Author: Ray Bradbury
Type: Fiction, short stories
I read it: October 2018
In a small used bookstore in downtown Nashville I combed the shelves in the fantasy and sci-fi section, and was rewarded with this purple treat. All the Bradbury I’ve read is in used paperback, which I feel the author himself would appreciate. Much respect to dust and mystery.
It was obvious that this story collection would have ties to the previous Bradbury’s other Halloween works. Apparently the book was originally published as Dark Carnival, featuring a story called “Dark Carnival,” which ended up not in the collection at all but rather expanding into Something Wicked This Way Comes. The vibe spills over into the opening story, “The Dwarf,” about lonely souls and a hall of mirrors.
The next story in line is “The Next in Line,” the longest of the bunch and one that ties closely to Bradbury’s obsession with death and ritual. It draws on his experiences visiting catacombs in Mexico and seeing real mummies up close. The female character notes that bones and skulls are just bones and skulls, but mummies are different because scraps of humanness remain hanging off the bodies. She eventually freaks out over the course of several days, and the ending hints at her demise. The story acts as a devotional letter to its setting. After all, “Mexican Halloweens are better than ours!”
The subject of bodies comes up time and again throughout the collection. “Skeleton” tells of a paranoid man who thinks his own skeleton will kill him, to the point where he converses with his boney foe: “And there you’ll be, grinning. Grinning with victory. Like a bleached xylophone strewn and played by vultures with an ear for odd music.” Other stories center on what the neighbors think, as drawn colorfully in “The Jar,” with its poor, rural setting of early 1900s backcountry America. What’s the in jar? Depends on who’s looking. The ghosts in Bradbury’s tales are often metaphorical, right up until the final paragraphs when they are not.
One of the most memorable selections will haunt any parents of newborns, as a baby becomes “The Small Assassin.” The conceit is that a baby holds frustrated grudges, because it must “seek after a vanishing love that once was its unquestionable right, to meet confusion instead of inner silence and conservative slumber.” The story is told in a straightforward, staccato rhythm that jars against the loopy poeticism that Bradbury usually employs, and this shift in style makes the tale all the more pointed.
Not every story is an outright gem. There are a couple ruminations on art and fame that may have had more impact during the decade they were written: today, the nature of fame changes daily and nobody is familiar with the same artists. One of these stories, “The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone,” is the final one in the book, a poor choice given its weak ties to the overall thematic layout of The October Country. (What is it with tacking on a story that doesn’t support the narrative whole?) The penultimate story is “Homecoming,” the true closer of the book, and one that hearkens back to an earlier selection, “Uncle Einar.” In “Homecoming,” Bradbury imagines himself as a small boy who is the only regular human among an extended family of autumn creatures (this story really is close to home for him, because in the introduction he explains that the character names are the names of his actual family members).
“Homecoming” is where we hear Bradbury sigh to himself as he pens useful wisdom. A deathless elder tells the mortal child: “Life’s best to those who live the least of it. It’s worth more per ounce, Timothy, remember that.” Small consolation, but true. Timothy watches his family members drift away until the next reunion. The description doubles as a summation of Bradbury’s stories, with all his frantic need to creep into as many crevices as October has to offer:
With one last withering wind blast, away they all went, so many scarves, so many fluttery animals, so many sere leaves, so many wolves loping, so many whinings and clustering noises, so many midnights and ideas and insanities.