Ray Bradbury’s The October Country turns sixty.
“The Dubliners of American Gothic”—that’s how Stephen King referred to Ray Bradbury’s first book, the little-known 1947 short-story collection, Dark Carnival. There’s good reason few readers, even those well versed in Bradbury’s work, are unfamiliar with Dark Carnival: Arkham House, a small press out of Sauk City, Wisconsin, published the book in a modest run of 3,112 copies; the book went out of print just a few years later. Besides a pricey limited-edition reprint in 2001, Dark Carnival exists as a literary apparition.
And yet many people have read some of Dark Carnival without knowing it. In 1955, Ballantine Books published the now-classic collection of Bradbury’s gothic horror, The October Country, which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary on October 25, and many of the stories in the collection are reworkings of tales from Dark Carnival. When given the chance to rerelease the out-of-print collection in 1955, Bradbury seized the opportunity to revisit his first book and correct the things he deemed inadequate. (Ever the perfectionist, Bradbury was, throughout his career, often discontent with calling a book done, even after its publication.) He rewrote a number of stories, made light revisions on others, cut twelve tales altogether, and added four new ones to round out the collection. The stories Bradbury discarded he thought too weak, too violent, or too primitive, and not representative of where he was as a writer at that moment.
In the eight years between Dark Carnival and October Country, Bradbury’s writing advanced dramatically. In this short span, he wrote his breakthrough story cycle, The Martian Chronicles, a book that signified a start to the genre’s inclusion in mainstream literature; published the celebrated science-fiction collection The Illustrated Man; followed up with the underrated collection of mixed fiction (fantasy and contemporary realist prose), The Golden Apples of the Sun; wrote his magnum opus, Fahrenheit 451; and began work on the screenplay for Moby-Dick for director John Huston. This was, without question, Bradbury’s golden era.
The October Country is a more refined work than its predecessor: the revised stories are stronger, more mature, and more taut, and the later collection contains a lean nineteen stories, cut down from the twenty-seven originally published in Dark Carnival. It opens with a description of Bradbury’s phantasmagoric milieu:
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 midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced 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.
The eight-year journey from Dark Carnival to The October Country is worth noting due to the place both books hold in the pantheon of American gothic literature. Both journey into the realm of the strange and the supernatural to explore the foundational gothic avatars of isolation, madness, obsession, loneliness, melancholy, and the grotesque in a new, unpredictable, and wholly original fashion. Indeed, several of the stories Bradbury carried over from Dark Carnival to the October Country are, today, indisputable classics in the field of horror and the dark fantastic. “The Homecoming” is one: it subverts the genre, reversing the expected tale of horror to instead explore the touching story of a young human boy who feels like an outcast in a family of vampires. It is quintessential Bradbury, a story that moves around a central metaphor, in this case that most vexing of conundrums, adolescence. Neil Gaiman has cited “The Homecoming” as his introduction to the chimerical world of Bradbury. “It was the first time anyone had ever written a story that spoke to me personally,” Gaiman wrote in 2012, when Bradbury died.
As with many of Bradbury’s stories, the path to publication of “The Homecoming” is a narrative in itself. In late 1945 or early 1946, he submitted the story to Mademoiselle on a gamble: though “Homecoming” was a stretch for the fashion magazine, Mademoiselle was known at the time for publishing top-quality fiction, and Bradbury was just beginning to think about publishing beyond the pulp-fiction market where he had earned a following. The story landed in the magazine’s slush pile, where it eventually caught the eye of a reader in the office, another young writer who was also coming into his own, named Truman Capote. Capote had recently published the story “Miriam” in the magazine and was helping out around the editorial offices when he discovered “Homecoming.” Editor George Davis and fiction editor Rita Smith (Carson McCullers’s sister) were also keen on it and sent Bradbury (misspelled as “Bardbury”) an acceptance on March 27, 1946, via Western Union, with an offer of four hundred dollars. Davis hired New Yorker artist Charles Addams to create a drawing to accompany the story, and Davis and Smith built the entire Halloween-themed October issue around “Homecoming.”
Another story that Bradbury carried over from Dark Carnival to The October Country was a lightly revised version of “The Lake,” which he had written in 1942, at the age of twenty-two. “The Lake” was a significant breakthrough for the writer early in his career. “I realized I had at last written a really fine story,” Bradbury wrote in his 1989 book, Zen in the Art of Writing. “The first in ten years of writing. 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.”
With “The Lake,” he had landed on another critical component to his body of work: the autobiographical fantasy. The story, Bradbury recalled, was based on a girl he had known who had drowned in Lake Michigan when he was a young boy growing up in Waukegan, Illinois. Bradbury said he carried the anguish of the experience with him for a decade until he wrote “The Lake” in a two-hour fit of inspiration. The story followed a man who returns to his boyhood Midwest town and encounters the spirit of a little girl he once knew; it is an unlikely ghost story that examines nostalgia, early love, and mortality. Even in his earliest writing, Bradbury upended the tropes of the horror genre by musing on his childhood emotional experiences through the prism of the fantastic.
Los Angeles artist Joseph Mugnaini, who had provided illustrations for the stories and the cover of The Golden Apples of the Sun, as well as the iconic cover art of the paper man aflame that appears on the first edition of Fahrenheit 451, made illustrations—sui generis pen-and-ink drawings that are mysterious and haunting—for several of the tales in The October Country, an addition that heightened the book’s tonal quality. “The custom of artist-illustrator and mythologist (which is what a good writer should be) working together,” said Bradbury, “is as old as the Greeks, Romans or name any other culture of some two-thousand-plus years ago. They are amiable cross-pollinators of one another.”
Bradbury didn’t return to gothic horror after The October Country, with the exception of his timeless tale of childhood and good and evil, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was published in 1962, at which point he declared, “I said all I had to say in the field.” But the lasting importance of Dark Carnival and its sibling The October Country show a master short-story writer expanding the boundaries of horror and supernatural fiction. Bradbury may have moved on from these genres, but Dark Carnival and The October Country have a twisted and enduring shadow that continues to captivate and frighten.
Sam Weller is the authorized biographer of Ray Bradbury and a Bram Stoker Award winner. He is an associate professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.