Thursday, May 1, 2008

Middle Shelf Selection: Ray Bradbury's The October Country

… that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain ...
Autumn is the season that draws me back to my central-Kentucky childhood. Back then, the daytime temperature would hover just above freezing point, the sun a warm disc in the chill blue sky. Leaves would slowly shift to orange and ochre and brown before cascading down in piles that reached your knees. The air smelled of cider, and you could always find pumpkins -- lined for purchase in fields, in stacks at the grocery, by every front door. Nights were different. The cold came down like a hammer. It stiffened the leaves into parchment and brittled the grass with frost. Wind would moan around the eaves like an afflicted spirit. As the season crawled near to winter, I’d wake to find the water in the horses’ paddocks frozen like a stone. Autumn was a thing of beauty and eeriness, as is Ray Bradbury’s short-story collection The October Country.

He never missed a day, scything.

Up. Down. Up, down, and across. Back and up and down and across. Cutting. Up. Down.


Think about the old man and the wheat in his hands when he died.


Think about this dead land, with wheat living on it.


Think about the crazy patterns of ripe and green wheat, the way it grows!


Think about ...

The wheat whirled in a full yellow tide at his ankles. The sky blackened. Drew Erickson dropped the scythe and bent over to hold his stomach, his eyes running blindly. The world reeled.

“I’ve killed somebody!” he gasped, choking, holding to his chest, falling to his knees beside the blade. "I've killed a lot --"
Nearly all of the material tilts toward horror, although it’s an older kind that’s unafraid to commingle sentiment and scares. Many of the stories are one-weird-idea tales, throwing an intentional kink in the order of things. In “The Scythe,” a migrant farmer inherits a field of grain from a stranger, along with a sickle on which is engraved “Who Wields Me -- Wields the World!” He discovers too late why the wheat ripens in patches, why there’s just enough for him to cut each day, and why it springs up again soon after he slices it down. “Skeleton” features a nervous hypochondriac whose bones might be rebelling against him or who may be in thrall to a sinister physician. Another doctor inadvertently aids “The Small Assassin” -- a newborn with the facilities of an adult and murder on his mind. A youngster dispatches a vampire residing in his grandmother’s boarding house (“The Man Upstairs”) and a newly married man reconnects with a long-lost love decades after her drowning (“The Lake”).

There stood the Dwarf in the middle of the small blue room. His eyes were shut. He wasn’t ready to open them yet. Now, now he opened his eyelids and looked at a large mirror set before him. And what he saw in the mirror made him smile. He winked, he pirouetted, he stood sideways, he waved, he bowed, he did a little clumsy dance.

And the mirror repeated each motion with long, thin arms, with a tall, tall body, with a huge wink and an enormous repetition of the dance, ending in a gigantic bow!

“Every night the same thing,” whispered Ralph in Aimee’s ear. “Ain’t that rich?”
While the collection contains more than a few spooky tropes, many of the shorts avoid the supernatural, focusing instead on the dreams and darknesses within the human heart. There is “The Dwarf” who nightly ventures through a circus hall of mirrors to watch his reflection stretch and elongate. A lonely Louisiana bumpkin becomes the center of small-town life when brings home “The Jar,” in which floats a shrunken, pickled thing that might have once been human. Both light-hearted and gruesome, “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” finds a boorish fellow becoming the cynosure of an avart-garde movement. When his admirers’ interest begins to slacken, he decides to make his body into a work of art. Two retired life-insurance salesmen try to save future murderees from self-destruction (“Touched With Fire”).

“Look,” whispered Foxe. Shaw leaned back a trifle to peer below the case.

In one of the butcher’s bloody hands, empty before, a silvery meat ax was now clenched tightly, relaxed, clenched tightly, relaxed. The butcher’s eyes were blue and dangerously serene above the white porcelain counter while the woman yelled into those eyes and that pink self-contained face.

“Now do you believe?” whispered Foxe. “She really needs our help.”

They stared at the raw red cube-steaks for a long time, noticing all the little dents and marks where it had been hit, ten dozen times, by a steel mallet.
Not all of the stories work. There are plots that fail to gain traction (“The Next in Line”) and characters flatter than the paper they’re printed on (“The Cistern”). Interesting conceits get sidelined by swathes of expository dialogue (“The Wind”). The cheery tone and gushing prose of the final story, “The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone,” clashes with the others. But these are minor quibbles. Over fifty years after its original publication, The October Country can still chill, whether it’s autumn or high summer.


Phillip Johnston said...

I need to read more Bradbury. I've read Fahrenheit 451, of course, and a few of his short stories ("The October Game" freaked me out when I was a young teen), but otherwise I haven't dug into him too much. I'll probably pick up a shorts collection this summer.

Loren Eaton said...

Most of Bradbury is too saccharine for me, but The October Country strips a lot of that away. It has also aged much better than the vast majority of his SF, which feels more-than-a-little dated today. If you like Poe, give this one a try and let me know what you think.