Thursday, October 27, 2016

RIP READS: Ray Bradbury's October People

We are closing out the month with our final guest for RIP Reads.  Please welcome Dinara of Reading My Way Through Life.  

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Credit:  Abigail Larson
Ray Bradbury's October People
by Dinara Tengri

“Martin knew it was autumn again, for Dog ran into the house bringing wind and frost and a smell of apples turned to cider under trees. In dark clock-springs of hair, Dog fetched goldenrod, dust of farewell-summer, acorn-husk, hair of squirrel, feather of departed robin, sawdust from fresh-cut cordwood, and leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees. Dog jumped. Showers of brittle fern, blackberry vine, marsh-grass sprang over the bed where Martin shouted. No doubt, no doubt of it at all, this incredible beast was October!” 

Nobody knows October better than the grandfather of fantasy, Ray Bradbury. No other author that I know of, can capture the climate, the air and the spirit of this dark and chilling month like this guy right here. The excerpt above is from The Emissary, a wonderful little short story in Bradbury’s short story collection, The October Country. I reviewed The October Country last year, on my blog, but since I love it so much, I wanted to share my love with the readers of BBI.

While preparing for this article, I thought about different ways I could discuss The October Country. And believe me, there are many. The beauty of any good piece of fiction is that there are so many layers you can choose to dissect and discuss. In the case of The October Country, I could talk about how personal this collection has been to the author. I could also write a whole essay on Bradbury’s language and how he transforms the simplest weather phenomenon such as the wind into a magical, dreamlike dance.

Eventually, I settled on a topic that has been very rewarding for me to write about. And that is how all the stories and the characters in them can be viewed as the reflection of the human soul.
“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…” 

In Bradbury’s fictional Universe, October is more than just a month, astronomically speaking. It’s more than foliage in every shade of red and yellow, and air that smells like overripe apples and cinnamon. It is a mystical time of year; a season that at the same time symbolises death and the beginning of a new life. The colours are bright and yellow, but also dark and grey. There is place for every emotion, from childlike joy over approaching Halloween, to deep despair over a lost love. It’s important to mention that not every story in this book takes place in autumn too. In this respect, October is not a time of year, but a place in the human heart. A place that is dark and lonely. A place where our deepest and most unclear fears can be realised.

In The Emissary, the boy – Martin – is suffering from an ailment that has chained him to his bed indefinitely, and his only lifeline, his only connection to the outside world is his beloved Dog. After frolicking outside all day, Dog comes running back to Martin, bringing with him the smells and little artifacts of the world in his fur. This way Martin can still experience the fresh bloom of spring, the heat of the summer and the musky spice of autumn.

It’s not a perfect system, but it works. Until one day, when Dog doesn’t come back. Heartbroken and crushed, Martin starts questioning loyalty and love – the very things that have made his life bearable so far. Why did his best friend abandon him? Why do your loved ones leave and never come back? And just when you think that life couldn’t get any worse for Martin, there’s a knock on the door one night.

The Emissary captures the tone of The October Country perfectly. There is the happiness that Martin feels when he’s playing with Dog; there is the anger that we feel about the boy's situation; there is the kaleidoscope of smells and images of autumn that Dog brings with him and that Bradbury describes with loving thoroughness. There is the grief and despair that we experience with Martin when Dog doesn’t come back. And finally, there is the chilling, thrilling horror of the third act. The ending is textbook Bradbury. It is both a satisfying payoff and a merciless gut punch. It left me horrified, excited and angry the first time I read it. (More on the topic of horror later.)

Martin learns the hard way how unfair life can be. But unlike most of the other characters in this book, he’s an innocent child (which makes the outcome of the story even more infuriating). The rest of the colourful menagerie of Bradbury’s characters are not as innocent or pure as young Martin.

The characters we meet here are deeply flawed. They become victims of their own weaknesses and vices. In Skeleton, a self-pitying hypochondriac falls prey to a dangerous charlatan. In The Next in Line, a woman deals with her greatest fear of being buried alive in the Mexican catacombs, while her emotionally abusive husband insists on ignoring her. And in The Scythe, a man who accidentally becomes the grim reaper, is faced with an impossible task.

These characters make bad choices. But they’re not bad people. They’re just people. And they deal with their problems the best way they can. And we can see ourselves in them, and in the mistakes that they make, which makes it easier for us to forgive them and to relate to them.

Coming back to the subject of horror, I will never get tired of pointing out that Bradbury doesn’t rely on blood and gore in his horror. His stories are among the scariest I’ve read, and I always marvel at his ability to invoke fear and a sense of unease and “creepiness” without spilling one drop of blood, or giving a detailed description of the monster under the bed. The horror lies in what’s untold. It’s the implication of the violence that is scary. It is the most rewarding way to write horror because it leaves so much to our imagination. It’s our imagination and our own fears that fill in the blanks. And nothing can scare us more than the products of our own subconscious.

Perhaps I’m way off in my interpretation of The October Country. Perhaps I’ve turned into one of those critics who think they know a book better than the person who wrote it. And since I can’t find any support for my interpretation in anything that Bradbury himself has said, I remain positive that this is something that I’ve conjured up in my fangirlish mind. But it is the complexity of these stories that opens up for the possibility of many different interpretations, my own included.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate my point is with another story. The Jar is about a farmer who buys a jar containing some unidentifiable tissue, a piece of goo. He brings it home, and invites all his neighbours to marvel at his new purchase. And every single person in the room, except for the main character’s wife cannot tear their eyes from the jar. What’s interesting is that everyone sees in this piece of goo exactly what they want to see. One woman sees the remains of her dead baby, another man sees the kitten he was forced to drown when he was but a boy. A third, more philosophically inclined man sees the origin of all life on Earth. And by saying what it is that they see in this jar, these people bare to us their souls. And here they are, naked, exposing their darkest fears and their deepest regrets. All this from a small glass jar.

And in a way, The October Country is kind of like this jar. Different parts of these stories speak to us, and we take from them what we want to take. What we need to take. These stories touch us on a personal level, and speak to our hearts. Reading this book almost makes me feel the cold touch of the wind, even though I'm all snuggled up in my room.

And I cannot talk about The October Country without mentioning the fantastic gothic illustrations by Joe Mugnaini for the 1996 edition.



The October Country is perhaps my favourite book by Ray Bradbury. And that says a lot.

What about you? Is there a book out there that speaks to you personally? Do you have any favourite "autumn books"?

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P.S.  For more information on Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) Reads, check out the challenge here.

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