by Ray Bradbury
Published by Ballantine Books, 1996.
Happy Halloween or Samhain if you prefer. T’is the season when the dark things are loose. The crackle of the log on the fire sends sparks spinning into the air, casting long shadows but shadows of what?
So, to mark the passing of the summer season into winter, here is Ray Bradbury’s The October Country, his “netherworld of the soul”, stories from the heart of one of the greatest writers alive today. As Bradbury says, despite his renown for Science Fiction and Fantasy he is “for better or worse the illegitimate son of the Opera Phantom, Dracula and the Bat”. Don’t come to this work expecting traditional ghosts, gore and monsters however, approach these pages carefully and seriously. These are stories of passing, of childhood passing, time passing, life passing, perfect for this season when change is in the air and darkness wins the battle against light.
This collection of nineteen weird tales contains some of Bradbury’s best known work, some of his most obscure pieces and an undercurrent of dazzling prose that lifts these stories wholesale from the page and breathes life into them and by doing so, injects just a little bit of life back into the reader.
The classics are pieces like The Scythe, a story that has lived with me since childhood but one that never fails to touch me. Here a family are escaping the tragedy of dustbowl America during the great depression eventually rolling up in front of a farm. The farmer has died but tragedy soon turns to joy when they realise the farm is theirs but with it comes a terrible commitment. It’s this unfailing swing from sorrow to joy then tragically, relentlessly, inevitably back to sorrow that makes the piece so emotive.
The Jar has provided a template for the likes of Stephen King who has made a career from the kind of characterisation Bradbury displays here. It’s a stylistic tour de force as he places everyman characters in extraordinary circumstances.
We get shocking originality from The Small Assassin, where a baby turns on it’s parents. Chilling mortality from The Crowd with it’s ambulance chasing central characters. We also get fantastic leaps of the imagination from the likes of Uncle Einar and it’s tragic successor Homecoming. More traditional tales like The Wind or The Cistern sit alongside these dark fantasies concentrating more on plot than setting whilst others like The Emissary are all about the characters.
There are some that don’t quite work for me, Jack-In-The-Box is written in a flowery, not to say dense prose, making it fairly impenetrable. The Next In Line has a brilliant premise but outstays it’s welcome but these are exceptions, the majority of this collection is quite simple splendid.
Composed as the author tells us as a tribute to “that country whose people are Autumn people, thinking only Autumn thoughts” this collection is a perfect accompaniment to stormy dark evenings or lonely walks through golden leaved woods. It smells of woodsmoke, it’s colours are dazzling autumn colours and it’s characters are you and I.
Rating 4.5 out of 5