Just in time for Hallowe’en, the last of my Bradbury reviews for the month. Autumn is a particularly good season for a volume or two of the late author’s short stories, to my mind (although Dandelion Wine is definitely a book for early summer). And I could hardly let October pass without reviewing its eponymous survey, 1955’s The October Country.
Many readers who have delved into Bradbury’s career will be aware that his first collection of stories, Dark Carnival (published by August Derleth’s Arkham House in 1947) is the rarest of his titles. Reprinted only once in 2001 (in another limited edition), and in that case in a revised version, the stories in Dark Carnival form the basis of some of the lasting elements of the Bradbury mythos, notably the stories of the Family. It’s an expensive book to buy, if you’re looking even for a reading copy (although, oddly enough, I once obtained a copy of the 2001 reprint through inter-library loan, of all things). But if you want a taste of Dark Carnival, you need look no further than The October Country, where fifteen of the twenty-seven stories from 1947 and earlier re-appear, albeit sometimes in edited form. As there are only nineteen stories total in the 1955 book, one could be forgiven for calling it “Dark Carnival-lite.” But perhaps “Dark Carnival re-envisioned” is a better way to put the case.
Bradbury the perfectionist took the opportunity to rewrite most of the stories that made the transition from the first book to the second. He had three substantial successes under his belt, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451, all three of which marked him out as a writer in the slowly increasingly respectable genre of science fiction. Fashioned as it has been, though, The October Country is a more horror-oriented collection than The Illustrated Man, or The Martian Chronicles. The terror is mostly very restrained, and there is still, in almost every story, a hint of subtle lyricism in Bradbury’s writing which I find that few writers can match. Matched with this are the wonderful illustrations of Joe Mungaini (in many, but not all editions), a single black-and-white boldly penned drawing for each tale.
The stories break down along these lines:
- The Dwarf – a surprising tale that defies most of the tropes. A dwarf visits a fun-house to view himself in a distorting mirror, observed by Aimee and Ralph. Aimee takes pity on the dwarf and becomes interested in learning more about his life, and even wants to help him. But the plan backfires, and Aimee finds the ugliness within Ralph instead when he plays a cruel prank.
- The Next in Line – on holiday in a small Mexican town, Joseph and Marie visit catacombs where the mummies of the dead are interred. Marie is terrified of the mummified bodies, perhaps fearing that she too will meet their fate. I didn’t enjoy this one as much when I read it before in Dark Carnival, but this time it struck me more favorably.
- The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse – new in 1955 for this volume, this is the story of a gentle but boorish man is taken up by the fashionable elite, who ape his dull conversation and mock his provincial ways, until he find the ultimate in fashionable accessories.
- Skeleton – the sinister Mr. Mungiant plays on the revulsion of a compulsive hypochondriac for his own skeleton. Mr. Mungiant has his own uses for old bones…
- The Jar – Charlie buys a jar containing a creepy biological specimen at a fair, but must deal with the fallout of his choice in his home town.
- The Lake – Harold and his new wife Margaret return from the West Coast to the town in which Harold grew up, and where, ten years before, Harold’s friend Tally drowned in the local lake. There, Harold finds that someone has been waiting for him.
- The Emissary – Martin is a bedridden, sick child, whose only contact with the outside world beyond his family is through Dog, his pet. Dog carries an invitation for people to come to see Martin, and on a lonely night after Halloween, brings an unforeseen kind of company home to meet his young master.
- Touched With Fire – two elderly gentlemen, Foxe and Shaw, attempt to come to the aid of the hateful and shrill Mrs. Shrike, but find themselves rebuffed, and their prophecy about her destiny just on the verge of being fulfilled…
- The Small Assassin – in which the most unlikely of killers strikes back against the two people to whom it should be closest, and on whom it should be most dependent… another of Bradbury’s best stories.
The Crowd – mysterious crowds gather around accident victims. Mr. Spallner sees them, and realizes that many of the faces in the crowds are the same spectators, over and over again. This story is much better than the only adaptation of it that I have ever seen, on the hopelessly dated Ray Bradbury Theatre from the 1980s and early 90s.
- Jack-in-the-Box – Edwin and his mother live in the World, but what lies beyond the World, and what are the Beasts in the garden?
- The Scythe – Drew Erickson and his wife Molly are itinerant farmers who find a homestead amidst fields of wheat, and a dying man bequeaths the land and the work to Drew. Only as he begins to reap the wheat does it dawn on Drew what he is really doing, only when he finds that there is no going back… Another of Bradbury’s best.
- Uncle Einar – the titular uncle and member of the Family had beautiful green wings, and loves to fly. Fortunately, this does not disturb Brunilla Wexley, and they marry. A charming story.
- The Wind – can the wind pursue a man? Can it really blow him away?
- The Man Upstairs – the mysterious Mr Koberman hires a room from Douglas’s grandmother, and the young boy wonders about the peculiar houseguest. Why does colored glass have such a strange effect on him? And what has become of the girls who have started to go missing in town? It’s 1927: is there such a thing as a vampire? This is another of the best stories in the book.
- There Was an Old Woman – Aunt Tildy’s ghost prevails upon her ward, Emily, to help her get her body back. A whimsical, rather than horrific tale.
- The Cistern – what lies beneath, in the water, in the stillness? To my reading, this was the weakest story of the book, but still interesting.
- The Homecoming – Cecy and Timothy await the arrival of the extended Elliott family of ghouls and shapeless otherworldly beings. This is one of Bradbury’s best short stories of his career, and also one which ties in with his 2001 book, From the Dust Returned. The Homecoming has also been published by Harper Collins as a stand-alone volume, gorgeously illustrated by Dave McKean, back in 2006.
- The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone – why did Dudley Stone stop writing at the peak of his ability and popularity? One man will find the answer is not all that he expects…
The October Country reached the age of sixty in 2015, but the stories are often fresh, timeless, startling, and vibrant despite this. As testament to Bradbury’s status as one of the best American writers of the 20th Century, it stands unequalled on ground that Bradbury largely avoided revisiting, except for in The Halloween Tree, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and From the Dust Returned. Highly recommended.
By the way, for a comparative view on this anniversary of The October Country, there’s also an excellent article over at The Paris Review, written by Bradbury biographer Sam Weller. Be sure to check it out.
Reviewed 31 October 2015.
Find your copy of The October Country at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).
Find your copy of The Homecoming at AbeBooks.com.
If you’re feeling flush or in need of a splurge, find your copy of Dark Carnival at AbeBooks.com (but don’t say that I didn’t warn you about the price).