Thursday, October 3, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 2: The October Country

Autumn has always been my favourite season.  Especially around the time October bleeds into November.  I grew up in central Indiana, USA, and the autumns there are crisp and chill and the air seems to ache with a bittersweet ecstasy.  Here in Glasgow, Scotland, where I've resided for the past twelve autumns, we experience a much wetter version, less sharp and smokey and somehow a little less joyously melancholy.  But we still feel it and I'm glad I don't live in some autumn-less land like, I don't know... Florida.

What the Halloween holiday adds to this already emotionally dark-ish season is a piquant injection of the grotesque, carnival, and monstrous.  And, intriguingly, most of us have happy associations with this celebration of the macabre and sinister.  At any rate, I certainly do.

And so did Ray Bradbury.  He’s a good author to start with for me in trying to describe the fascination and pleasure I find in Halloween and horror.  He mixes the monsters, you see, with hometown childhood nostalgia.  He started out writing mostly horror (these early stories are collected in 1955's The October Country), and his most famous novel along those lines is probably Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).  It’s a classic tale of boyhood pals coming of age at the instigation of a Dark Carnival that visits their small Midwestern town – it’s kind of like Norman Rockwell meets Edgar Allen Poe told in beautifully poetic language.  

But, for my money, Bradbury’s best Halloween-horror-nostalgia material is found in certain vignettes contained in the science-fictional setting of The Martian Chronicles (1950).  There are scenes on the Red Planet of boys rolling in dried corpses like autumn leaves and playing rib-cages like xylophones.  There’s a murderous Haunted House and many other such ghoulish scenarios showing Bradbury's horror roots even in these interconnected space-faring tales.  These are the stories that my heart first responded to as a fellow Midwesterner (Bradbury grew up in our neighbour state Illinois) and as a fellow horror and monster enthusiast since early childhood. 

I glean from this that horror is not strictly and only about horror.  If horror stories consisted of nothing but monsters and murders and maimings and madness and evil, then we would find them unreadable or unwatchable.  There are indeed some tales that come awfully close to this and they tend to appeal to a very small audience.  But most of us find certain horror stories gripping (and even worthy of revisiting again and again) because the terrors are mixed with a lot of homely and warm material that juxtaposes powerfully with the scariness.  Part of the appeal is that a romp through a good horror story helps us appreciate the blessings in our lives.  And scary stories like Bradbury’s—full of hope and home as well as horror—also help us place the truly horrific things in our real lives into a wider context of goodness.  Good horror fiction reminds us that life is simply not all one way or the other.