The thought grows like the branches and roots of The Halloween Tree, nebulous and almost lost to time, but something always cycles back every year in the Fall. Ray Bradbury’s “Homecoming” was a short story I discovered by accident. As a child, I had this anthology called Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum: one of the many hand me down books that my aunt would give me over the years. I didn’t realize, in the Eighties or Nineties, that Hitchcock hadn’t actually written those stories, nor had any hand in them really. All he’d done was written an introduction to the book itself, where he posits that anything can be a monster.
And this sentiment applies well to “Homecoming.” Ray Bradbury’s story is situated at the very back of the anthology, where I didn’t even look, until one day, in my parents’ third house, in the basement, near the family computer, I did. It must have been October, close to Halloween. I remember having no plans; I had only the memories of All Hallows’ Eves that I would never have again (many of my old friends had moved on, and most of the people that I knew were gone). I was feeling sorry for myself in that basement: sitting in front of my parents’ old Windows Vista computer, I looked at the nearby bookshelf, and discovered this old friend I’d barely even read as a child, sitting with the likes of the abridged and complete version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
But I did know Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 was required reading for high school, which is where I was introduced to his writings, and it just so happened to fit part of my goal to read all the dystopian literature I could find. I also continued on with Bradbury due to Neil Gaiman as he is also a tremendous fan of his, reading some of The Martian Chronicles he loved. I had tried – and failed – to write a story called “The Man Who Forgot Neil Gaiman,” in the vein he did for Bradbury before him. But in order to potentially forget something, you need to find out what it is. So I had to check out this story. And it is a tale about monsters and what they can be; Hitchcock describes the anthology’s publication date of 1965 as “the Age of Monsters,” and refers to someone starting a “Monster Pen Pal Club.”
The above is an appropriate choice of words when you consider the idea of a group of monsters coming together, acting like people even though they are clearly not human, but something different – though it doesn’t take away from their sense of solidarity with each other, or with the reader and viewer. Take the 1981 film Monster Club, for instance, with Vincent Price’s Eramus introducing John Carradine’s version of R. Chetwynd-Hayes to a whole underground social club world of different beings, and species, and cross-species with their own rites and rituals, after saving him with a bit of his blood. There is this sense of an old world of (if you will pardon the quotation from James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein), “gods and monsters” coming to an end; these beings no longer have the same level of fear or respect they once enjoyed.
There will be Spoilers. Reader’s discretion is advised.
Ray Bradbury published “Homecoming” in the magazine Mademoiselle back in 1946, and I found it ages later, reprinted in my weathered copy of the Monster Museum anthology. The story itself deals with the Elliot Family that has come to dwell in an old house in the Midwest, specifically in Illinois, who is preparing for an annual reunion. The main character is a member of the family, a boy named Timothy Elliot, who desperately wants not only to be part of the festivities, but to be accepted by his relatives.
It’s hard for Timothy to fit in. He’s been led to believe that he is ill or deformed: with “poor and inadequate teeth nature had given him,” and, as he tells his pet spider, appropriately called Spid in the Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum reprint, and in later versions included in From the Dust Returned and The Homecoming apparently named Arach, “I can’t even get used to sleeping days like the others.” Despite this, he enjoys the prospect of his family’s nocturnal existence, “He did like the night, but it was a qualified liking; sometimes there was so much night he cried out in rebellion.”
In this, Timothy Elliot shares a lot in common with someone like Marilyn Munster: just as the latter has always been considered the “uglier” or “more unfortunate” member of the Munsters, the former is tolerated for his deficiencies, as he is always on his family’s side. The Elliots, a family “of ghosts and monsters,” are a lot like the Munsters, both supernatural beings living in modern America. In fact, they also have a lot in common with the Addams, who also attempt to coexist with American society. Indeed, Bradbury wrote a letter to Charles Addams wanting to make the equivalent of a Halloween Christmas Carol novel with Addams’ illustrations and collaboration; while those plans fell through, they eventually led to a fix-it fantasy novel called From the Dust Returned that links older Elliot Family stories with new ones to create a sense of continuity.
But while the Munsters have Lily, Herman, Grandpa, and Eddie – vampires, a Frankenstein’s creature, and a young werewolf, who are all kind – and the Addams Family have Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Cousin It, and Grandmama, also largely benevolent, with a few naturally violent tendencies here and there, their “creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky” selves, the Elliots are more traditional monsters: more alien and predatory, and less inclined to interact with humans beyond bloody necessity.
If we go purely by “Homecoming” alone, the Elliots don’t have as many defined personages as the previous fictional supernatural or eccentric families. Even so, they have the following kinds of family members: Grandmère who is a thousands years old mummy and ancestor who barely moves, a Niece Leibersrouter who changes into a mouse and back, Timothy’s siblings: Ellen who seems to do something with collecting body parts, Laura “who makes people fall in love with her,” Samuel who likes to read eldritch books, and Leonard who “practices medicine,” and a host of uncles, aunts, and cousins. Aside from Timothy’s unnamed vampiric parents “Mother” and “Father,” the most notable members of the Elliots are his Uncle Einar and his sister Cecy, or Cecilia Elliot. Timothy’s Uncle is a large, bat-winged man that always favours his nephew, taking him on various flights, while Cecy is a girl who sleeps most of the time, and possesses the bodies of various beings throughout space and time. Cecy has one of the most inhuman mentalities: just as willing to change the life and abandon a woman she’s “living through” to drown in mud pits as she is to enter the body of a bird.
There are a whole host of beings in the Elliot Family, but Timothy has exhibited no powers of any kind like theirs. He goes as far as praying to “the Dark One” to “Please, please, help me grow up, help me be like my sisters and brothers. Don’t let me be different.” In a family of diverse supernatural creatures, Timothy is an ordinary human child.
He sees himself in a disquieting, disassociated manner: “Something huddled against the flooded pane of the kitchen window. It sighed and kept and tapped continually, pressed against the glass, but Timothy could make nothing of it, he saw nothing. In imagination he was outside staring in.” It is reminiscent of the unnamed protagonist of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” escaping from their tomb, seeing the living celebrating, and wondering why everyone is scared of them. In this case, it’s a mortal boy knowing he’s different; in an All Hallows’ Eve family party of the undead and unnatural, a child wants desperately to belong, feeling like no matter how hard he tries, he will fail.
It is an interesting existential juxtaposition here. It isn’t just Timothy being terrified that he doesn’t fit into this familial multitude of witches, ghouls, and goblins, but there is a sense of impermanence within what should be an immortal tribe of nightmares. As the Elliots observe: “Dawn grew more apparent. Everybody was embracing and crying and thinking how the world was becoming less a place for them. There had been a time when they had met every year, but now decades passed with no reconciliation.”
It makes me think about what Ray Bradbury writes in “Afterward How The Family Was Gathered” in his From the Dust Returned that fleshes out “Homecoming” and other Elliot stories: he mentions that his inspirations for the family came not only from his own childhood Halloween experiences, but those with his family members now long gone. It is no secret that most beings, most families, are mortal; as older relatives will eventually decline, younger members potentially scatter. It is a spectre most of us face. As time marched on through the faded leaves of this world’s Fall, Bradbury dealt with this inevitable sense of loss and memory by writing about the Elliots, and other fictional characters.
But even Ray Bradbury himself is gone now. His memories of tricks and treats, and fun aunts and uncles only exist now in the words he’s left behind. “Homecoming” is written as a children’s story, depicting an old House and trees in constant motion, along with leaves, along with the darkness. The prose is poetic. Sad. Mirthful. It is transitory. Like the autumn wind it references, like another Halloween, another year, this story is magical, existentially scary, and all too brief.
Like Timothy’s life.
Imagine being that child who realizes not only is their family going to be gone one day- the same people they know deep down they are not a part of, and that even if they continue to exist, you are going to die. You won’t be there for Salem of 1990, or there is a good chance you won’t. And all your mother can say to you, in words that still haunt me, is this: “we love you. Remember that. We all love you. No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day […] And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that. You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come see you every Allhallows’ Eve and tuck in the more secure.”
There is a reason why this story ends with Timothy crying all the way upstairs to his room. This part hits hard even as it inspires, in a terrible reversal of Robert Munch’s I’ll Love You Forever – where this time the mother is inured to her mortal child’s inexorable death. Certainly, the lyrical childlike prose combines with cold adult truth under the soft, dry, rasping blanket of dark fantasy, making “Homecoming” unique.
I also suspect this story inspired others. The Nightbreed from Clive Barker’s 1990 film of the same name, and its 1988 original novella Cabal, find beings hiding from humanity to keep themselves alive, originally under a cemetery called Midian. While the Breed have been persecuted for centuries, there are others – such as an old man tortured by a psychopath – who desperately want to belong to a people of such difference. It takes an outsider by the name of Boone, who becomes Cabal, to cause a further diaspora of his own people, already scattered from their former lands and holdings, to attempt to find something more, to gain something new.
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book features a male child named Nobody Owens who is raised by ghosts in a cemetery along with a vampire, and a Hound of God, has shared traits with Timothy, who we find out in Bradbury’s other stories was adopted by the Elliots. And then there is the fact that while Charles Addams never collaborated with Bradbury on the Elliots, one of Neil Gaiman’s collaborators, Dave McKean of Sandman and Vertigo Comics’ medium fame, as well as his independent work, used his trademark abstract and Expressionist pastiche or collage art style to adapt Bradbury’s story into the illustrated novel The Homecoming.
It would be easy to leave this story on a downer note. However, Timothy Elliot has more stories to tell, and a bigger role in his family as time goes on: in From The Dust Returned, he is found helping others to maintain their beliefs and through keeping them in existence, becomes a storyteller in his own right, solidifying the idea of Timothy as an Elliot, despite his differences. I’ve already mentioned how the Elliots are parallel with the Monster Club, the Addams, the Munsters, and even the Nightbreed. Perhaps they can also be referred to as “the October people” in one Elliot story of the same name, or “the autumn people,” as Ray Bradbury described the carnival folk in Something Wicked This Way Comes, those who essentially live and breathe the Fall and Halloween.
But even without eternal life, how many horror lovers can be said to be similar? To be the same? Diana Prince, also known as Darcy the Mailgirl on The Last Drive-In has said that Halloween never ends (which is great for this article I’m writing in November). The show she co-hosts with Joe Bob Briggs identifies its viewers with the Nightbreed – with Mutant Family – and I’d argue even the autumn people. Blood, breasts, and beasts is the creed of that viewership; the acceptance of grisly death, darkness, alongside glorious celebration of childhood and the past.
While Timothy Elliot isn’t biologically immortal, as his mother said, in his heart he is part of the Family, and their stories that he tells will keep them alive. He even goes as far as to help save some of them: especially their central ancestor. Timothy remembers them, and we, as the readers, remember him. Family becomes more than blood; more than magic. It’s a place that never goes away. October Thirty-First ends, but will always live on in those that cherish it. Halloween, horror, and the stories we tell, will last forever. While Timothy and the rest of us are all mortal, autumn children who will one day be ready to be tucked into our cold, silent graves, we have some remembering, believing, and partying to do in the meantime. Our stories will live on, in the deep, colourful, and shadowy places that wherever we are, we will always call home.