Orange gold late afternoon light, the sound of dry leaves being scuffed along the sidewalk by passersby, the smell of smoke in the air and the sound of crickets all are signs of coming change, in the weather, in the daylight, in the world. It is the season best described and chronicled by Ray Bradbury and the time to pull out those old books.
I knew the late Forrest J Ackermann, he was a wonderful man in many ways and a joy to be around. He help a lot of people in the early pulp and science fiction days and one of them was Ray Bradbury. I told him I was forever grateful for that, because Bradbury was one of my favorite authors. In July 1939, Ackerman gave 19-year-old Bradbury the money to head to New York City for the First World Science Fiction Convention. He backed Bradbury’s fanzine, although it only ran four issues and he published Bradbury’s first story in his own. He also invited him to attend the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, which at the time met at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.
Bradbury’s unique voice caught the attention of another person with vision. After a rejection notice from the pulp Weird Tales, in late 1945 or early 1946, he submitted the story to “The Homecoming” to the magazine Mademoiselle on a chance. At the time it was know for publishing top quality fiction. Bradbury was just beginning to think about publishing beyond the pulp-fiction market but he got lucky. It went into the publisher’s slush pile but a young assistant editor spotted it. He himself was an up and coming writer and he liked the story and brought it to the attention of the editor and fiction editor who also liked it. The young man with the sharp eye was Truman Capote. It was accepted for publication and won a place in the O Henry Award stories for that year, 1947. George Davis, the editor hired New Yorker artist Charles Addams to create a drawing to accompany the story, and Davis and Rita Smith, the fiction editor, built the entire Halloween-themed October issue around “Homecoming.” That was also the year Arkham House, the publishing firm started to promote the work of H.P. Lovecraft published his first book, he shot story collection, Dark Carnival. Bradbury was only 27 years old.
In 1955, Ballantine Books published The October Country. Much of the material is from Dark carnival, making it available to a wider public. Arkham’s Dark Carnival was published in a very limited edition of a few hundred copies. When given the chance to re-release the out-of-print collection by Ballantine, Bradbury took the opportunity to rework his first book and make changes an corrections. Always the perfectionist, he rewrote several stories, made light revisions on others such as The Lake, and cut twelve stories he thought too weak, or no longer of the quality that was representative of where his writing was at the point in his career. He added four new stories to fill out the collection. The later edition pictured at left is the one I first bought in 1971 (and still have) which got me hooked on Ray Bradbury.
One story carried over from Dark Carnival to The October Country was a lightly revised version of “The Lake,” the first story for which he got a paid publication in the May 1944 edition of Weird Tales. It is a sad and understated ghost story which truly belongs to the spirit of October. In his 1989 book, Zen in the Art of Writing he spoke of it. “And not only was it a fine story, but it was some sort of hybrid, something verging on the new. Not a traditional ghost story at all, but a story about love, time, remembrance, and drowning.” The story was based the drowning of a girl he knew in Lake Michigan when he was a young boy growing up in Waukegan, Illinois. Bradbury said he carried the pain of it with him for a decade until he wrote “The Lake” in a two-hour fit of inspiration. No wonder it remains such a powerful story.
The novel Something Wicked This Way Comes had it’s roots in a short story “The Black Ferris” which was published in Weird tales in May 1948. Expanded to included a much more complex narrative, it’s truly great reading in a modern gothic style, not just for Halloween, but for any time in the autumn. If you are unfamiliar with it (how can that be?) it recounts the out of season October arrival of a macabre carnival in the town of two boys, 13-year-old best friends, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway. Mr Dark, the proprietor of the carnival live up to his name, ensnaring the citizen’s of the town by pandering to their secret desires in a true devil’s bargain style. Will’s father, wrestling with his own doubts and fears as an older man with a bad heart who does not feel he is being the father he should, must counter the seductive influence of Dark. It’s a contest between good and evil, not in a violent physical superhero way, but in an arena of human psychology, faith and love. Though there is a lot of nostalgia for small town life in Bradbury, the themes in this novel are even more relevant than they were when it was written.
Last but certainly not least in Bradbury’s October offerings is The Halloween Tree a book which seems to be much less familiar. Reading this is always a necessary part of the season for me. As a group of boys set out to go trick or treating, they discover one of them is missing. In searching for Pipin, their friend they find themselves at the”haunted house” at the edge of town and meet its owner Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, in whose yard is the Halloween Tree, hung with lighted jack-o-lanterns. Carapace will help them retrieve Pipin, but there is a price to pay. To give them a chance to clearly assess this price, he takes tem on a 4,000 year tour through history where they learn the true origins of the modern holiday. The get a close up look at the topic most avoided in modern life, death, and the role that fear of it and ghosts and the manifestations of an afterlife have had on different cultures. Only then are they asked to make their choice. No spoilers here for those who may never have read it. It may sound gloomy but in fact it is a wonderfully life affirming story, so consider adding it to your holiday list.