Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Ray Bradbury, "The October Country"

 – e-book

Read from September 1st to 27th 2017

My rating:  

It seems that Ray Bradbury tried his hand with gothic horror only twice: first in 1947, with Dark Carnival, and second, eight years later, with The October Country. After that he declared that he said all he had to say in the field, which is a pity for all the lovers of the genre, because his “saying” was very promising indeed.

The October Country is a collection of gothic and fantastic tales that could be regrouped by subject in three categories: physical and psychical flaws (The Dwarf, The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse, Jack-in-the-Box, Skeleton, Touched with Fire, The Jar), aspects of death (The Next in Line, The Scythe, There Was an Old Woman, The Wonderful Death, The Cistern), and supernatural/ mythological beings (The Lake, The Emissary, The Crowd, The Small Assassin, Wind, Uncle Einar, Homecoming, The Man Upstairs).

Although the title of the book does not refer to a particular short story, links them all, sending them, together with the reader, in that faraway land where nothing is what it seems to be, that twilight zone briefly described in the motto:

... 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, coalbins, 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 this mysterious country there is no border between natural and supernatural, illusion and reality, even life and death, and human beings in full process of becoming accustomed with death knowingly or unknowingly shoulder other beings that know everything is to be known about it. In this country a living boy is adopted by vampires and considers the differences between him and them a personal flaw, the wind steals human beings imprisoning them in its embrace, winged men with a longing to fly find a way to do it by disguising themselves as the kites of their children, there is something disturbing and dangerous about the crowds that gather after an accident and so on.

However it is not this strange world that makes the book interesting (at the end of the day this is the world of every horror book proud of its name), but the quality of the narrative, its chameleonic ability to change the register from tragic to humoristic and or satiric, from realistic to fantastic, from magical to psychological with every story that comes by and sometimes within the same story.

The first and the last story, The Dwarf and The Wonderful Death, are beautiful examples of psychological gothic, but also of the author’s high narrative skills, for the contrast between illusion and reality and the common theme of the artist condition in the world give the book a round, symmetrical structure. In both the main character is a writer who made a Mephistophelic bargain: one to enter the fictional world in order to escape a life where because of his handicap he is endlessly humiliated, the other to close the fictional world forever, in order to live a practical, down-to-earth life. It is no wonder that the last image of the book ironically praises the glory of being nobody heading nowhere:

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 floor-boards 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 even death cannot end social iniquities is revealed in the very dark satire of The Next in Line: a poor village became famous for its mommies, not ancient but new, for hundreds of bodies are tossed in catacombs where the dry quality of the air stops the putrefaction process. The bodies are there because their families were too poor to pay the annual 20 pesos rent required by the cemetery. The visitors learn that money (or lack of it) created new burial rites: the depth the bodies are buried depends on family’s fortune – two, three, four or five feet under, in order to facilitate its digging out when the payments stop:

 And, let me tell you, señor, when we bury a man the whole six feet deep we are very certain of his staying. We have never dug up a six-foot-buried one yet, that is the accuracy with which we know the money of the people.

A very different tone, close to elegiac and nostalgic, is used in The Lake and Homecoming, both reversing two well-known tales: of Undine who is here patiently waiting for her love to come and claim her, and of the cruel monster: a living boy desperately wants to find his place in a family of vampires who lovingly takes care of him and whom he loves back with all his heart:

Timothy prayed to the Dark One with a tightened stomach. “Please, please, help me grow up, help me be like my sisters and brothers. Don’t let me be different. If only I could put the hair in the plastic images as Ellen does, or make people fall in love with me as Laura does with people, or read strange books as Sam does, or work in a respected job like Leonard and Bion do. Or even raise a family one day, as mother and father have done....”

Classic horror, with all the apparatus, can be found in The Small Assassin – the evil baby tale, The Emissary – the zombie awakened on Halloween night and The Jar – the morbid appetence for the grotesque humanity showed from the beginning of time:

It was just one of those things they keep in a jar in the tent of a sideshow on the outskirts of a little, drowsy town. One of those pale things drifting in alcohol plasma, forever dreaming and circling, with its peeled dead eyes staring out at you and never seeing you...

Merciless irony drips from Touched with Fire and Skeleton. The first is about two old men who decided to reform bullies and hysteric beings only to realize they are beyond redemption. The second is a wonderful case of hypochondria taking over and literally suckling the steadfastness of mind and body. A Mr Harris is endlessly complaining about bones pain, but his doctor says the pain is only in his mind. So he goes consulting an obscure bone specialist, Mr Munigant, who makes him aware his body has a skeleton and gradually he becomes convinced his skeleton is his enemy so the bone specialist comes and sucks his skeleton out of him. The dark humour of the end of this short story when his wife comes home and finds him is priceless:

Many times as a little girl Clarisse had run on the beach sands, stepped on a jellyfish and screamed. It was not so bad, finding an intact, gelatin-skinned jellyfish in one’s living room. One could step back from it.
It was when the jellyfish called you by name...

Finally, there are two stories that almost leave the October country to enter the land of comedy: one, with a Limerick title, There Was an Old Woman is about an old lady so determined not to die that she manages to stop her own autopsy and return in her body. The other, The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse, is the tale of George Garvey, a man such ordinary that his only talent seems to be “mummifying people instantaneously” with boredom. To escape his “ordinarity”, he begins to mutilate himself, first a finger, then a leg and finally an eye replaced with a “white poker chip monocle, with a blue eye painted on it by Matisse himself”

I’m still a nerve-wracking bore,” he told his wife, “but now they’ll never know what a dreadful ox I am underneath the monocle and the Mandarin’s finger. And if their interest should happen to dwindle again, one can always arrange to lose an arm or leg. No doubt of it. I’ve thrown up a wondrous façade; no one will ever find the ancient boor again.

Overall, whether you are a fan of the horror genre or not, you will not regret this voyage in a country where is forever fall for its fall leaves are full of color.

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