Sunday, October 30, 2011

Countdown: Ray Bradbury's Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories--#1

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#1."The Emissary" (collected in The October Country)

Never has Ray Bradbury forayed deeper (or more overtly) into October Country than in this 1947 tale.  The author's powers of establishing a fall atmosphere are on full display here, as Bradbury writes of "the great season of spices and rare incense," of "leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees."  A perennially bedridden boy named Martin can only experience the wider world based on what his Dog fetches back to him, following investigations
"down-cellar, up-attic, in closet or coal-bin...down hills where autumn lay in cereal crispness, where children lay in funeral pyres, in rustling heaps, the leaf-buried but watchful dead."  Dog dutifully carries back the signs and scents of the season on its hide: as far as Martin is concerned, "this incredible beast was October!"

The venturesome pet also delivers another embodier of the season: Martin's would-be schoolteacher Miss Haight with her "autumn-colored hair."  She forms a close companionship with Martin, before being tragically killed in a car accident.  To make matters worse, Dog turns peculiar soon after Miss Haight's death: "In the late last days of October, Dog began to act as if the wind had changed and blew from a strange country."  On October 30th, Dog disappears from home, and having now lost his last link to the outside world, Martin sinks into despair:
To Martin, Hallowe'en had been nothing more than one evening when tin horns cried off in the cold autumn stars, children blew like goblin leaves along the flinty walks, flinging their heads, or cabbages, at porches, soap-writing names or similar magic symbols on icy windows.  All of it as distant, unfathomable, and nightmarish as a puppet show seen from so many miles away that there is no sound or meaning.
But Bradbury's bittersweet narrative takes a decidedly ghoulish turn in its last scene.  Dog finally returns home from his mysterious excursion, his previous whereabouts betrayed by his newfound stench--of "the ripe and and awful cemetery earth."  Dog apparently has gone digging six feet deep, because at the animal's heels Martin hears the staggering approach of what readers must presume is the undead and unburied Miss Haight.  Bradbury brilliantly concludes the story with the repetition of an earlier scene-ending line ("Martin had company") that now takes on chilling new meaning.

Indeed, Martin has (some unwanted) company, but "The Emissary" itself stands alone as Ray Bradbury's finest piece of autumnal short fiction.

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