The October Country

The Short Version: Bradbury’s classic short story collection, comprised of stories that visit that strange place on the edge of midnight, where the leaves are always orange and the air always crisp… and the weird is the ordinary.

The Review: Ray Bradbury may be the quintessential October author.  Apologies to great writers like Neil Gaiman, but Bradbury knew how to capture the quintessential autumn spirit – perhaps it’s because he is a writer of a simpler time, when technology was not at a place to distract.  When children still ran around outside and jumped in piles of leaves and everything looks like it was shot through a scratched camera lens on washed-out color film.  I don’t pretend to think I could live without my computer – but I remember a time when I didn’t need it to have a good time.  I still try to hold onto those moments – but every year, it gets more difficult… and I think, to be honest, it is the great villain of our time as well as the great villain of this book.

See, some of these stories – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – feel a bit dated in a way that a novel like Something Wicked This Way Comes never feels.  It isn’t even the stories that are the ‘oldest’ – hell, one of the last lines of the last story mentions a guy jumping in a Model T and driving away but that story never, ever feels dated.  I mean, how can you deny the beauty of a closing line like this:
“I watched the dead man stomp and leap across the platform, felt the plankings shudder, saw him jump into his Model-T, heard it lurch under his bulk, saw him bang the floorboards with a big foot, idle the motor, roar it, turn, smile, wave to me, and then roar off and away toward that suddenly brilliant town called Obscurity by a dazzling seashore called The Past.”

That’s the pleasure of a Bradbury story: simple, easy prose with a hint of mystery and strangeness.  It’s the literary equivalent of waking up early on a Saturday in October and hearing the football game in the park down the street and petting your dog and putting on a pot of tea and staring out the window at the wind stirring up the colors and feeling that crispness in the air before you even open the door.  It’s beauty, plain and simple.  And Bradbury certainly knows how to bring the strange.  There are no traveling carnivals here – nothing quite so obviously spooky/strange (in most cases), to be honest.  There’s a recurring theme of the figure of death – the black-cloaked man who moves at the side of a given scene.  There’s a truly evil baby (in perhaps the scariest of the stories, “The Small Assassin”) and a creature (a man?) that eats skeletons.  There’s the Weird (“The Emissary”, “Uncle Einar” – which reappears in my favorite Halloween story collection, From The Dust Returned) and then the ordinary seen through a strange lens (“The Jar”).

The problem is when the stories don’t work, they do so to an almost painful effect.  Bradbury dedicates the book to the man who took the Cthulhu Mythos into the mainstream (August Derleth) but then he leaves so many of the stories without a proper weirding.  “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” is one, “The Cistern” another – the stories never quite coalesce.  Even “The Next in Line” never quite lives up to the premise, instead hovering right at the edge of something strange but ultimately seeming denuded.  Is this because we, the modern readers, are so anesthetized by far Weirder (and weirder) stories that we just find these a bit lacking?  I don’t honestly know. But (as with all short story collections, I suppose) I found certain stories here lacking – to the point that the best stories couldn’t quite make up for those dips in quality.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  It’s Bradbury, it’s October – I’m putting “October Country” on my business cards.  You can’t expect anything less than this.  But, for whatever reason, I found myself somewhat let down by this collection.  Not entirely – when the stories were on, they were on.  But there were times where the stories just seemed to skim along and never really hit on the true meaning of October Country.  Of course, who am I to say that?  Ray Bradbury was the man who invented The October Country – so can I really claim that the landscape has shifted in the intervening 5oish years?  Perhaps I can – perhaps you take umbrage at the very thought.
But will my dreams be haunted for the second consecutive night tonight?  Quite probably.  And that, my friends, is exactly why we visit the October Country every year.

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