Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The October Country

"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, coalbins, 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"

What's truly remarkable about Bradbury's approach to horror is his grasp of the power of contrast. The events he describes are hair-raising largely because of the utterly mundane backgrounds he creates, the homey, dusty, sleepy patches of small-town-america vulnerable to a single zombie or vampire. Horror is not a rock concert (though Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie always made a good show of it) and it's the background of deathly stillness that makes a single barely-audible groan in the darkness so scary.

The main problem with the consumer culture's take on horror is the emphasis on violence. It's not just violence itself that makes a good story, but fear. It's fear that makes your heart pound when walls shake from a monster's roar or a door creaks open, and it has other causes than the primordial flinch from a pain stimulus. Fear of social ridicule, ostracism, breaking taboos or especially reproductive insuccess are just as hardwired in our monkey brains but they are so rarely tapped.

It's these fears that drive the most memorable stories in the collection; The Dwarf, The Next in Line, The Emissary, The Small Assassin or my favorite, The Cistern all play on social expectations. The cruelty and desperation which the characters display stem from our instinctive demands as social apes and the mores created by the group at large.
It is debatable, i would say, whether The Emissary ends on a note of fear or hope or both, or whether the ending of The Cistern is not a welcome release because a major theme in Bradbury's stories is a defeat and surpassing of the mundane, of "normal" wants and needs. In most mass-market products, especially the dime-a-dozen action, thriller and horror movies pouring out of Hollywood, the sign of success, the denouement, is always the return of normalcy, the re-affirmation of the status quo as morally and pragmatically unquestionable. Bradbury's gift is contrasting the mundane and macabre on equal terms. The most unsettling part is being given a choice as a reader to side with the monster, or at least see the monstrous nature of human normalcy.

I am ignoring Uncle Einar and The Homecoming  because they don't really fit in with the rest of the stories. Spinning them off as their own collection was right. From the Dust Returned is more in tune with some of The Martian Chronicles, Death is a Lonely Business or Something Wicked This Way Comes, stories of longing, slow creeping doom and alienation, even further removed from the horror or thriller stereotype than The October Country.

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