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The Autumnal Imagination of Ray Bradbury

The crispness of the air, the cider, the corn mazes, the migration of birds, the smell of dust, the darkening of the days, the hay rides, the Feast of St. Francis, the change of colors, and the falling of leaves all signify the transition to the wonderful season of autumn. Cyclical, the seasons come and go. Yet somehow—whether we’ve experienced it 14 times or 51 times—the arrival of fall always seems to startle anew our longing for things otherworldly.

For those of us who grew up in the United States during the second half of the 20th century, Ray Bradbury is as much a part of autumn as the oak leaf changing from green to yellow to orange to red. In all of his writings, Bradbury inexplicably connected childhood terrors and joys with twilight hastenings and mysteries.

His greatest expression of fall came in his brilliant and macabre 1955 collection of short stories, The October Country. He begins the book with an ominous welcome:

…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 mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal bins, closets, attics, and pantries face 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.

For Bradbury, not surprisingly, the highest feast days of autumn fall between Halloween and All Souls. Yet as Bradbury freely admitted to all who would listen, Halloween is not just an evening, but a liturgical season in and of itself, generally synonymous with all of fall. “We threw the switch on Halloween. No light bulb burned, only green cats eyes and candles.” His upbringing in the 1920s, he remembered, was “half Gatsby and half Dracula. I was raised in a house of vampires.”

The history of the writing and publication of The October Country is almost as intriguing as the complexities of fall itself. Born in 1920, Bradbury found writing addictive as early as high school when he would beg his typing teacher to use the machines during the lunch hour and free periods, writing story after story. With Julie Schwartz (best known for his work with DC Comics) as his agent, Bradbury’s earliest publishing successes came with his pulps in the early 1940s, especially those in Weird Tales. One of his fellow authors, August Derleth, invited Bradbury to publish his first book with his press, Arkham House, originally created to publish all of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction and papers. One of Bradbury’s closest friends, Russell Kirk, would go on to publish with Arkham House as well. Thrilled to have an offer, Bradbury immediately pulled a number of his disparate stories together. Initially, he envisioned the book as A Child’s Garden of Terrors, “based on my fears of death and growing old.” Giving it greater thought and in conversation with Derleth, he decided on Dark Carnival as the title.

As Bradbury was stitching his dark horror fiction stories into the book for Arkham, three of his mainstream pieces were surprisingly accepted by major reputable publishers, then known in the industry as the “slicks.” The three were Mademoiselle, Collier’s, and Charm. They collectively paid the 25-year-old Bradbury $1,000, a huge sum for 1945. Fearing that they might have blocked his submissions for consideration because of his horror fiction in Weird Tales, Bradbury had submitted all three pieces under a pseudonym, William Elliot, borrowing the last name from T.S. Eliot. “I feared that the editors of those magazines might have seen my name on the cover of Weird Tales and figured, hell, anyone in Weirds, and living in Venice, California, my God, can’t write.” Proud but not arrogant, Bradbury joked, “It turned out nobody had even seen Weird Tales much less read my incredible output therein.”

Breaking into the mainstream changed everything for Bradbury. As much as he appreciated the aid given to him by Derleth, Schwartz, and Weird Tales, he understandably wanted to move into the big leagues of publishing, which, of course, he would do, especially with the publication of his first two novels, The Martian Chronicles in 1950 and Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. With this move in 1945, though, Bradbury was first able to earn upwards of $300 per story rather than the usual pulp magazine payment of $30 per story. Still living at home, even his parents looked at him differently after his success in the slicks.

To celebrate his new success and finances, Bradbury traveled to Mexico for nine weeks. Overwhelmed by the poverty and, at least by the standards of his staid Protestant upbringing, the culturally rich Catholicism, he hated almost every moment there. Homesick beyond his own comprehension, he feared he would die, never to see American soil again. Still, he met John Steinbeck, as well as the wife of the French ambassador to Mexico, who became a lifelong friend.

Bradbury lost much of his innocence on the trip:

Anyway, Mexico, and death everywhere, and me being away from home for the first time and being accompanied on the journey triangulating the country with several couples who showed up by coincidence at various small hotels along the way, and witnessing the self-destruction of a lesbian pair in Cuernavaca and again in Monterey, and making the mistake of letting myself be shown the mummies of Guanajuato. I never recovered. Five short stories and a novella about the mummies…continued to yank my shroud and wake my panics thirty years later.

To make matters worse (or better, depending on how one interprets it), Bradbury was visiting Mexico during the annual Day of the Dead festivities, far more pagan and rich and wild than what he had known as Halloween in the States.

Arkham House printed 3,112 copies of Dark Carnival in the fall of 1947. The book sold well and the reviews were generally quite favorable. Years later, the modern master of horror, Stephen King, pronounced Dark Carnival to be “the Dubliners of American gothic.”

With his popular success in the early 1950s, Bradbury decided to reissue Dark Carnival, but with much of the horror and pulp edited out, making it more acceptable to a mainstream reading audience. Removing almost half of the original stories and editing several of those that remained, the new book, The October Country, was released in 1955 by Ballantine Books. Derleth and Bradbury struggled over the rights to the stories, but they remained professional and friendly with one another. While The October Country has never been out of print, Bradbury prevented the reprinting and reissuing of the pulpy Dark Carnival until finally relenting in 2001. Collectors still pay huge sums of money for original copies of both. First editions of Dark Carnival (1947) cost anywhere from $400 to $7,000, while the 2001 edition costs anywhere from $500 to $1,500.

Bradbury’s idea of a story revolving around a “dark carnival,” however, never left him. During the 1950s, he saw the story as a potential movie. Pulling together many of the stories from Dark Carnival that did not make it into The October Country as well as a more recently published story, The Dark Ferris, Bradbury wrote a 70-page outline and gave it to Gene Kelly, who did his best to get it produced, but with no luck. With this failure, Bradbury spent five years turning the movie treatment and short stories into a novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bizarrely, his publisher, Doubleday, rejected it, but he quickly placed it with Simon and Schuster. That novel, of course, came out in 1962, and it remains one of the finest literary achievements of the 20th century, a moral allegory about good and evil, love and pain.

While every story in The October Country is perfectly Bradbury, and therefore excellent, the best are the two based on Bradbury’s own experiences, The Jar and Next in Line. As a 14-year-old, Bradbury had seen an exhibition on Venice Beach “that had all these fetuses in jars, including a cat and other animals, and then little, tiny human fetuses. They got bigger and bigger and bigger, jar by jar, until there was a full-grown baby at the end.” A story in the southern gothic style of Flannery O’Connor, The Jar captivates and horrifies at once, leaving the reader with as many questions as answers.

Bradbury centered Next in Line around his own disastrous trip to Mexico in the fall of 1945. Rather than making it about himself, though, Bradbury substituted a wife, Maria, for himself, and a husband, Joseph, for his friend. The names mesh nicely with the questions that arise from wealthy secular Protestant Americans observing full-throated Mexican Catholicism. When the couple visits the grotesque mummies of the village, hanging from walls because their relatives could not pay the funerary fees, Maria becomes obsessed with her own death and subsequent bodily decay. She examines her body incessantly, worrying that she is becoming stretched and yet lumpy, much like the mummies on display. Joseph, as cruel as his wife is neurotic, teases her into absolute madness and, presumably, suicide or death by failure of nerve.

Though far more mature than most of Bradbury’s stories, The Jar and Next In Line reveal how beautifully the author can readily intertwine an innocence of soul with a depth of fear. As with all of his stories, the settings and the characters reflect the eternal October, the life of a modern stuck in a twilight era of cultural and civilizational decay.

[This article couldn’t have been written without the fine work of Sam Weller and Jonathan Eller.]

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

Source Article: The Autumnal Imagination of Ray Bradbury

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