Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review: The October Country by Ray Bradbury

The October Country by Ray Bradbury

An anthology of early short stories by Ray Bradbury is bound to be a delight, right? Here's my thoughts, story by story....

1. The Dwarf--A dwarf visits the hall of mirrors every night, lingering in the same room. Ralph runs the attraction and has figured out that the dwarf loves to look in the one mirror that makes him look regular size. Aimee is a bit smitten with the dwarf and wants to protect him from Ralph's jeering. Things don't go well. An interesting though very brief story that grasps the sadness and loneliness of being different and wanting to fit in.

2. The Next in Line--A couple is vacationing in Mexico. He is interested in the local mummies, people who were buried but the families couldn't afford to pay the rent on the grave, so the graveyard workers dig them up and line them up in a catacomb deep beneath the graveyard. The wife is a bit horrified at this, even more so when she works the nerve up to go with her husband into the catacomb. After that she wants to leave but their car breaks down. She starts to have her own breakdown as her husband's nonchalance becomes more apparent. This slow descent into madness is interesting but predictable.

3. The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse--Boring old George Garvey is the idol of the avant-garde Cellar Septet who are amused by his completely bourgeois lifestyle. George secretly admires their admiration and struggles to retain their attention. The story is a fun mockery of both the fey fakeness of the self-consciously artistic and the shallow desire to meet the expectations of the self-consciously artistic.

4. Skeleton--A man suddenly takes an aversion to his own skeleton, as if it were another entity within him that wants to take over. His regular doctor and his wife call him a hypochondriac. The strange bone specialist M. Munigant is willing to help once the man is ready. It's an odd conflict with an odder resolution.

5. The Jar--Local hick Charlie buys a jar full of formaldehyde and a strange floating thing from an unscrupulous carney. He brings it home so he can be the star in town. Everyone who barely paid attention to him are flocking to his house to try and figure out what it is. His wife is unimpressed and the whole situation turns sour for them. Can Charlie keep his only happiness?

6. The Lake--A twelve-year old boy is moving to the west coast of America and visits his favorite beach one last time before his mom takes him away. He takes a moment to connect again to the love of his life, a girl from school who used to hang out with him on the beach. The story is a melancholic look at childhood and first love. Bradbury's poetic style makes the situation more personal and more emotional.

7. The Emissary--Bed-ridden Martin sends his dog out into the world to invite other people to come visit him. When his teacher (who visits him often) dies and his dog disappears, what will become of Martin? The chilling, slightly ambiguous ending makes for a nice bit of horror.

8. Touched with Fire--Two elderly gentlemen have a scheme to keep their retirement from becoming boring. They are convinced that they can spot the cantankerous people who are one meeting away from getting murdered. One person they target is a woman constantly yelling at shop clerks and slamming doors. Can they make an intervention in time or is their scheme only a pipe-dream? Bradbury grapples with an interesting concept in his usual style.

9. A Small Assassin--Alice and David Leiber have a baby boy. Alice thinks the infant is out to kill her; David takes the thoroughly modern approach and assumes it's some psychological problem on her part. Or is it? I found this particular premise a little too weird and outlandish to take as seriously as the story demands.

10. The Crowd--A man in an auto accident becomes obsessed with how fast a crowd gathers to gawk at his wreck. His research shows other crowds form just as quick, often with the same people. Is he becoming paranoid or is this a real problem? The story is the sort of dark fun that would make a classic Twilight Zone episode.

11. Jack-in-the-Box--A lonely boy's life mirrors that of his jack-in-the-box toy. Can he grasp or even escape his overly sheltered existence? The story is odd, even by Bradbury standards, but has a satisfying ending.

12. The Scythe--A dust bowl-era farmer and his family are driving to California when they make a wrong turn down a dead end road. There's a house at the end with a farm that stretches out a long way. Fields of wheat everywhere. When the farmer knocks on the door to the house, he discovers the dead owner laid out in burial clothes with one piece of fresh wheat in his hands. A note bequeaths the farm to whoever finds him. On the wall is a scythe with the inscription "WHO WEILDS ME--WEILDS THE WORLD!" The farmer doesn't realize how significant that inscription is as his family moves into a house full of food and warm beds. The looming melancholy makes the story fascinating.

13. Uncle Einar--A man with big green wings is stuck in Illinois after a freak accident. He settles down with a woman he meets, Brunilla, whose reaction to his appearance is describe thus: "She was startled, yes, but she had never been hurt in her life, so she wasn't afraid of anyone, and it was a fancy thing to see a winged man and she was proud to meet him." The story is quite sweet and charming.

14. The Wind--Herb lives a normal life with his wife, having dinner guests and such. The one abnormal thing is his friend Allin. Allin's a travel writer who's stopped traveling. He's holed up in his home thirty miles away, deathly afraid of the wind. It's a silly thing but they are good friends and Herb humors him. But is Allin's fear really justified? This is another typically enjoyable Bradbury oddity.

15. The Man Upstairs--Douglas is spending the summer at his Grandma's boarding house. A tall, dark, and mysterious man comes to stay. Douglas is sure there's something wrong with him. To what extent will he go to find out? The story is a little predictable, but only because it is so tightly written, with all the seemingly inconsequential bits being quite consequential by the end.

16. There Was an Old Woman--Death comes for Aunt Tildy but she has sworn not to go, and she is stubborn enough to resist even after the end. This story is an light-hearted look at overcoming death.

17. The Cistern--Two sisters talk about the town beneath their town, the rain cisterns that lead to the ocean. One sister fancifully imagines a couple living down there. The twist at the end is odd and not quite convincing.

18. Homecoming--Timothy is excited about the upcoming family reunion but he's a bit of a black sheep in the family. He doesn't have fangs or fur or future-sight or wings or anything special. He's just a regular 14-year old boy and a bit embarrassed by his lack of accomplishment. So the family reunion could be painful unless it worked out well somehow. Will there be a poetic moment in an otherwise melancholy boy's life?

19. The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone--A group of college friends wonder whatever happened to the famous author Dudley Stone. One travels to Stone's home town and finds the man claims that he is dead! Things are more normal than they appear in this delightful story about the important things in life.

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