The October Country, Pt. 1

I have so much fucking work ahead of me this year. I won’t get into details, but I will say that the final [yet to be written] book of The Bedlam Bible will consist of twelve short stories, including one additional story that serves to connect the other twelve, much the same as Ray Bradbury used to do with many of his short story collections.

I discovered Bradbury when I was very young, somewhere around nine or ten years old. I can’t adequately put into words just how his stories made me feel… it was as if my brain was boiling. His words opened doors inside my mind, and not just opened them, they blew the damn things down, launching me into these strange, wonderful worlds he so meticulously created.

To prepare myself for writing the conclusion to my Bedlam Bible series, I need to get in the right mindset. I’d like for these stories to boil unsuspecting brains the way that Bradbury’s boiled mine so long ago. My goal as a writer/creative person is to always, always, always ‘fuck people up’ with my imagination [hence Doom Fiction], so in creating what will be the grand finale of the series of books I’ve been writing for the last seven years, I thought it necessary to go back to the master, to study the stories that melted my little mind and made me the way I am today—however this time I’ll be studying them closely, under microscope, analyzing them, to see how and why they work as well as they do.

My personal copy of The October Country.

One of the first collections I revisited was Bradbury’s The October Country. This book collects nineteen of his stories, most of which range from good to great (a few clunkers, admittedly, but nestled between so many layers of good ones that you’ll hardly notice). At the very end of this post, I’ll list my rating for each of the stories in this collection, however the bulk of this rant will focus on my five favorites: Skeleton, The Jar, The Lake, The Crowd, and The Man Upstairs. I’ll be explaining what I love about each of these stories in great detail, so this is your warning that there are many spoilers ahead.

The first story I’d like to talk about is “Skeleton.”

It’s the fourth in this collection and, in my opinion, the first that really gave me that wonderful “brain explody” feeling. The story introduces us to a hypochondriac named Mr. Harris who is complaining to his doctor about his “painful bones.” The doctor is nearly livid as he performs his tenth medical examination of the year on Mr. Harris. He gives him a quick look over, tells him to quit smoking and to eat healthier, then bills him for his time. Mr. Harris, feeling he’s not getting the medical attention he needs, decides to get a second opinion, this time from a bone specialist who doesn’t appear to be an actual doctor at all.

Harris is pleased to find the “specialist” will see him right away, and immediately he performs a variety of tests, including taking several x-rays that he plasters all over the room to study. These disturbing bone portraits, of course, freak the hypochondriac out. He now becomes hyper-aware of the constant presence of his skeleton, the grotesque horror living inside him, that’s packed in gore and veiled only by a thin layer of skin. He completely obsesses over the thought of this creep living inside him and comes to hate how involved it is in his every action. The specialist offers to help him, however during the many tests, Harris becomes apprehensive about the specialist’s rough handling of his mandible. Out of fear, he snaps his jaw shut and nearly takes off the man’s nose in the process. The specialist decides it best to send Mr. Harris home with a diagram to help him better acquaint himself with his own body, and instructs him to return only once he’s ready to fully trust him.

Harris goes home and studies the diagram until he can think nothing more of humans than walking horrors, and now can’t help but to think of his wife as one as well. He cringes as she cracks her knuckles and becomes disgusted at the way her kneecaps slide over the hinge of her leg bones. Then he notices the shape of her torso, how her curves are formed by her rib cage… it nearly makes him sick!

“A skeleton. One of those jointed, snowy, hard things, one of those foul, dry, brittle, gouge-eyed, skull-faced, shake-fingered, rattling things that sway from neck-chains in abandoned webbed closets, one of those things found on the desert all long and scattered like dice! He stood upright, because he could not bear to remain seated. Inside me now, he grasped his stomach and head, inside my head is a—skull. One of those curved carapaces which holds my brain like an electrical jelly, one of those cracked shells with holes in front like two holes shot through it by a double-barreled shotgun! With its grottoes and caverns of bone, its revetments and placements for my flesh, my smelling, my seeing, my hearing, my thinking! A skull encompassing my brain, allowing it to exit through its brittle windows to see the outside world!”

I want to take a moment to talk about the way Bradbury breaks certain writing rules in this story. As you can see in the passage above, he shifts back and forth between first and third person POV, rapidly and without any indication (through use of italics) to keep order. I love this tactic for two reasons: 1) it gives the reader the opportunity to feel the same fevered, anxious panic felt by the protagonist, as the nauseating POV shifts serve to figuratively grab the readers by their collars and shake them rapidly, all while shouting grotesque imagery into their faces, and 2) it implies that Bradbury was perhaps having a lot of fun while writing this tale, letting his fingers fly across the keys of his typewriter, without stopping and thinking about “the rules” he was breaking. I love picturing Ray, down in his basement, surrounded by all those books and little trinkets that gave him so much inspiration over the years, laughing maniacally as he typed up the madness that makes up this little story. I can see it vividly inside my head.

Anyway, lets get back to the story, shall we?

Harris begins losing weight as he becomes convinced his skeleton is squeezing the life out of his internal organs. His new look is pleasing to his wife, as she states he was “always a little too plump for his height anyway,” but all Harris sees when he examines these slender features are the outline of the terror hiding there beneath his skin. He can’t take it anymore. Despite still not feeling 100% about the “specialist’s” intentions, he breaks down and walks to his office. Just as he approaches the front door, his bones radiate with extraordinary pain, so overwhelming and intense that he heads back home. He notices the pain gradually ceases the farther he gets from the specialist’s office. This gives him hope that perhaps this is a sign that the man really can help him, as his bones seem to know something that he doesn’t.

After a chat with a portly man in a local pub, he concludes that to calm his anxiety he needs to take a much-needed road trip. He decides to head to Phoenix for a change of scenery, and to lock down a business deal he’s had in the works for quite some time. While there, he is involved in a car accident that leads to his physical condition deteriorating to an even greater degree than before, so much his wife is shocked at how thin he’s become. At this, he realizes he can put it off no further, he must call the specialist and resolve this issue with his bones at once, before his skeleton gets the best of him.

At the specialist’s office, he pours out his heart, explaining in great detail the many ways he’s been tortured by his skeleton since their last meeting. While he’s talking, he takes notice of the specialist’s curiously hollow tongue, but it’s much too late to inquire about it, as he is already being prepped for operation.

“Harris felt his jaw pressed violently in all directions, his tongue depressed as with a spoon, his throat clogged. He gasped for breath. Whistle. He couldn’t breathe! Something squirmed, corkscrewed his cheeks out, bursting his jaws. Like a hot-water douche, something squirted into his sinuses, his ears clanged! ‘Ahhhh!’ shrieked Harris, gagging. His head, its carapaces riven, shattered, hung loose. Agony shot fire through his lungs.”

After the operation, the specialist flees the scene. Nowhere to be found. Harris, just having his bones removed, has no choice but to lay there, like a jellyfish until his wife comes to his aide. As she walks to the office to meet up with her husband, she passes a strange character on the street, one who reeks of iodine. She notices he’s gnawing on a long white stick and sucking out the filling with his peculiar tongue. She tells herself it must be a peppermint stick and thinks nothing more of it.

She shrieks something awful at the sight of her husband, who has now been reduced to a pile of skin. He calls her name.

Out on the street, the iodine creep blows into the newly hollowed center of his treat, now revealed to the reader as one of Mr. Harris’s long and slender bones, a piece of that dreadful skeleton he wanted no part of. From it, a haunting melody plays, accompanying the sound of Mrs. Harris’s incessant wailing.

I love how much this story surprised me. It didn’t end the way I was expecting it to end at all. The average writer would have perhaps ended the story with Harris losing his battle with mental illness, or maybe even implied that the man’s delusions were valid, that the skeleton was indeed a thing of evil. Had either of those been the actual ending, I wouldn’t have went back to this story. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Instead, Bradbury serves us a heaping scoop of weird and we’re left with no other choice but to take it in, to let it dissolve inside our minds.

Some readers might complain that the character of the specialist isn’t developed enough, that we don’t know much about him. Where did he come from? Why does he eats bones? Why is his tongue hollow? Is he even human?

If you’re asking these questions, you’re missing the point. The horror is that we don’t know—that we will never know. That final vision of the bone muncher walking the streets, gleefully playing a haunting tune on a bone recently removed from the character we’ve been reading about for the last twenty minutes is, to say the least, down right chilling. And the thought of Mr. Harris, still living and calling out his wife’s name, despite having been reduced to a puddle of flesh, is campy and disgusting and totally unexpected.

I’m in love with this story. I’m not one to say I’m jealous of other writers’ stories, but this comes close. I’m just so thankful Ray thought about it, took the time to write it, and that it actually exists.

And this isn’t even his best story! It may not even be the best story in this particular collection! There are still four more stories from The October Country I’d like to revisit and share with you, but that will have to wait until Part 2 of this post (coming later this week).

Until then!

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