As we turn the corner on the summer and head into that lovely period of decline we know as autumn, I'm saddened by the fact that here in Florida, it stays green and hot. Almost year round, it does that.
Sure, we do have one or two hard freezes in North Florida. It's a rarity, but we get some cool days, and the further north you drive on these beautiful little two-lane highways, the more color you'll find in the trees on the horizon.
Woodsmoke on the air. The crunch of leaves underfoot. College football.
All of it points me toward a favorite collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury, found in The October Country.
Mine's a lovely little 1954 Del Ray paperback, yellowing and well-used. It has a terrific piece of surreal artwork on the cover, and an ominous foreward that sets the tone for Ray's strange landscape.
...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...
I like it.
And this isn't nostalgic Ray. This is mean Ray, dark Ray, cynical Ray. Tales of murder and mutation and the long reach of the grim reaper abound in this little book.
It fits in the front pocket of my jeans, and I never tire of the stories, so it's my go-to travel companion when I need to wait. DMV or doctor's office, I have tales like "The Crowd" to occupy my time.
Bradbury is a lyrical writer, a wordsmith in the strictest sense. His prose is lovely to read. And when you juxtapose such fine language with such horrific content, it really is a crazy salad. These stories invoke some of the same feelings of dread that one experiences when reading Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" or Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper."
My favorites include "The Dwarf," a wicked little tale of revenge and come-uppance when the protagonist repays his tormentor for a cruel practical joke.
"The Small Assassin" was way out in front of the PTSD discussion in our country surrounding the feelings of alienation (and, in some cases, outright revulsion) about the act of childbirth. I love the pacing in this one. I love how rational people slowly give themselves over to the possibility that a baby, the universal symbol of innocence, is a calculating murderer. I love the truth in the plot construction. Though no one takes her seriously, it's Alice Leiber's protests that something is well...off with her son that makes this such a heart-breaking story.
A mother always knows, I guess.
They're all great. The consistently excellent nature of this collection sets it apart as a foundation for shaping my own fiction. I have two tomes that I re-read prior to any period of prolonged short story composition-this one, and Nightmares and Dreamscapes. For my dollar, it doesn't get any better.
"The Wind." "The Scythe." "Uncle Einar." Bradbury's imprint is found in all of the horror writers that have followed him. Just look beneath the surface, and you'll see ol' Ray there, having a grin at your expense, but clearly delighted that you thought of him.
What a writer.
What are you guys reading? Which stories fuel your production when it's time to work in the short form?