Author: Ray Bradbury
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: October 2015
Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.
Every October, we all want to be autumn people. We want to feel ourselves slipping into another season, to give meaning to the changing world around us. We want to tether ourselves back through time to when a chill on the air could scare us a little. We create costumes as adults to snatch at that feeling of what it was like to dress up as kids. We want to test the thin curtain and slowly reach our fingertips toward the other side—yet pull them back again just in time and tuck ourselves into heat and full bellies and soft light.
In Bradbury’s stellar novel, October is a circus tent that lays over the entire story. Thirteen-year-olds Jim and Will are fascinated by the dark carnival that arrives in a field on the edge of town, and are soon swept up in the subtle horrors of the freaks and their show. The strange troupe is led by the formidable Illustrated Man, whose living tattoos swirl and squirm across his body.
The boys run back and forth between their safe beds and the dangerous, attractive wonder of the carnival. They also stop off at the library, where Jim’s dad works as an introspective janitor who spends more time than he needs to among dusty books. The point-of-view bleeds through these central characters in a way that would annoy me in most books, but the highly poetic prose has me forgiving the jumps. A chapter may start out with something like:
Midnight then and the town clocks chiming on toward one and two and then three in the deep morning and the peals of the great clocks shaking dust off old toys in high attics and shedding silver off old mirrors in yet higher attics and stirring up dreams about clocks in all the beds where children slept.
Clocks: this is, above all, a book about time. Time is the currency of the villains here—they can take or give it at a cost. They seek to pick off those who look too far forward or too far behind, those too lonely inside their minds. “Unconnected fools, that’s the harvest the carnival comes smiling after with its threshing machine.” A nasty carousel and a terrifying hall of mirrors are two of the main weapons at play.
Wrapped up in the broader aches of passing time, this is also a story about fatherhood. Will’s father, Charles, is a wonderfully intriguing character who spends a lot of his page time trying to figure out his son and his place in his son’s life. Only in analyzing his family’s part in the grand tapestry can he help the boys in their “common cause against the night.” Many of his philosophical musings are some of the best bits about parenting and life that I’ve ever come across. I need to remember to read it all again around age 50.
Further, this book is a love letter to literature. It takes a line from Macbeth for its title, and brings to life the creepy yet comforting feeling of a huge library at night. (This isn’t one you should read on a Kindle. The musty smell of a yellowed paperback is a must for this experience.) I hadn’t realized this was the scary carnival book to begin and end all scary carnival books. It’s great tracing the influence on Stephen King, be it the twisted shop owner in Needful Things or the recurring-every-few-decades universal evil of It. And while Bradbury’s novel may seem restrained in its lack of overt violence, the work still pierces.
Because it all comes back to time. The tragic dance, everyone together “all being here tonight on this wild world running around a big sun which fell through a bigger space falling through yet vaster immensities of space, maybe toward and maybe away from Something.” Could there possibly be anything more frightening than the vast black, once you really turn to face it?
Such is the lure of October. We can dance on the edge of oblivion, at least through story. We can look back at our best and worst selves. Do we dress as the ghoul or the gladiator? The witch or the wise man? What is our season? Charles claims that “most of us are half-and-half. The August noon in us works to stave off the November chills. We survive by what little Fourth of July wits we’ve stashed away. But there are times when we’re all autumn people.”
Music corner: There is no healthier playlist than an October playlist. Artists can’t resist writing songs about ghosts, monsters, and the sway of night. One album that I’ve played on repeat every fall for the past few years is Negotiations by The Helio Sequence. With song titles like “October,” “Hall of Mirrors,” and “Harvester of Souls,” it’s a fitting collection of pleasant tunes tinged with melancholy. I’ve also dipped back into an album from my late teens that did fall so well: AFI’s Sing the Sorrow. The whole thing is solid if you can vibe with the emo theatricality of it all, but there is a sort of secret track that especially finds a vein. It’s a drawn out poem spoken by a child, then man, then elder. The words are partially obscured by keys and you can feel the dusty breeze kick up around your ankles as you stand at the edge of a haunted fairgrounds. And wait for the mouth of time.