The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

In my last post, I focused on Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, a novel that is undoubtedly indebted to the work of Stephen King (not coincidentally, Hex‘s main character is named Steve). The strongest echoes are of King’s Pet Sematary, but the town-meeting scenes bring to mind Storm of the CenturyThinking back on that King-scripted miniseries has led me to re-post the following piece (from my old Macabre Republic blog). It is the text of a paper I gave years back at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in Ft. Lauderdale. 

 

The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

Meandering through four hours of melodrama and not-so-special effects, the 1999 miniseries developed from Stephen King’s teleplay Storm of the Century hardly gets off to a compelling start. The arrival of the evil Linoge as Maine’s Little Tall Island is battered by a massive winter storm seems but a tedious rehash of the Randall Flagg plotline in The Stand: a supernatural antagonist manifests just as disaster threatens the breakdown of social order. Linoge’s endlessly reiterated demand in Storm of the Century–“Give me what I want, and I’ll go away”–creates perhaps less a sense of suspense than of irritation and impatience. The faithful viewer (the telematic analogue of King’s Constant Reader) is almost tempted to hold up the TV remote like Linoge’s cane and intone, “Give me what I want, or I’ll go away.”

On its third and final night, though, the miniseries takes a gripping turn. Linoge finally reveals the motivation behind his menacing: the sinister sorcerer wants Little Tall to hand over one of the town’s children to him, a boy or a girl whom Linoge subsequently will raise in his own image. At first, King might seem to have fallen back on familiar territory once again, considering that the parental anxiety over child welfare forms a leitmotif in the author’s works. But what proves particularly striking in this case is the moral dilemma Linoge creates (he threatens to kill all the children and all the parents if Little Tall does not give him what he wants) and the sociopolitical forum Linoge has Little Tall adopt when making its torturous decision: a good old-fashioned New England town meeting.

In his introduction to the published teleplay version of Storm of the Century, King attests that the Little Tall setting does not merely offer a convenient atmosphere of claustrophobia as the island is cut off from the mainland by the snowstorm and forced to fall back on its own resources: “The final impetus was provided by the realization that if I set my story on Little Tall Island, I had a chance to say something interesting and provocative about the very nature of community…because there is no community in America as tightly knit as the island communities off the coast of Maine. The people in them are bound together by situation, tradition, common interests, common religious practices.”  King’s climactic town meeting thus might be viewed in light of Sacvan Bercovitch’s critique (in his 1993 study, The Rites of Assent) of the rhetoric and rituals of American consensus. These “strategies of symbolic cohesion” inform the American Gothicism of Storm of the Century: “Is the result of pulling together always the common good?” King wonders in the introduction. “Does the idea of ‘community’ always warm the cockles of the heart, or does it on occasion chill the blood?” When King broaches the subject of communal formation and revitalization in Storm of the Century, he affords himself the opportunity to say something interesting and provocative about the poetics and politics of the horror genre itself.

Continue reading

Thirteen Ways of Looking at To Kill a Mockingbird

The passing mention of Harper Lee in yesterday’s post prompted me to import this piece first published on the old Macabre Republic blog in 2010 (in honor of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s golden jubilee). A work of multi-faceted brilliance, Lee’s novel can be viewed…

I.As a coming-of-age tale.  Over the course of the novel, narrator Scout and her older brother Jem learn various life lessons–about human nature, contemporary society, and the conflict that often develops between the two. Scout encapsulates this process of physical/intellectual maturation near the end of her narrative, when she recounts: “As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, expect possibly algebra.”

II.As an example of Southern Gothic. The Radley Place–gloomy, decayed, den of a legendary grotesque–is the epitome of a Southern Gothic domicile, a “dark house” worthy of Faulkner. The character Miss Maudie also strikes at the heart of American Gothic when she offers: “The things that happen to people we never really know. What happens in houses behind closed doors, what secrets–”

III.As a mystery. Boo Radley is a ready-made bogeyman figure for the neighborhood children, but is the infamous recluse really still holed up inside the house, and what would it be like to meet him in the flesh? Such questions have captivated not just Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill, but also legions of Lee’s readers.

IV.As a comedy. Scout’s pluckiness and innocence typically make for a hilarious combination (this girl is living proof that kids say the darnedest things). I would even go so far as to claim that Lee’s novel helped shape the revered holiday comedy A Christmas Story: both employ a formula in which an adult narrator wryly comments on his/her childhood escapades (in this light, it’s interesting to note that Scout and Jem receive air rifles as presents one Christmas–prefiguring Ralphie’s memorable gift in the Bob Clark film). 

V.As a portrait of racial prejudice and small town small-mindedness. “There’s something in our world,” Atticus tries to explain to Scout and Jem, “that makes men lose their heads–they couldn’t be fair if they tried.”  Lee critiques the irrational racism that transforms otherwise upstanding citizens into lynch mob members and blind, unjust jurists, but the author also champions those who manage to transcend a provincial/prejudicial viewpoint: “The handful of people in [sleepy Maycomb, Alabama of the 1930s], who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people,” according to Miss Maudie, “with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.”

VI.As a courtroom drama. These riveting scenes comprise the central chapters of the novel. The case itself is an absolute powderkeg: black fieldhand Tom Robinson has been accused of the ultimate transgression–raping a white woman. By trial’s end the distinction between right and wrong, winning and losing, grows quite muddied: the defendant is convicted, yet the plaintiffs are the ones who end up looking guilty.

VII.As a profile in courage. Atticus Finch demonstrates his fortitude throughout, and not just in physical terms (e.g. facing off against, and shooting down, a rabid dog). Disregarding public opinion, this widower resolves to raise his two children in what he believes is the right way.  Most impressively of all, Atticus defies town censure in his willingness to serve as Tom’s defense lawyer; he commits himself to a case he knows he stands little chance of winning (because of the prevailing racism). Real courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Atticus makes this statement in reference to Mrs. Dubose’s determination to kick her morphine addiction before dying, but the words apply just as well to his own character.

VIII.As a summertime idyll. “Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.” Scout later elaborates: “summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill’s eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking.” Summer is finding ways to while away the day in play (is it any wonder Scout, Jem, and Dill fixate on the Radley Place and invoke the mysterious Boo as the subject of their various games?).

IX.As an exploration of gender roles. Aunt Alexandria wages an arduous campaign to get the tomboy Scout to dress and act like a “lady.” Also, notions of Southern chivalry–the placement of the white woman on an imaginary pedestal of untouchability–are what make the incident between Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell so scandalous. The latter broke “a rigid and time-honored code” of Southern society when she attempted to miscegenate with Tom (whom she then fashioned as a rapist to cover her own shame).

X.As an examination of social class. Maycomb doesn’t just break along lines of black and white; there is a distinct stratification to Caucasian society itself–the ostensible nobility (land-owning families of respected name), the rural riff-raff (like the Cunninghams), the white trash (such as the lowly Ewells, who, appropriately, live alongside a garbage dump). Jem attempts to explain these gradations to Scout, who replies, “Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Jem, though, disillusioned by the outcome of Tom’s trial, counters: “That’s what I thought, too, when I was your age. If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?” Speeches such as this illustrate that Lee’s novel broaches the subject not just of racial equality but of general human decency towards others.

XI.As a morality tale. The theme of senseless slaughter of the innocent is foregrounded by the title, and resounds in the book itself when Tom meets his sad demise. But a more redemptive note is struck at novel’s end, when Boo’s killing of Bob Ewell (who himself was attempting to murder Jem and Scout) is covered up. To thrust the reclusive Boo into the limelight by revealing his involvement in Ewell’s death would be a “sin.” Sheriff Heck Tate impresses this point upon Atticus, and Scout follows it up with: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”

XII.As Halloween literature. Let’s not forget that Ewell’s climactic knife attack occurs on a dark street on Halloween night, as Scout and Jem are returning home from the holiday celebration at the schoolhouse. The festivities there include apple-bobbing, taffy-pulling, a costume contest, a House of Horrors, and ghoulish games: the children are led into a darkened classroom and “made to touch several objects alleged to be components parts of a human being. ‘Here’s his eyes,’ we were told when we touched two peeled grapes on a saucer. ‘Here’s his heart,’ which felt like raw liver. ‘These are his innards,’ and are hands were thrust into plates of cold spaghetti.” Obviously, Maycomb County is also October Country.

XIII.As a seminal influence on other writers’ works. The echoes can be traced in texts such as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King’s Cujo, Richard Laymon’s Halloween short story “Boo” (in the anthology October Dreams), and Joe R. Lansdale’s Edgar-winning novel The Bottoms. To Kill a Mockingbird, itself indebted to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, thus forms a central link in the evolutionary chain of American Gothic literature.

So What Puts the Scare in Scarecrow?

The following essay was first posted on the old Macabre Republic blog back in 2012.

There’s no doubt we have come a long way from the lovable straw-man who befriended Dorothy on the glowing road to the Emerald City. While cute scarecrows in pop culture do persist, they are outnumbered and overshadowed by their more macabre counterparts.  Why, though, is the scarecrow such a frightful guy? What is it about this constructed figure that proves so unnerving to observers?

A possible explanation begins with the anthropomorphic form of the scarecrow. The thing’s semblance of, yet discernible difference from, humanity makes it strangely disturbing to behold. Composed of natural (i.e. straw) and old-household items, the scarecrow vaguely suggests a life-size voodoo doll. Indeed, the notion of unholy creation has long been linked with the scarecrow, going back to one of its earliest appearances in American literature. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 short story “Feathertop,” Mother Rigby (“one of the most cunning and potent witches in New England”) crafts a humanoid straw-man using her own broomstick as spinal cord, and then brings the thing to life via puffs from a diabolically-stoked coal pipe.

Before the scarecrow, in its various fictional and cinematic manifestations, is brought to life, it certainly conveys a corpse-like quality. Weathered and wizened, slowly decomposing (as seen in the photo above).  The scarecrow is a figure marked by both categorical incompleteness and boundary transgression (when internal straw pokes out of its body like desiccant viscera). It straddles the borderline between the inanimate and the animate, especially when the breeze fluttering its tattered garb intimates bodily movement. Its very station as sentinel lends it a spooky aura of sentience: a person can’t help but feel watched by it, and wonder if he/she is being tracked, the same way the eyes of a portrait seemingly follow movement across a room.

When considering the dark aspects of the scarecrow, we should not overlook its traditional crucified pose. Aside from the serious religious implications–the debased reflection of Christ’s sacred image–there’s the connotation of the capitally-punished criminal. Historically, the crucifixion victim was left hanging as an ominous message to others, and the rotting body became the spoils of carrion birds all around. Likewise, when a scarecrow fails to live up to its name, it can be reduced to a perch/chew-toy for black, cacophonic scavengers.

 

The scarecrow’s location, its typically rustic habitat, is no less integral  to its fearfulness. Time and again, the figure is subjected to solitary consignment in a cornfield (that heartland labyrinth and classic American Gothic topos). Its perennially outdoor existence renders it forlorn. The constant exposure to the elements saturates it with wretchedness and gloom–an aura that John Mellencamp draws on in his haunting hit song “Rain on the Scarecrow.”

When sporting its familiar burlap mask, the scarecrow assumes additional sinisterness. The onlooker inevitably imagines that an actual human being might be hiding in rural disguise (the cult classic Dark Night of the Scarecrow builds masterful suspense from such unsettling uncertainty). A mask also raises the specter of underlying grotesquerie, a hideousness of feature or demeanor that affronts one’s basic conceptions of normalcy/civility. Part of the required uniform for the evil killer, a mask has given a quasi-scarecrow look to antagonists in sundry films, from Nightbreed and The Strangers to Batman Begins and Trick ‘R Treat. Director Wes Craven cemented the link between the murderous scarecrow and the slasher figure when he entertained the idea of a sack-colored Ghostface for Scream 4; the alteration didn’t make it to the final cut, but nonetheless has since been popularized as an officially licensed costume.

Last but not least, the scarecrow (by virtue of its association with crops and the harvesting thereof) is a quintessential autumn figure, that season when the days of the year grow short and the nights longer and colder. And once the scarecrow was fashioned (in art and life) with a jack-o’-lantern head, it instantly transformed into an icon of Halloween.  As long as Americans are wont to engage in pagan celebration each October, the scary scarecrow will remain firmly staked in our cultural and psychological soil.

Scarecrow Joe

Me and Lisa, Halloween ’17

Anatomy of a Weird Tale–Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter”

The following is a re-posting of a piece that first appeared on the Macabre Republic blog back in 2010 (a forewarning: plot spoilers abound below, so do not continue reading if you have not already had the joy of experiencing this weird tale firsthand).

Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter” has been overshadowed by the author’s other Halloween novella, “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” (both are collected in The Two Sams: Ghost Stories), but actually might be the stronger of the pair of marvelous tales. Hirshberg builds suspense from the opening lines, as the teenage narrator Andrew recounts: “This was before we knew about Peter, or at least before we understood what we knew” (3). Immediately the reader wonders what Andrew’s precocious and mischievous friend has done, and why Andrew’s mother is now sitting “clutching her knees and crying in the television light.” Some terrible tragedy seems to have transpired.

Following this first, framing paragraph, Andrew flashes back to a few years earlier when he was twelve. He notes his after-school treks to the park with Peter Andersz that led them bustling past “the splintering, sagging blue walls of the Black Anchor Restaurant where Mr. Paars used to hunker alone and murmuring over his plates of reeking lutefisk when he wasn’t stalking Market Street, knocking pigeons and homeless people out of the way with his dog-head cane.” Coming at the end of a long sentence that lists several other landmarks on the route, this information about the restaurant and its diner might at first seem like merely incidental detail, yet ultimately Mr. Paars will prove integral to the story. Indeed, Hirshberg is quite adept at dropping hints while holding full revelation in abeyance. For instance, Andrew’s narrative focuses on a few Halloweens earlier, his “last night at the Andersz house” (6)–an admission that begs the question: did Andrew and Peter simply drift apart afterwards, or did something momentous happen on that Halloween night? Similarly, Andrew points out that his mother hadn’t even wanted him to go out that night: “Not with Peter. Not after last year” (6). The tantalized reader has to wait several pages before the detail about the prior  Halloween is filled in by Andrew, in defense of his clique’s misbehavior: “We hadn’t known anyone was hiding in those bushes when we toilet-papered them, and Peter meant to light his cigarette, not the roll of toilet paper” (13).

Hirshberg reels his readers in not just by crafting suspense but by creating a strong sense of setting. The dreary neighborhood of Ballard in Washington state is realized through skillful patches of description, such as Andrew’s explanation for why trick-or-treating isn’t that popular in his town: “Too wet and dismal, most years, and there were too many drunks lurking around places like the Black Anchor and sometimes stumbling down the duplexes, shouting curses at the dripping trees” (7). As Andrew, Peter, and their friends Jenny and Kelly Mack traverse the scene, black birds sit perched in the tree branches, “silent as gargoyles” (16); the canal’s water “swallow[s] the last streak of daylight like some monstrous whale gulping plankton”; and “seagulls dip[ ] and tumble[ ] on the wind like shreds of cloud that had been ripped loose” (17). At times the images and similes seem almost too masterful for a narrator supposedly in his mid-teens, but Hirshberg’s own mesmerizing prose makes such ostensible lapse from verisimilitude easy to ignore.

There’s also a discernibly oral quality to the narrative (as a schoolteacher, Hirshberg would entertain his students with recitations of his Halloween tales). When Andrew, with some editorializing from Peter, recounts “the night of the bell” (15) to the Mack sisters, he even admits to feeling “like a longshoreman, a lighthouse keeper, someone with stories who lived by the sea” (15). Andrew tells of a run-in he and Peter had with Mr. Paars on Halloween night two years earlier when they followed the cranky old man home from the Black Anchor. They discovered a strange gazebo on Paars’s property, containing “this giant white bell, like church bell, hanging from the ceiling on a chain.  And all the lights in the yard were aimed at it” (18). The lawn, meanwhile, had been scored with a weird, eye-like symbol, “a circle, with this upside-down triangle inside it” (19). Then, as Peter ventured towards the gazebo, “one of those dwarf trees [springing from Paars’s land] walked right off its roots into his path, and both of us started screaming” (22). It was no tree, of course, but Paars himself, who knocked Peter down with his cane and then smilingly informed the boys: “That bell raises the dead. Right up out of the ground” (23).

Andrew and Peter have seen little of Mr. Paars in the two years since that incident, but now Peter aims to lead his group of friends to the house for a belated return visit. When the quartet arrives, they spy an ominous domicile: “The house, like the [neighboring] sheds, seemed to have sunk sideways into the ground. With its filthy windows and rotting planks, it looked like the abandoned hull of a beached ship” (26). The front door is ajar, the furniture inside has been covered with ghostly white sheets, the windows have been thrown open and “[l]eaves chased each other across the dirt-crusted hardwood floor” (27). Hirshberg’s novella transcends a cliched premise (Halloween-night exploration of the town curmudgeon’s spooky home) through the inclusion of some genuinely eerie detail. Crossing into “what must have been Mr. Paars’s den,” Andrew and Jenny discover a huge desk topped with six framed pictures arranged in a semicircle:

Somehow, the fact that two of the frames turned out to be empty made the array even more unsettling. The other four held individual pictures of what had to be brothers and one sister–they all had flying white hair, icy blue eyes–standing, each in turn, on the top step of the gazebo outside, with the great bell looming behind them, bright white and all out of proportion, like the Mountain [Rainier] on a clear day. (28)

A second significant aspect of this exploration scene is Hirshberg’s crafty use of misdirection. Before stepping inside the house, Andrew spots a “flicker in the upstairs window. Maybe” (25). Then, once inside: “From under the half-closed door at the top of the staircase–the only door we could see from where we were–came a sudden slash of light that disappeared instantly like a snake’s tongue flashing in and out” (30). The flickering light proves to have come from an innocuous source (a nearby lighthouse that is illuminated each Halloween), but no sooner is this fact established than a soft tap of the bell in the yard is heard. Andrew and Peter figure the Mack sisters are just trying to scare them. Heading back downstairs, Andrew finds Kelly’s baseball cap lying in the middle of the foyer floor, and the front door swings inward to reveal a spray-painted rendition of the lawn hieroglyph. While gaping at it, Andrew suddenly feels a hand clamped across his mouth, but his seeming attacker turns out to be none other than Peter’s father. Mr. Andersz had followed the group of children out that night, and seeing where they headed, decided to seize an opportunity to scare his prankster son straight  (“To reach out. Reach him. Someone’s got to do something. He’s a good boy. He could be” [35]).

Mr. Andersz–sneaking up behind Peter, when he comes downstairs, and whispering “Boo”–succeeds in giving his son quite a scare. Peter bolts right out of the house and is fifteen feet away before he realizes he’s been had. His father explains that Mr. Paars had been very sick and had in fact died a week earlier, prompting Peter (eager to reassert his moxie) to declare, “Then he won’t mind […] if I go ahead and ring that bell” (38). Peter does just that, and in the climactic moment of the novella, Andrew (still standing on the front porch with his back to the house) sees his companions’ eyes goggle before everyone turns and flees. He hears a “single sharp thud from the porch behind me. Wood hitting wood. Cane-into-wood” (40). A second thump follows, spurring Andrew to tear off after his friends like the proverbial bat out of hell.

Back at the Andersz house later that night, the laughing group reminisces about the scare they received. Mr. Andersz explains that the figure who appeared on the porch was Mr. Paars’s brother (“He must have been inside when you all got there. He must have thought you were coming to rob the place, or vandalize it, and he went out back”). The brother had come to close down the house after Mr. Paars’s death; also, the reason the house’s windows had all been open was because Paars had been lying dead inside for days before being discovered and the place needed to be aired out.  It all seems like a nice, neat Scooby-Doo-type wrap-up, until Andrew relates: “I sat, and I sipped my cocoa, and I watched my friends chatter and eat and laugh and wave their arms around, and it dawned on me, slowly, that none of them had seen. None of them had heard. Not really” (41).  Andrew almost speaks up, but refrains, not wanting to spoil the fun on the Halloween evening. He also holds back, momentarily, from the reader what exactly he experienced in his final moments at the Paars place.

First, the narrative flashes back to the present, to Andrew and his mother seated before the TV. Peter has been arrested after going on a killing spree at school.  Watching the “live reports from the rubble of our school,” Andrew thinks back to Peter’s reaction to the prank played on him that night years earlier, and how Peter’s whole body “vibrat[ed] like an imploding building after the charge has gone off, right at the moment of collapse” (37). Andrew has always sensed a certain danger emanating from Peter, an emotional disturbance and potential volatility, and now that has manifested in an act of spectacular violence. Here, too, at novella’s end, one sees just how cleverly Hirshberg has riffed on the traditional story of Struwwelpeter. On the night back out at the Paars house, Jenny asks Andrew why Mr. Andersz called his son “Struwwelpeter” whenever Peter misbehaved, and Andrew explains that the name comes from “some kids’ book […] about a boy who got in trouble because he wouldn’t cut his hair or nails. […My mom] said Struwwelpeter looked like Freddy Krueger with a ‘fro” (29). Overhearing the conversation, Peter adds that Struwwelpeter was what his mom dubbed him when he was little: “When I kicked the shit out of barbers, because I hated having my haircut. Then when I was just being bad. She’d say that instead of screaming at me. It made me cry.” From such statement, one senses that the now-motherless Peter bears some serious emotional scars. The traditionally unpopular (because of his unkempt appearance) Struwwelpeter is thus updated as the maladjusted, alienated teen Peter. Also, in the various episodes of Struwwelpeter, the morally-conservative German book for children, wayward kids receive ironic comeuppance for their misdeeds, but here Hirshberg gives a wicked twist to such a plot dynamic. In the novella’s final turn of the screw, Andrew plans to sneak out of his house and go ring the bell in the gazebo: “And then we’ll know, once and for all, whether I really did see two old men with matching canes on the porch of the Paars house when I glanced back, right as I fled into the woods. Whether I really did hear rustling from all those sideways sheds as I flew past, as though, in each something was sliding out of the ground. I wonder if the bell only works on the Paars family, or if it affects any recently deceased in the vicinity” (42). Then, in one hell of a clincher, Andrew states: “And if [the dead] do come back–and if they’re angry, and they go looking for Peter, and they find him–well. Let the poor, brilliant, fucked-up bastard get what he deserves.”

“Struwwelpeter” is a wonderfully written, expertly paced ghost story that haunts not just with its supernatural aura but with its depiction of childhood angst. The novella should be required reading for any connoisseur of the weird tale–and every lover of Halloween scares.

WORK CITED

Hirshberg, Glen.  “Struwwelpeter.”  2001.  The Two Sams.  New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003.  3-42.

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.

Continue reading