I finished reading Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The October Country in November 2020, which feels like I was too late by one month and about 30 years.
Some of the stories have a sense of familiarity that suggests I’ve read them in a long-forgotten English course, or maybe reprinted in a magazine. But overall, this book felt like a startling shift in perception. It’s made me reconsider the vague assumptions I’ve always made not just about Ray Bradbury’s work, but pretty much the entire state of popular culture before Stephen King.
Incidentally: for a clear indication of just how long this story collection has been in print (and by inference, how influential it’s been), check out a Google Image Search to see the history of book covers. It’s remarkable for two reasons: first, to see in a grid how many immediately-recognizable eras the book has persisted through. Second, to see how the varying selection of cover images suggests that the stories within transcend (or at least straddle) multiple decades and multiple genres.
Is it full of quaint, ironic Charles Addams-style spooky stories, as the haunted house on the first edition suggests? Is it dark surrealism like the Omni Magazine-style image from the 1980s suggests? Is it full of Night Gallery-style lurid horror shorts? Is it a sci-fi-inspired dystopian fantasy? Is it Flowers in the Attic-style gothic horror, or maybe a Night Shift-like collection of modern short stories? Is it somehow a rustic romance, as the shirtless man cutting a field of wheat from the 1970 edition seems to suggest? Or is it a dated and nostalgic collection of literary stories from one of America’s great writers, as the current edition implies?
The answer to all of those is “yes.” (Except for the rustic romance. I still don’t get that cover).
I only started reading Bradbury in earnest over the past couple of years, and while I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve read, I’ve still been reading it with the kind of detachment that comes from 50-60 years of popular culture loosening up and growing more experimental after a period of intense conservative paranoia. In other words, I tend to think of Bradbury as a genius in so many regards — a master storyteller, a prose writer with a poet’s sensibility, a model of American patriotism that doesn’t descend into evil chauvinism, a defender of nostalgia that doesn’t descend into unrealistic sentimentality — but I’ve still held onto a sliver of condescension towards his work. It’s of a different era. Things were simpler then.
It’s a similar reaction I have to the original The Twilight Zone series. It’s unquestionably excellent, and it had many of the best writers of the period contributing some classic, iconic stories, but there’s still a feeling of safety to the whole thing. To someone raised on TV as much as I was, it feels constrained. Not just by the standards of network television, but by the standards of American society in the 1950s. There are generally-accepted lines that you don’t cross, not just because you can’t, but because you know you shouldn’t.
Then I read the story “The Next in Line” from this collection, and it scared the shit out of me. I’ve heard a few people say they were scared by Something Wicked This Way Comes, and while it was beautifully written and epic in scope, I wouldn’t necessarily call it scary. It was so wrapped up in middle-aged melancholy and childhood adventure that all the scares seemed either wistful or fanciful. But “The Next in Line” was such a tonal shift from what I expect from Bradbury’s stories; it’s a very “adult” and introspective take on fear, paranoia, isolation, death, and loneliness, that just seemed to build and build. There was a bit that seemed to date it with a solidly 1950s American male sensibility — an odd repetition of how much women sure do love their silly magazines, don’t they? — but it was overall an extremely empathetic take on realizing you’re living in an apathetic universe. It really shook me.
The rest of the stories vary in tone, subject matter, and even genre. Almost all fit the Stories That Would Make a Good Classic Twilight Zone Episode format, but darker, and with less dependence on the ironic twist. After “The Next in Line,” my other favorites were “The Emissary,” which is what I’d think of as classic Ray Bradbury Halloween story; and “Jack-in-the-Box,” which was wholly unexpected and felt completely contemporary.
More than anything else, reading The October Country left me with the realization that I simply need to read more. All of my expectations and assumptions were really just my own constraints, from basing too much of my worldview on the small window I could see via my television. Plenty of people were probing into what happens in the darkness of people’s minds, long before writers of “my era” came along to “update it with a modern sensibility.” I’d only just seen a filtered version of it.