October Country (Ray Bradbury)

bradbury-october-country-uk3His imagination and humanity made his stories reach deep inside us, made us realize who we are, and who we ought to be. Most of the stories deal with children and most of them have gothic, autumn-like settings, even if they don’t actually occur in October. Ray Bradbury writes with a sense of wonder and curiosity and belief that is palpable. Like Neil Gaiman or Anne Rice, he truly brings you into a different world with each story. Like dreaming while awake, you ease into the truth or central issue of each story without realizing it.

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”). 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”). 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 sixty years after its original publication, this book can still chill, whether it’s autumn or high summer.

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