who have been kind enough to comment (I’d love to hear more comments, opinions, suggestions, and yes, even corrections, from everyone out there, ‘cause that’ll make this site far more interesting than if it’s just me yapping away). Thanks to all the authors, scriptwriters, directors, actors and producers out there who’ve created all of these worlds to make us feel and think, regardless of whether we actually like their creations or not. Thanks to my wife and friends who said, all right, you opinionated geek, it’s time to take your passion online and talk about sci-fi, fantasy and all points between with other people who care about it. Thank you one and all.
Okay, in the words of Mike Myers’ Linda Richman, I’m getting a little verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: “The Caves of Steel” were neither caves nor steel. Discuss.
Now that the cheesy sentiment is over… Off we go into another year of SF discussions. Grab your spacesickness bags, folks. Based on some of the stuff I’ve written so far, I know even I’ll need ‘em.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Respect The Dead

I’ve borrowed the title from an Otis Taylor blues album for this note I meant to put up this past weekend (but couldn’t, due to illness). Saturday was November 11th. Whether you call it Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Poppy Day, or Veterans Day, it marks the date that saw the end of the First World War and has since become a time for people to remember the sacrifices of those who fought in WWI, WWII and other wars and peacekeeping actions. If you didn’t attend a ceremony or you weren’t able to take the time to reflect this past weekend, I’m asking you to please take a minute or two now. Leave personal politics at the door. Just think about the freedoms you have which were paid for by these heroic efforts and terrible losses. And remember the living as well. If you know a veteran, take the time to thank them.
What does this have to do with speculative fiction? The number of alternate history, horror, fantasy and sci-fi stories that are set against the backdrop of the wars and peacekeeping actions are legion. Some of the tales that stick out in my mind are John Brunner’s short story “In the Season of the Dressing of the Wells”, Christopher Priest’s “The Seperation”, Harry Turtledove’s “Worldwar” series, and Dave Whittier’s short story “Coming Back to Kabul”.
But ultimately, I’ve gotta yield the ol’ soapbox here for a minute of silence to honour this time because it’s about being human. Showing respect is the right thing to do.

Lest we forget.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Prestigious Film

I was enchanted last night when we went to see “The Prestige”. What a great film! In a time where it’s hard to justify actually going out to the movies because of mediocre screenwriting, chucklehead parents who bring young kids to movies that are inappropriate for them and refuse to shut them up, and highway robbery for ticket and concession prices, this flick was worth the trick.
Hats off to Christopher Priest (original novel) and to Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (screenplay) for this brilliant tale of rivalry, jealousy, ambition, sacrifice and obsession in the world of Victorian theatrical magicians that illustrates Gandhi’s point about how following a code of an-eye-for-an-eye-and-a-tooth-for-a-tooth creates a world of toothless blind men. They’ve also a good slight-of-hand job in adding a sci-fi twist to the end that fits with the world magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are living in – something (and I won’t give it away) that would have been perfectly reasonable to come from the mind of a science fiction writer of that period like H.G. Wells.
This is a movie, that while being thoroughly entertaining, requires your attention to detail and intelligence. In fact, like any great magic trick, the film itself doesn’t give everything away in the first showing. You have to think about it and discuss it with others afterward to really wrap your mind around it. And, like any good illusion, if you really want to figure it out, you’ve got to step into the shoes of the fascinated magician, and like Angier or Borden, go back and see the show again a time or two to really catch all the details and figure out the angles.
Presto! One of the year’s best films.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Happy Hallowe'en

Happy (belated) Hallowe’en, everyone! Whether you took your kids trick-or-treating, leafed through a favourite spooky tome, hunched in the flickering glow of your tv to watch a much-loved special, went to your local theatre for a scary session with the magic shadows on the big screen, sat around a crackling fire telling ghost stories, visited a loved one’s grave to pay your respects, or celebrated the finest season of them all in some other fashion, I hope you had a good time.
For me, Hallowe’en is the best time of the year. Always has been. Didn’t Ray Bradbury, that most famous lover of this dark season, say something to the effect of “Ah Hallowe’en, better than your birthday, better even than Christmas!” in his script for the animated television version of “The Halloween Tree”?
Maybe it’s because I’ve always felt a kind of quickening at the change of the season when autumn’s drawing to a close – some kind of extra little charge as instinct says to get in gear and prepare for the coming winter, all the while nature seems to be singing her lullaby on the wind. Maybe it’s that special tang in the air that you just don’t get at any other time of the year. Or the crackle of leaves underfoot. Maybe it’s that seductive witches’ perfume smell of late autumn: leaf bonfires on lawns, the first smoke of the year curling up from chimneys, apples falling from trees, and fresh-cut pumpkin shells cooked from within by jack o’lantern candles. Maybe it’s also the colours of the leaves on the trees: reds, oranges, yellows and browns – and if you’re lucky enough to live in eastern Canada (no province west of Ontario has anywhere near the kind of variety that Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes get), you see them all in combination: side by side from tree to tree, on the same tree – on the same leaf! How about a nice, broad maple leaf in deep red, slashed by orange and yellow, shot through with green veins and browning on the edges? How about a million million of these in a billion different colour combinations?
Bradbury puts the flavour of nature during this season best with his usual poetic simplicity in his novel “The Halloween Tree”: “Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve.”
But aside from nature’s contributions, it’s also the fun of the night itself: dressing up in costumes – the more outlandish the better (try to make it a different one every year so you don’t get stale!), the anticipation of seeing what your friends have come up with for their disguises, braving the night (oh to be old enough to do it without mum or dad in tow) and all the imaginary terrors you try to convince yourself it doesn’t hold, pumpkins carved crudely or with skill into a thousand different grimaces, growls or chortles, houses festooned with all manner of monstrous decor, and the candy! Bags and bags and bags filled to bursting with a zillion types of chocolates and chips and sweets to keep you buzzing on a sugar high for weeks! And then there’s coming home and pawing through your haul in front of your favourite seasonal TV specials or listening to a relative regale you with a chilling ghost story. And as you grow up, you move into the costume party set or take simple joy in watching your kids have fun.
And I think the experiences handed out year after year in the trick-or-treat bag of life have a lot to do with it too. Right from the start, Hallowe’ens for me were all good. The first I can remember was when the family lived in the suburbs of Cambridge, Ontario. Lots of friendly faces, a great candy haul, and I especially remember the house where the owner of the local A&W restaurant franchise lived – he had the Root Bear mascot on hand to entertain the kids and hand out candy while he passed along shots of something good and strong to the parents to help keep them warm. I remember those were also the days where Poprocks were among the most frequently handed-out candies. Yes, I can recall eating Poprocks and drinking Coke at the same time when I got home. No, I did not explode as a result.
Later in my childhood, the family moved to a small neighourhood of maybe 100 houses isolated outside of town in the middle of forests, wild fields and farmlands. Now those were great Hallowe’ens! The absolute best! Maybe it was because I was smaller at the time, but the snack-sized chocolate bars seemed bigger then. One lady always gave an extra chocolate bar to kids who collected for UNICEF. And those were the days too when it was safe to give out home-made goodies, so there were a few homes that didn’t bother with the store-bought stuff. Some gave out fresh-baked cookies, some had popcorn balls (either in caramel or bubble-gum), and then there was dear old Mrs. House, who lived near the bottom of the subdivision, who made her own candy apples from scratch! Now, you may think there aren’t that many ways to make a candy apple and so you may wonder why these were so good, but let me tell you, they were the best! Part of it, I think, was that they were home-made, with freshly boiled-down sugar and nice, crisp fall apples straight from the orchard, and beyond that these sorts of treats are always that much better when they’re made by someone taking the time out of the goodness of her heart to make kids happy. Even better, if the next day was a school day, when we walked down the hill past her home on our way to the bus stop in the morning, Mrs. House would always come out onto the porch and wave us up, and ask us to each take two or three more candy apples because she’d made too many. How great was that?! That left us with the choice of either keeping them for ourselves to enjoy over the next couple of days, or trading them at lunch for pretty much anything we wanted from the other kids. Let me tell you, nothing makes you the kingpin of the lunchroom in a small country schoolhouse like home-made candy apples. Although, admittedly, there was also one house that always gave out stale rice cakes. We never ate those. And beyond the treats, this isolated neighbourhood along the banks of the Grand River was tops for its tricks. Putting out jack o’lanterns was the bare minimum for holiday d├ęcor in this place – hay bales, straw on the walkways, candles and corn stalks, and that was just the average. There were a lot of families that took pride in the gimmicks they concocted to make us kids shriek in fear and fun. One house strung a clothesline from an open window, across the front walk, to a tree and mounted a ghost on it. As we walked up to the porch, the specter would come flying out of nowhere and brush over our faces on its way past. Another family would give us a treat at the door, then have the oldest son toss a skeleton on a noose from the roof of the porch to flop down in front of us. Another had a dad dressed up as a mummy in a coffin on the porch who would lie in perfect stillness until we rang the doorbell, when he’d then lurch to life and give us a shock. And there was the family that littered their front yard with dozens of dummies, dead in a gang fight, and lying hidden among the carnage, their son would wait by the walk until we went past, then give a roar and grab our ankles. More than a few of us cleared a foot off the ground when we jumped in terror. We’d be laughing within a minute and asking him how long it took to get the fake bloodstains on his clothes and the rubber knife mounted on the side of his head just right. That was Hallowe’en in the country, a night out with people who knew each other and knew how to have fun.
Later, in my teens and 20’s here in BC, there were parties with friends. And let’s not forget the birth of “The Simpsons” and their awesome Hallowe’en specials. I only regret that for the past few years Fox has waited until AFTER Hallowe’en to air the new versions of its seasonal special. Kinda takes away from the enjoyment when they’re airing a Hallowe’en episode nearly a week after the night itself has passed.
These days, my wife and I enjoy a quieter evening of carving pumpkins, handing out candy (full-sized chocolate bars, mind you, not the worthless little snack-size bites – we’re known as the cool house because of it) and enjoying watching the neighbourhood kids have fun, and watching a couple of favourite movies or TV specials (like “The Simpsons”) together. I can’t wait until we have kids of our own and I can take the little ones out trick-or-treating and experience it again from a different perspective. We also go to the cemetery around this time of the year for the Chinese Chung Yeung Festival – their autumn day of the dead festival (there’s another in the spring), where my wife pays her respects at her father’s grave. It’s interesting how around the world, events like Chung Yeung, or in Latin America El Dia de los Muertos or for the pagan cultures of Europe Samhain and our modern western Hallowe’en have all evolved at more or less the same time of year.
But I digress (as usual). In honour of Hallowe’en, that best time of the year, here’s my list of favourites for the season:

LITERATURE:
1) “The Halloween Tree” by Ray Bradbuy. The best ode to the wonders of the season. My choice for this year’s Hallowe’en reading.
2) “From the Dust Returned” by Ray Bradbury. If “The Halloween Tree” had a formal companion piece, an expanded universe follow-up, this would be it.
3) “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Gotta go for the classics.
4) “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe. To me, this is one of the most unsettling of Poe’s stories, far more so than “The Raven”.
5) “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. ‘Nuff said.

TV SPECIALS:
1) Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” This version of Washington Irving’s classic scared the crap outta me when I was a little kid, but has become my all-time favourite as an adult. It’s a pity this masterpiece doesn’t get aired much any more. I was really disappointed last year when we were in Disneyland on our honeymoon just before Hallowe’en and there was no sign of the Headless Horseman in any of their seasonal souvenirs. It’s great Disney’s developing new stuff, but it shouldn’t be turning its back on the successes of the past.
2) “The Halloween Tree” the Hanna-Barbara animated version of Bradbury’s novel of the same name, narrated by Bradbury himself with Leonard Nimoy as the voice of Moundshroud. The poetry of Hallowe’en brought to the TV screen. I just wish it was available on DVD.
3) Disney’s “Lonesome Ghosts” A very early Disney production (probably from the 40’s, maybe early 50’s at the latest) starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy as early ghostbusters (the “Ajax Ghost Exterminator Company”). Packaged on videotape during the 80’s with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but I haven’t seen that tape in years, never mind a DVD version. This feature was a rarity to begin with, but I haven’t seen any sign of it on TV in 10-20 years. Another example of Disney turning its back on its heritage.
4) Disney’s “Trick or Treat”. Huey, Dooey and Louie team up with crafty old Witch Hazel to teach their cruel uncle, Donald Duck, a lesson in this hilarious gem from sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s. I saw footage of a sequence with one of the songs in this feature aired briefly as part of a Hallowe’en montage in a Disneyland souvenir shop last year on our honeymoon, but I was saddened that the full-length version of the production wasn’t available on DVD at all. At the risk of repeating myself, Disney’s got to learn not to turn its back on its classics.
5) Wrapping up the list: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” Despite the endless humiliations heaped upon Charlie Brown and Linus’ blind faith causing him to miss-out on trick-or-treating and the party (as well as earning the wrath of Charlie Brown’s little sister), I still love this old chestnut. Especially Snoopy’s dogfight against the Red Barron and his trek across the war-torn French countryside of his imagination. At least this classic still makes it to air every year.
6) Honourable mention to “Garfield’s Hallowe’en” which was a riot, but doesn’t get much air time anymore. And a nod to the “Fat Albert” Hallowe’en special, which, at least, is out on DVD now. And I can’t leave the annual “Simpsons Treehouse of Horror” episodes out either, though it doesn’t make it into the top 5 because of the Fox scheduling stupidity I bitched about before.

MOVIES:
I’ve got a caveat for this one right off the bat: I don’t like slasher flicks (‘cause I do like some plot in a movie), so there are none on this list.

1) “Ghostbusters” It’s been years since Bill Murray deadpanned “He slimed me.” on the big screen, but it still kills me. After all this time and all the viewings, this is still a funny movie.
2) “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” A great twist on an oft-told tale. Lavish sets and costumes. Great performances by all, especially Anthony Hopkins who plays Van Helsing as utterly determined, smart and crafty, if at times a bit daft. The only weak link in the cast, not surprisingly, was Keanu Reeves. He tries, he really does, but I watch him and keep expecting him to lapse into his character of Ted from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (which he was ideally suited for) and mumble something like: “Dracula, dude! That was sooooo bogus!”
3) “The Sixth Sense” Creepy and smart.
4) “Sleepy Hollow” One of the few Tim Burton films that doesn’t annoy me. It’s a fun romp with some affectionate nods to the Disney version.
5) “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” I saw this one on TV as a kid and loved every minute of it. I still get a chuckle when I see it once in a blue moon now as an adult.
6) Honorable mentions go to Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (which had me in stitches – no pun intended) and to “The Mummy” 1999 version (the scene where the newly-awakened mummy goes after the guy’s eyes and tongue in the tomb is still a bit frightening to watch, though the rest of the film is a fun cotton candy adventure).

Now it’s time to put Hallowe’en to bed (or back in the grave, if you prefer) for another year, to dream of more dark nights of fun, and to brace ourselves for a morning where the count-down to the December holiday season is on.