I first read this collection in the early ’80s, around 1980 or 1981, I think. Some of the stories have stayed with me (“The Small Assassin”, “The Scythe”), while some I’d completely forgotten (“Touched with Fire”, “The Cistern”).
Most of the stories were recycled from Dark Carnival, with a few being left out and a few being added. I’d hoped to have time to read the ones left out and discuss the differences in the two collections, but that will have to wait for a later post. For those unaware, Dark Carnival, from Arkham House, was Bradbury’s first collection. Original copies are hard to come by and will cost you a pretty penny. The author’s definitive edition from a decade or so ago isn’t cheap either.
Fortunately there isn’t that much difference in the contents, and the casual reader can enjoy the stories as they appear in this volume. There will be spoilers on some of them.
Upon rereading and checking first publications, I think I like the stories that were first published in Weird Tales. These tended to be more in the vein of traditional horror stories. The later stories were more typical of Bradbury’s work in the 1950s and 1960s, where the ideas he built his stories around weren’t quite as fantastic. And although Bradbury never left the fantastic behind, it was no longer as central to his work after he managed to break into the slicks.
My favorite tale was, and is still, “The Scythe”. It’s the story of a down on their luck family escaping the Dust Bowl, at least that’s the implication even if it’s never explicitly stated. The father is a farmer at any rate. They take a wrong turn and run out of gas literally at the end of the road. There’s a small farm house beside a large field of wheat. When the father goes into the house to see about getting some food for the family, he finds an old man lying dead on a bed. The old man is dressed in funeral clothes and clasped in his hand is a single head of wheat. A will lying on his pillow leaves everything to whoever finds him. A scythe is leaning against the wall with the words “who wields me, wields the world” written on the blade.
The family takes up residence, and the farmer begins to harvest the wheat. Only this isn’t ordinary wheat. It ripens in spots, and when the wheat is cut, it immediately rots. The next day, small green shoots are coming up where the wheat was cut without having been planted. Of course, you can see where this situation is going…
In “The Small Assassin”, a new mother is obsessed with the idea that her newborn son is trying to kill her. Like they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. The first time I read The October Country, this was my second favorite story in the book.
“The Dwarf” tells the story of a carnival dwarf who buys a ticket to the hall of mirrors every night and what one jealous man does to him. An explorer witnesses something in the Himalayas that follows him home in “The Wind”. And an old woman refuses to die in “There Was an Old Woman”.
“The Lake” is probably my second favorite on this reread, followed by “The Emissary”. In the former, a 12 year old girl drowns in a lake and her body is never recovered. The narrator, a young man, was her best friend, and the implication is that she was his first love. Shortly after her death, his family moves to the West Coast. Years later, he takes his new bride to see his hometown on his honeymoon. While showing her the beach where he used to play, a body washes up even though no one has drowned in months…
A bed-ridden boy experiences the smells and sensations of the outside world brought to him by his dog, which is the emissary of the title. His school teacher begins to visit him daily, and the implication is that he’s a little in love with her when she is killed in a car wreck. He mourns her absence, and then his dog goes missing. The dog eventually returns, bringing someone with him….
I found both of these stories poignant and sad. They didn’t have much impact on me when I first read them as a teenager. I think I needed to live and experience loss a few times before they could really speak to me.
The October Country is classic Bradbury. If you’ve not read it, I recommend it; it’s an ideal Halloween read for those who like their chills and frights subdued. If you have read it, I’d be interested in hearing which stories are your favorites.