Countdown: Ray Bradbury’s Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories

In 2011, as part of the celebration of Ray Bradbury Month on my old blog Macabre Republic, I counted down his ten best works of carnivalesque and autumnal short fiction (not every story gathered in the collections Dark Carnival and The October Country qualified, and some selections came from other Bradbury volumes). As another October unfolds here in 2017, I thought it would be fitting to import that countdown to this new site.

#10.”The Dead Man” (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of his Most Celebrated Tales)

Without a doubt, this is Bradbury’s most subtle piece of Halloween fiction. It unfolds as an offbeat bit of American Gothic, concerning a vagabond who walks around–when he’s not stretching himself out supine in the gutter–claiming that he died by drowning during the flood that destroyed his farm. The townspeople treat “Odd Martin” as a local kook more than a metaphysical marvel (one resident, though, suggests that the reason everyone jokes about Odd is because deep down they are scared to take him seriously). It’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the story that the time of year becomes clear, when a group of teens try to recruit Odd as an animated prop for their Halloween party. The scene is brief yet pivotal, because the teens’ callous, condescending attitudes leave Odd in a “strange and bitter” mood; soon thereafter he decides to get himself cleaned up and to propose marriage to Miss Weldon, the lonely manicurist who has always been kind to him.  This decision in turn facilitates the story’s twist ending: the revelation of where the newlyweds have made their home (hint: Odd didn’t deal with the town’s sole real estate broker when purchasing the place).

With its seamless blend of the sentimental and the macabre, “The Dead Man” is vintage Bradbury. And if Halloween represents a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurs, then the October-ending holiday is perfectly suited to themes of this pleasantly haunting tale.

#9.”The Black Ferris” (collected in The Stories of Ray Bradbury)

Bradbury sets the scene and season instantly in this 1948 tale, with a short but unforgettable opening paragraph:

The carnival had come to town like an October wind, like a dark bat flying over the cold lake, bones rattling in the night, mourning, sighing, whispering up the tents in the dark rain.  It stayed on for a month by the gray restless lake of October, in the black weather and increasing storms and leaden skies.

This embryonic version of Something Wicked This Way Comes lacks the sophistication of the novel (the story reads a bit like a Hardy Boys narrative, as young Peter and Hank endeavor to foil a jewel heist by the carnival man, Mr. Cooger). But “The Black Ferris” is wonderfully atmospheric, excelling in its depiction of the dark and desolate state of the carnival grounds (“The midway was silent, all the gray tents hissing on the wind like gigantic prehistoric wings.”). Also, a black Ferris Wheel (which can age or rejuvenate a rider, by spinning forward or backward) makes for a more sinister apparatus than a carousel (the centerpiece of the carnival in the novel). Bradbury further accentuates the creepiness of the short story by having the Ferris manned by a blind hunchback in a black booth. And the final line of the story (a shocking ending for any reader unfamiliar with Something Wicked) has all the macabre magnificence of the concluding image of an E.C. Comic.

Much like its titular thrill ride, “The Black Ferris” is a magical time machine that transports readers back to the start of Bradbury’s career. This portrait of a dark fantasist as a young man reveals a writer of fertile, and fiendish, imagination–a scribe likely to be sending many other significant dispatches from the October Country.

#8.”Homecoming” (collected in The October Country)

Halloween is the ultimate carnivalesque holiday, with its rituals of inversion valorizing darkness and chaos, mischievousness and unchecked impulses. Ray Bradbury captures this spirit of autumnal misrule in his 1946 short story “Homecoming.” The tale presents an unprecedented monster bash, as scores of creatures travel from the old country to a Gothic manse in mid-American October country for a Family reunion on Allhallows Eve.  These various vampiric and shape-shifting figures embody the idea of the inverse, sleeping by day in coffins, and moving their hands in “reverse blessings” while worshipping in a cellar chapel. The great house is decorated for the celebration with black crepe and “burning black tapers,” and the party involves waltzes to “outlandish music” and imbibing from a blood-filled punch bowl (not to mention playing a most challenging game of Mirror Mirror–considering that many of the Family members don’t even cast reflections!).

The story’s prime example of turnabout, though, is its fourteen-year-old protagonist, Timothy. His natural humanity actually renders him the abnormal one in this Family (much like Marilyn Munster is considered the ugly duckling of her TV clan).  Timothy sleeps in a regular bed, has “poor inadequate teeth” that will never elongate into fangs, dislikes the taste of blood, and fears the dark. Accordingly, he’s treated like the white sheep of his Family, teased by his younger relatives, ignored by many of the older ones (not including the wonderful, winged Uncle Einar).

Bradbury puts the emphasis on sentiment rather than suspense in this bittersweet narrative. For all their fantastic revelry, the attendees of the reunion depart facing the daunting reality that “the world was becoming less a place for them.” And Timothy ends the tale in tears, haunted by the understanding that his own mortality will inevitably distance him from his supernatural kin. Still, “Homecoming” is a moving exploration of difference, a story that suggests that normality is always relative.

#7.”Let’s Play ‘Poison'” (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales)

Perhaps the most overlooked piece in Bradbury’s autumnal oeuvre is this weird tale first published in November 1946. Traumatized by the tragic fall of one of his students from a third-story window, schoolteacher Mr. Howard moves away to Green Bay and settles into “self-enforced retirement.” When finally coaxed into returning to work as a substitute teacher seven autumns later, he tyrannizes his new charges, calling the children “invaders from another dimension” and “little monsters thrust out of hell.” Adopting the role of neighborhood curmudgeon, Howard also chases the students away whenever he finds them cavorting outside his house. The kids seem particularly fond of “playing poison,” a macabre bit of make-believe involving cement sidewalks.

These sidewalks are conspicuously littered with autumn leaves, and Bradbury further weaves in a sense of season when describing the mounting tension between Howard and his pupils: “the silent waiting, the way the children climbed the trees and looked at him as they swiped late apples, the melancholy smell of autumn settling in around the town, the days growing short, the night coming too soon.” Also, in the story’s climax, the children’s harassment of Howard (via a white skull raised to and tapped at his window) can easily be seen as an act of mischief laced with the Halloween spirit.

When Howard is lured outside by the pranksters, he soon discovers that for some people, “playing poison” is no fun at all. Readers who think that Bradbury’s writing is all about paeans to childhood are in turn forced to realize that the author has never been afraid to explore the sinister side of prepubescence. Kids can be so cruel sometimes, and sometimes Bradbury uses that fact to horrific effect.

#6.”Heavy-Set” (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales)

“A good Halloween party, with all the apples he took along, and the apples, untied, to bob for in a tub of water, and the boxes of candy, the sweet corn kernels that really taste like autumn….[E]veryone whirling about in costumes, and all the pumpkins cut, each in a different way, and a contest for the best homemade mask or makeup job, and too much popcorn to eat.” At first, this all sounds like traditional holiday fare, but the story that unfolds in Bradbury’s 1964 tale “Heavy-Set” quickly veers away from normality.

For starters, the planned Halloween party turns out to be a disaster: none of the handful of people who actually show up even bother to dress in a costume. No games are played, and couples soon leave the shack on the pier to go walk by themselves down the beach.  Bitterly disappointed, the party’s host, Leonard, returns home to sulk.

Thirty-year-old Leonard (also called “Heavy-Set,” “Sammy,” “Butch,” “Atlas,” and “Hercules” by the high-school boys) is a physical specimen but a social misfit. A loner who would rather work out with his weights than go out on dates with girls. His is a case of arrested development, as symbolized by the “mean little kid” outfit he wears to his Halloween party.  The source of his problems is perhaps his clingy, single mother, who at one panicky point imagines that Leonard will meet someone at the party and never come back home to her again. Maybe the knowledge that his mom depends on him is the real reason Leonard spurns romance. One thing is for certain: Freud would have a field day with this parent-child relationship.

“Heavy-Set” is the most understated and ambiguous of Bradbury’s Halloween tales. Is Leonard laughing or crying to himself at tale’s end? Has he climbed into his mother’s bed in the middle of the night seeking solace or planning violence? The story ends with the mother worrying that if Leonard ever stops squeezing those hand grips he’s always working, he might seize upon something less pliable (like her throat).  And in the very last line, Bradbury notes that it was “a long time before dawn”–an appropriately dark note on which to conclude this haunting narrative.

#5.”The Dwarf” (collected in The October Country)

Much like Bradbury’s other carnival tales, “The Dwarf” (first published in 1954) prefigures Something Wicked This Way Comes–especially in its focus on a Mirror Maze. But there are also some salient differences between story and novel. For one thing, the carnival in “The Dwarf” is set atop a sunny seaside pier, not in some autumnal meadow in the Midwest. More importantly, in the short story Bradbury substitutes gritty realism for supernaturalism, dark crime for dark fantasy.

The titular dwarf, Mr. Bigelow (brilliantly described as “resembling nothing more than a dark-eyed, dark-haired, ugly man who has been locked in a winepress, squeezed and wadded down and down, fold on fold, agony on agony, until a bleached, outraged mass is left, the face bloated shapelessly”) habitually pays a dime to enter the carnival’s Mirror Maze. In the back room of the attraction, Bigelow can be spied dancing happily before his enlarged reflection in one of the special mirrors. What at first might seem like a touching narrative, though, quickly shades off into noir.

Good-hearted Aimee (who operates the carnival’s “hoop circus”) feels kindly toward the diminutive figure and seeks to help him. Trying to learn more about him, she discovers that Bigelow is a writer who pounds out “pulp detective stories” all night long in his “one-room cheap apartment.” Aimee admires the man’s talent and believes he could be quite a successful scribe if he had more self-confidence. Thinking that Bigelow would be better off if he didn’t have to make his ignominious trips to the carnival (where the Mirror Maze’s attendant, Ralph, always looks down on him), Aimee arranges to have a replica of the image-lengthening mirror sent to his apartment. But Ralph, contemptuous of Aimee’s benevolence and perhaps jealous of her attention to the dwarf, in the meantime rigs the Mirror Maze so that it gives Bigelow a distorted reflection of a much different sort. This cruel trick ultimately spurs the dwarf to take murderous revenge against Ralph.

When last seen, Bigelow is a “horrid” figure who sends Aimee running scared, but Bradbury’s story labors to show that the poor man was pushed to such a criminal low. In “The Dwarf,” the ostensibly “normal” Ralph is the true monster, his attitudes/actions proving more grotesque than any physical deformity.

#4.”The Jar” (collected in The October Country)

Carousels, Ferris wheels, mirror mazes: Ray Bradbury has featured them all in his dark-carnival fiction, and in “The Jar,” the author draws on the freak show staple of the pickled punk. The story’s protagonist, Charlie, purchases the titular object from the boss of a carnival traveling deep through the heart of Louisiana. Charlie has been utterly captivated by the enigmatic carcass preserved within the container. As Bradbury writes in the incredible opening paragraph:

It was 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. It went with the noiselessness of late night, and only the crickets chirping, the frogs sobbing off in the moist swampland. One of those things in a big jar that makes your stomach jump as it does when you see a preserved arm in a laboratory vat.

The jar is placed on the mantle on Charlie’s home, and the farmer’s rural neighbors soon make a habit of coming to visit so that they can get a good look at the contents. A quintessential conversation piece, the jar prompts the gathered folk to speculate about the nature of the thing floating within. Their theories range from the ridiculous to the sublime, yet every observer seems to sense a deeper significance: “From the shine of their eyes one could see that each saw something different in the jar, something of the life and the pale life after life, and the life in death and the death in life.”

Bradbury opts for an E.C.-Comics-style ending, with Charlie filling the jar with the decapitated head of his heckling, cuckolding wife. But by closing the narrative with a repetition of the opening paragraph, the author demonstrates that his concerns lie more with profundity than shock value.  The bracketing effect created by the reiterated paragraph underscores the notion that Bradbury’s story is itself a jar brimming with dark mystery. And much like Charlie and company, readers can’t help but to give this jar their rapt attention, even as their “secret fear juice” is frothed by it.

#3.”The October Game” (collected in The Stories of Ray Bradbury)

“White bone masks and cut pumpkins and the smell of dropped candle fat” help set the scene in this 1948 story that takes place on Halloween. Viewpoint character Mich Wilder, though, doesn’t relish the holiday, associating it with the waning of the year. In fact, Mich (who today would probably be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder) “had never liked October. Ever since he first lay in the autumn leaves before his grandmother’s house many years ago and heard the wind and saw the empty trees. It had made him cry, without a reason.  And a little of that sadness returned each year to him. It always went away with spring.”

In this stone-cold Tale from the Crypt, Mich plots to make his frosty wife Louise suffer by taking their eight-year-old daughter Marion away from her. “The October Game” climaxes with a party activity in the darkened cellar of the Wilder home: the ostensible body parts of a dismembered witch (e.g. chicken innards traditionally stand in for human viscera) are passed around piece-meal. The scene brims with suspense, as Louise steadily grows more horrified over her daughter’s strange silence. Marion, she realizes, is present only in body (not mind and spirit), because Mich has proven a fiend for realism when staging this party-ending game.

Mich’s machinations lead to a shocking conclusion (and a classic final line), but upon re-reading one also appreciates just how carefully Bradbury has prepared for this ending.  Foreshadowing abounds, from a “nasty childish game” Mich plays with Louise earlier in the day, to the “skeletonous” costume Marion dons for the Halloween party. “The October Game” is doubtless the grisliest piece of short fiction Bradbury has ever written (these days the author himself shies away from the narrative’s filicidal violence), but it is simultaneously a masterpiece of technique.  When it comes to dramatizing a husband’s maniacal scheme, Bradbury is crafty indeed.

#2.”The Illustrated Man” (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales)

Bradbury takes us behind the scenes of a traveling carnival in this 1950 tale. Disgusted with his own obesity and desperate to stay employed, tent man William Philippus Phelps opts to become the Tattooed Man. He accordingly visits “a tattoo artist far out in the rolling Wisconsin country,” a blind crone (forerunner of the Gypsy Dust-Witch in Something Wicked This Way Comes) who completely inks his skin. She transforms him into an Illustrated Man, a marvel “alive with portraiture. He looked as if he had dropped and been crushed between the steel rollers of a print press, and come out like an incredible rotogravure. He was clothed in a garment of trolls and scarlet dinosaurs.”

The old dust-witch informs William that she makes the tattoos “fit each man himself and what is inside him.” Also, two would-be tattoos–covered by bandages on his chest and back–have been left incomplete, and will develop from William’s sweat and thought. At the Big Unveiling of William’s chest tattoo, though, a dire scene is revealed–of William strangling his shrill wife Lisabeth.

“The Illustrated Man” sports a wonderfully weird premise (irremovable, seemingly supernatural tattoos that form “Pictures of the Future”). The story also features a violent climax reminiscent of Tod Browning’s controversial carnival-horror film Freaks.  Lisabeth (who despises her husband’s grotesquerie) drives William to attack her in the very manner depicted by his disturbing chest tattoo. The carnival’s freaks are meanwhile drawn by the sound of argument, and William discovers them “waiting in the middle of the night, in the dry grass” outside his trailer. When Lisabeth’s murdered body is spotted, the gathered freaks proceed to chase down William and pummel him with the tent stakes they brandish. Carnival justice is mercilessly served.

Amidst this lynching, the freshly-formed tattoo on William’s back is uncovered, and the sight of it makes the bloodthirsty mob recoil in horror. The story-concluding description of the tattoo offers a grim image of infinite regress: “It showed a crowd of freaks bending over a dying fat man on a dark and lonely road, looking at a tattoo on his back which illustrated a crowd of freaks bending over a dying fat man on a…”

Interestingly, unlike his novelistic counterpart Mr. Dark, William forms a somewhat sympathetic figure as the Illustrated Man. His tragic fate leaves the reader wondering: was William destined to kill his mean-mouthed wife even if he never got tattooed, or did the eldritch dust-witch mark him with an image that caused his eventual ruination? But one thing is beyond question here: Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” is a macabre masterpiece.

#1.”The Emissary” (collected in The October Country)

Never has Ray Bradbury forayed deeper (or more overtly) into October Country than in this 1947 tale.  The author’s powers of establishing a fall atmosphere are on full display here, as Bradbury writes of “the great season of spices and rare incense,” of “leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees.” A perennially bedridden boy named Martin can only experience the wider world based on what his Dog fetches back to him, following investigations “down-cellar, up-attic, in closet or coal-bin…down hills where autumn lay in cereal crispness, where children lay in funeral pyres, in rustling heaps, the leaf-buried but watchful dead.” Dog dutifully carries back the signs and scents of the season on its hide: as far as Martin is concerned, “this incredible beast was October!”

The venturesome pet also delivers another embodier of the season: Martin’s would-be schoolteacher Miss Haight with her “autumn-colored hair.” She forms a close companionship with Martin, before being tragically killed in a car accident. To make matters worse, Dog turns peculiar soon after Miss Haight’s death: “In the late last days of October, Dog began to act as if the wind had changed and blew from a strange country.”  On October 30th, Dog disappears from home, and having now lost his last link to the outside world, Martin sinks into despair:

To Martin, Hallowe’en had been nothing more than one evening when tin horns cried off in the cold autumn stars, children blew like goblin leaves along the flinty walks, flinging their heads, or cabbages, at porches, soap-writing names or similar magic symbols on icy windows.  All of it as distant, unfathomable, and nightmarish as a puppet show seen from so many miles away that there is no sound or meaning.

But Bradbury’s bittersweet narrative takes a decidedly ghoulish turn in its last scene. Dog finally returns home from his mysterious excursion, his previous whereabouts betrayed by his newfound stench–of “the ripe and awful cemetery earth.”  Dog apparently has gone digging six feet deep, because at the animal’s heels Martin hears the staggering approach of what readers must presume is the undead and unburied Miss Haight. Bradbury brilliantly concludes the story with the repetition of an earlier scene-ending line (“Martin had company”) that now takes on chilling new meaning.

Indeed, Martin has (some unwanted) company, but “The Emissary” itself stands alone as Ray Bradbury’s finest piece of autumnal short fiction.


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