In a box at my parents’ house is a photograph of me and my brother with our faces painted like Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from Kiss. It must have been Halloween, 1979 or ‘80. As I recall, the question of what to be for Halloween was never easily resolved. It could plague or delight us for weeks on end. It could consume the entire month of October. It was a very seriously considered bit of frivolity.
This year my son shouldered the burden of choosing Halloween costumes for everyone in the family. All four of us, he said, would be Charlie Chaplin. His sister agreed to it. So, this past weekend we found ourselves at a costume and party supply store buying bowlers and moustaches and bamboo canes. I don’t think the vampire working the cash register – gore dripping down her chin and neck – was especially impressed.
I was reading to my son the next day from Dino Buzzati’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily and came to the chapter where the morally ambiguous Professor Ambrose leads King Leander and his unwitting bears to Demon Castle. Like a holiday haunted house, the place is just bursting at the seams with ghosts. Ambrose hopes the simple-minded bears will be literally frightened to death at Demon Castle, but it doesn’t work out that way.
Instead, thanks to their animal simplicity, the bears aren’t frightened at all, merely amused. They laugh and puzzle at the floating sheets, queer vapors, and spooky voices that rise from dark corners, assured by instinct that there’s no real threat. Then one of the ghosts – the ghost of a bear, it turns out – recognizes King Leander. Others crowd around. There is a general reunion as the bears embrace, or attempt to embrace, the spirits of comrades fallen in a recent battle with the Grand Duke’s army. Wine is fetched from the cellar and bears and ghosts dance and sing together all night.
My son enjoyed the first half of the book: the conquering of Sicily, the overthrow of the Grand Duke, and King Leander’s reunion with his kidnapped son. The latter half of the book, however, was more difficult for him. Thirteen years later, we see that the bears have adopted human ways – even dressing and accessorizing like men: with top hats, suit jackets, monocles, and canes. They’ve lost something of their wild nature and, to King Leander’s dismay, prove thoroughly corruptible. The king himself is not immune. Then, in the midst of defending his subjects from an outward threat, there comes a mortal betrayal from within.
Before he dies and goes to join his ghostly friends, King Leander begs the bears to throw off their human clothes, leave everything, and march back to the mountains. He reminds them, frightened as they are at his loss, that no one is really indispensible. Looking at my son, I thought, that must be a hard idea for a seven-year-old. It’s hard enough for an adult. But maybe there’s freedom in being unnecessary. Even if life is a cosmic frivolity, we can still strive to choose our costumes wisely.