Short story anthologies can be difficult for me to get into, especially ones that aren’t serial. Many times a good story feels over before it’s even begun, and then I have to move on to a new one and meet new characters in a new setting. Short stories can be enthralling, capable of telling a simple tale without establishing a universe or communicating every thought in a character’s mind as so many works of lengthy fiction tend to do these days. An overbearing level of emotion can be expressed in very few pages with short stories. My problem is with having to read many short stories all at once. I feel that I can only appreciate short stories if I take them one at a time. For a non-serial anthology, that’s hard for me to do because I don’t like to sit on a single book for too long.
Ray Bradbury is considered by many to be the master of American short fiction. Even aside from his short stories, unlike dozens of other science fiction authors, his novel-length works are extremely brief. His best-known pieces such as Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are short and sweet, and among many favorites in modern American sci-fi and fantasy. But for Bradbury’s biggest fans, his greatest strengths lie in his short stories. His anthology, The Martian Chronicles, is among the most popular collections of short stories in science fiction literature. However, The Martian Chronicles is also serial, and while each story deals with individual charming characters, the mastery of it all is in the over-arching story.
My original roadblock with Bradbury’s The October Country was the fact that each story is standalone. While I applaud the fact that each story can hold its own, it was still very difficult for me to read a brief piece and then immediately move on to a completely new one. With this, I wasn’t pacing myself to fully appreciate the stories in my early readings. However, as I read on, I wasn’t so much focused on the number of individual stories but what each story had to offer. Are some stronger than others? Yes. Are some downright forgettable? Yes. But in a sense, that’s the risk you run with works such as these. All the stories are different, so there will be mountaintop moments you remember and cherish, and other times you find something a little less than stellar.
As the title suggests, the overarching theme of The October Country is that of the haunting times of autumn. As leaves change and fall to the ground and trees barren and naked, there is a sense of mystery in the atmosphere many of us feel. Especially for us Halloween lovers, October Country is filled with these vibes. Each story contains a sense of mystery of the unknown, and always in the chilling sense. Bradbury’s imaginative worlds invoke a sense of both whim and horror. One story may contain an entire society within the confines of a haunted house, complete with its own religion. Another may be a whimsical tale about El Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) which quickly turns grim. Or one could encounter a macabre mystery, ending on a heavily emotional tone as the reader views death through the eyes of a young boy.
To name some of my favorites, "The Jar" is a story about an entire community whose inhabitants all view the contents of a jar differently. It grows more and more intense as the citizens go insane over what is in the jar, but it leaves the reader scratching their head and never truly answers the question. "The Small Assassin" is a disturbing story about a mother who believes her baby wants to kill her entire family. I won’t tell you how, that’s for you to read. "The Crowd" is another look at an insane individual who no one listens to, and contains some similar elements of "The Small Assassin". My absolute favorite is "The Scythe", a story which completely pulls the rug out from under you and is a decrepit look at death. This one was so good I used it for a term paper this past semester. The anthology ends beautifully with a sorrowful, yet charming tale called "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone". It ends the haunting anthology on a positive note about life and what we make of it.
Short stories are a wonderful thing in an age of lengthy fiction. For me, I’m still learning how to read and interpret them, especially en-masse. Reviewing short stories as anthologies will always be a bumpy ride for me, as they will inevitably contain stories I do and don’t like. It all depends on what the content and general theme of those selected stories are. In October Country’s case, while I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as Martian Chronicles, it’s still a charming anthology which contains the classic happy haunts Bradbury never fails to deliver. Check it out around Halloween for the best results.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; December 2017