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Our Green-Winged, Great-Uncle of Halloween

It’s Halloween, the final day of October, a month forever tied in my consciousness to Ray Bradbury. More than any author I’m aware of, Bradbury staked out the month—almost territorially—as his psychic slice of the Gregorian calendar. We associate Eliot with April thanks to a single line, while Bradbury repeatedly returned to this twelfth-of-the-year across his creative work. It’s strewn like painted leaves throughout his short stories and forms a grounding feature in terms of setting in books like The October Country (1955), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), The Halloween Tree (1972), and From the Dust Returned (2001). A frightening experience as a boy would forever tie the time of year to his personal sense of mortality. “I was at a Halloween party when I was twelve,” he recalled, “and I ran out to a hall, but it wasn’t a hall, it was stairs going down into a cellar. I fell all the way down and it was a miracle I wasn’t killed or I didn’t break any bones. But I’ve often thought back to that day. What if I’d been killed?” (Weller 170). Late in life, he would delightfully say of his home basement writing studio that it was always Halloween down there.

Bradbury’s path to establishing himself as October’s laureate was, in his twenties, a source of frustration. Unlike nearly all authors of his time, his stories had found audiences in everything from “the weirds”—pulp magazines publishing fantasy and science fiction—to mainstream “slick” magazines like Mademoiselle and literary publications, including The New Yorker. His appeal reached different kinds of American readers in the 1940s and ’50s, carving out an idiosyncratic and rather surprising publication history. One of his first great blows as a writer, however, involved a proposed Halloween book that never came to be.

Gaining representation by literary agent Don Congdon, Bradbury set about courting publishers in 1948 with a three book deal. It included the short story collection The Illustrated Man, plans for an Illinois novel which would eventually become Dandelion Wine (1957), and a Halloween gift-book that would explore his vampiric Elliott Family stories with illustrations by Charles Addams. Addams, of course, is remembered for his cartoon creation: The Addams Family. “We both had the same idea at the same time,” Bradbury remembered, “but his family was spookier than mine. Mine was much more human” (Weller 152). Bradbury’s Family of monsters had itself been rescued from the Mademoiselle slush pile by Truman Capote, who was then assistant to editor Rita Smith (Weller 151). Encouraged by the magazine’s publication of “The Homecoming,” which introduced readers to this Family with an accompanying illustration by Addams, Bradbury set to expanding the concept with more stories.

Publishers, however, demurred. The cost of paying an illustrator was deemed too risky, even after considering other (cheaper) artists, such as William Gropper, Frank Lieberman, Mervyn Peake (author and illustrator of Gormenghast), and Richard Taylor. William Morrow and Doubleday both rejected the three-book deal in 1948; Farrar and Straus initially greenlit it, expressing willingness to float the cost of hiring Addams, but backed out in April 1949.

Biographer Jonathan R. Eller writes that this experience “stung [Bradbury] so deeply that he lashed out at his best ally—Don Congdon” (196). In a letter back to his client, Congdon took on the role of counselor: “My hope for you is based on your achieving, slowly at best … a reputation as the most exciting imaginative writer of fantasy in America. But it can only be slow when you write to please yourself. When and if you have a big name, magazines will begin to make some concession, but not much” (in Eller 197).

This rejection, landing when Bradbury was twenty-eight, was—as we know—not the end of Bradbury or his artistic engagement with autumn. The sincerity in desiring that one’s work be published is typical, a trait shared by most people who take their writing seriously. If we are lucky, we find measured, mature allies who want to represent our work and will support us as we go about writing to please ourselves in hopes of reaching readers. Nowadays the Bradbury/Addams Halloween gift-book sounds like a publishing no-brainer, given that both became household names. Gatekeepers at the time felt differently.

As this October comes to a close tonight, with ghouls and ghosties out and about on their fiendish rounds, it is worth remembering that Ray Bradbury eventually became what he sought to be: our green-winged, great-uncle of Halloween. A gothic story of his, read tonight of all nights out of the year, is a fine observance of the holiday. Any of the following, paired with chilled air and the windy scrapings of leaves on pavement in earshot, would do nicely:

“The Homecoming”

“Uncle Einar”

“Skeleton”

“The Coffin”

“The Black Ferris”

“The October Game”

 

 

Works Cited

Eller, Jonathan R. Becoming Ray Bradbury. University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Weller, Sam. Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews. Melville House, 2010.

STEVE GRONERT ELLERHOFF holds a PhD in English from Trinity College, Dublin. With Philip Coleman, he co-edited George Saunders: Critical Essays, the first academic volume to be published on the author (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). He is also the author of Post-Jungian Psychology and the Short Stories of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut: Golden Apples of the Monkey House (Routledge, 2016). His own fiction, with art by Kevin Storrar, includes the novel Time’s Laughingstocks (2013) and Tales From the Internet (2015). Currently he is an an Editorial Assistant in Fiction for The Flexible Persona, and has just written Mole for the Animal Series published by Reaktion Books.