Bradbury’s first collection of stories, Dark Carnival, was published by August Derleths’ Arkham House. Derleth was a good writer of horror and weird tales in his own right and is famous for publishing H.P. Lovecraft’s works. Dark Carnival’s only printing was only 3,000 copies and it is the only early Bradbury book that I have not been able to collect. Dark Carnival is currently available on alibris.com starting around $700 for a poor copy and going on up to $8500 for a signed copy. When I started looking for Dark Carnival I could have bought it for about $50, but that was outrageously expensive 40 years ago.
Bradbury took Dark Carnival, did some edits on 15 of the stories and added 4 more stories. These were published as The October Country in 1955. (Dark Carnival would not be reprinted until 2001.) October Country is either Bradbury’s first of fourth anthology, depending how you count Dark Carnival.
October Country has some of the master’s complex, dark and compelling stories. These are the early works when he was targeting Weird Tales and still heavily under the influence of Lovecraft. These are not the lighter stories that he later sold to the Saturday Evening Post, although a couple of the October Country stories were published in Mademoiselle after Ray became famous.
My copy of October Country is dated 1964. At the time that I bought this I might have been 14 or 15 years old and this would be the year that I was reading a lot. My friend Phillip and I would cut classes go down to New York City where I prowled the used book stores looking for science fiction. That year I tried to average a book a day. I know that I had over 800 books in boxes in my room that I had read. I had a place in the woods where I made a hammock in the branches of a maple tree and I would hide there and read whenever I had a chance.
Re-reading the stories some 40 years later, I realize how much a part of me they are. I will have to read as many Bradbury stories as I can because I realize that there is a danger that my subconscious will cause me to write a story that Bradbury wrote, but my conscious mind has forgotten. My stories are often Bradbury stories in form and style. I, of course, do not have his mastery of the language. My stories are all more clumsy, plain, unadorned and direct. Nest of Flames, which is in the current Tales of the Talisman magazine is a good example. It is a concept story, with the plot devised to provide the impact of the vision that caused me to write the story.
Bradbury starts with an image in all of these stories. It is a moment, a feeling, or a idea which must have come to him fully formed. He then wraps a story about it. For example, the story The Wind is about the idea that the hurricanes and tornados grab the souls of those that they kill. The howling of the wind is the howling of the souls that have died by the action of the winds. Bradbury wraps a narrative around this, creating a character that has discovered the deadly nature of wind and another who is skeptical. He creates a plot that slowly convinces us of the validity of his image and then snaps the trap shut with a haunting ending.
These are "hard" stories to write. The books opening story has the image of a dwarf who likes to view himself in a mirror that makes him look tall. How do you wrap a plot about that? You naturally need more characters and they have to interact in some way and lead to a satisfying (if disturbing) ending. This is the craft part of writing. It is the part of writing that is hard to do.
Bradbury takes molten images and shapes them into driving short stories that all end with the characteristic Bradbury release of emotion. The poetic imagery is always delivered in a professional wrapper. Bradbury has the unique ability to drive his lesson home along with the intense mind pictures.
In contrast to his later stories, October Country is scary and eerie. He produces weird tales, in the sense that they would have appeared in the old incarnations of Weird Tales Magazine. I loved the story called The Cistern. The image is two dead bodies floating in the sewers. When it rains they float about, meeting in the phosphorescent corridors beneath the streets. The currents of flowing water press them together and they make love until the water flows out and they wait to meet again. It is a frightening and weird image. Bradbury does much more than deliver the image, though. He wraps a story around it of a lonely girl who dreams of the lovers in the cistern, imagining how pure and unselfish the love can be. One night, as the heavy rains fill the underground drains, she disappears and the last sound heard is the clanging of the manhole cover as it closes over her.
Another favorite of mine is There Was an Old Woman. It is the story about a woman who decides that death is a cheat. It is not fair that we live our allotted time and then die. She decides to live forever. Death, however, comes in the form of a young man who cheats her out of life with a kiss. She is so outraged that she goes to the funeral home to get her body back. It is eerie, but fun. I have known many feisty old ladies and the story seems to be very much in character with what I have learned about them.
If you read only one Bradbury collection, October Country should be the one you try. You’ll be hooked. The other collections all have their moments. Nearly all of the early Bradbury is worth reading. I think, though, that October Country contains the stories that I most identify with Ray Bradbury. All of the stories were written before his 26th birthday and all of them are true masterpieces.