Ray Bradbury – A Master of Halloween Fiction

I read Fahrenheit 451 and a few of Ray Bradbury’s short stories when I worked as an English tutor years ago, and while I enjoyed this stuff, I had Bradbury pegged as a dystopian science-fiction kinda guy. Then I noticed his name popping up in discussions of horror fiction, and I realised I had better take a closer look at his output.

I am really glad I did so. Ray Bradbury was an amazing writer, and he wrote some awesomely dark fiction.

Dandelion Wine
Bantam – 1968 (Originally published 1957)

Aside from two separate chapters about a serial killer and a witch, Dandelion Wine has nothing to do with horror. I am including it here because the characters in this book live in the same town as those from Bradbury’s considerably darker Something Wicked this Way Comes. Something Wicked is not a sequel, and you wouldn’t have to have read Dandelion Wine to enjoy it, but Dandelion Wine is a great book and it prepares the reader for the kind of dreamy fantasy that continues in Something Wicked.

Dandelion Wine is quite strange. It’s actually a bunch of short stories that Bradbury wrote and later worked together to form a novel about a young boy’s summertime. Much of it is clearly autobiographical, but there are peculiar parts about a happiness machine and the aforementioned witch that give the book a wonderous feeling. Can you remember dreaming about the summer holidays when you were a kid? Dandelion Wine is full of that majestic uncertainty and childish excitement. I don’t mean childish in a derogatory way here. Bradbury actually takes you back and reminds you of what it felt like.

If anything, this book is almost too sweet. Bradbury wrote it in the 1950s, and he was basing much of it on his own childhood in the 20s. It’s now a hundred years later, and with our pandemic, rising levels of extinction and catastrophic climate change, I don’t know if today’s children can be as full of optimism about their futures.

Still though, this is a beautifully written book, and I strongly recommend reading it before trying Something Wicked.

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Bantam – 1969 (Originally published 1962)

This is the story of a strange carnival coming to town months after carnival season. To the book’s 13 year old protagonists, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, nothing could seem more exciting, but when they hear the Carnival arrive in town in the middle of the night and sneak out of their houses to watch the tents erect themselves, they realise something strange is going on.

The boys discover a merry-go-round that can make a person older or younger, a salesman who has been turned into a wrinkled pipsqueak, and Mr. Dark, the remarkably sinister and aptly named carnival leader. Things get quite scary (especially the witch in the balloon scene, yikes!), and although Stephen King lists Something Wicked amongst horror novels in Danse Macabre, this is far more a work of dark fantasy than pure horror. Yes, there are horrific, scary things that happen in here, but there’s also a great deal of adventure and optimism going on.

Dandelion Wine is set during summer time, but Something Wicked is an autumn novel, taking place in the few days before Halloween. The two protagonists’ birthdays are approaching; they were both born within minutes of the 31st. The seasonal contrast between Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked is part of the reason I think you should read both novels. Contrast is a big thing in Something Wicked: the contrast between the two boys, one wild and dark, the other pale and reserved; the contrast of old and young, Will and his father, Jim’s childhood and the adult he wants to be; innocence and evil; hope and hopelessness… I’m not a professor, so I’m not going to discuss the significance of these contrasts, but I found it hard not to notice them as I was reading.

The writing on display in this book is top notch stuff. I planned to read again as soon as I had finished it.

Dark Carnival
Hamish Hamilton – 1948 (Originally published 1947)

When Ray Bradbury died, Stephen King released a statement saying, “Ray Bradbury wrote three great novels and three hundred great stories.” I had to include some of his stories in an overview of his work, but Bradbury wrote a lot, and I didn’t know where to start. I discovered that Dark Carnival, his first published collection of short stories, was originally put out by Arkham House, August Derleth’s publishing company. Arkham House specialised in horror and weird fiction, so this seemed like a natural starting point for somebody interested in Bradbury’s short horror fiction.

The original Arkham House edition of this book is extremely rare, and I was only able to track down a copy of the British edition, Unfortunately, this edition omits 7 stories: Interim, Jack in the Box, Reunion, The Coffin, The Maiden, The Night Sets and The Scythe.

The October Country
Ballantine – 1956 (Originally published 1955)

In 1955, a second collection of Bradbury’s horror stories was released. The October Country contains 4 new tales and 15 of the stories from Dark Carnival (including 2 missing from the UK edition, The Scythe and Jack in the Box). Some of the stories carried over from Dark Carnival were edited or almost completely rewritten for this collection. These updated versions of the tales are the reason that Dark Carnival is rarely reprinted. Bradbury saw The October Country versions as definitive. (That being said, Gauntlet Press did get permission for a 2001 reprint of Dark Carnival that added a few more tales.)

I’m not going to separately discuss the stories in Dark Carnival and The October Country. To me, the two books are essentially just different editions of the same collection. It would be really nice if a publisher managed to collect all of the stories from all of the editions in one physical book.

It seems kind of pointless to write any more than a few sentences praising Ray Bradbury’s short stories. It’s pretty well established that he was one of the masters of this form of fiction. These stories are from early in his career, but they are undeniably brilliant. They’re creepy too, and some are suprisingly violent (The Smiling People). The Jar, The Small Assassin, The Dwarf, and The Man Upstairs were personal favourites, but the majority of the stories in these books are great.

How talented was death. How many expressions and manipulations of hand, face, body, no two alike. They stood like the naked pipes of a vast derelict calliope, their mouths cut into frantic vents. And now the great hand of mania descended upon all keys at once, and the long calliope screamed upon one hundred-throated, unending scream.

The Next in Line (1947)

Bradbury is one of the few writers I read whose skill with words actually amazes me. Seriously, if you like reading, get a copy of The October Country. This is the good stuff. I know that Bradbury wrote more scary tales, but I don’t think any of his later short story collections are as focused on horror as Dark Carnival or The October Country. Please correct me if I’m wrong; I would love another collection like these.

The Halloween Tree
Bantam – 1974 (Originally published 1972)

An October overview of Ray Bradbury’s spooky books would be incomplete without The Halloween Tree. I didn’t realise that this book is actually a novel for children until after I started it. This is the story of a gang of kids whose Halloween night is turned upside down after one of their friends goes missing.

This is more a fantasy novel than a horror novel. It sees the boys flying through time on a kite made up of carnival posters and learning the history of Halloween. I thought the fantasy parts might be a bit too airy-fairy for adults and the historical parts a bit too dry for kids. I’m sure a certain type of nerdy older kid would really enjoy this, but I wasn’t hugely impressed.

Also, as an Irish person, I was a bit annoyed by two things. First off, Bradbury makes Samhain English. I’m pretty sure this is not accurate. Then he goes on to suggest that Ireland’s only influence on Halloween was the potato famine providing inspiration for beggar costumes. Piss off Ray Bradbury.

Honestly, you can probably skip The Halloween Tree. It’s fairly crummy.

With the exception of The Halloween Tree, I was extremely impressed with Bradbury’s work. Some of his short stories are far closer to “horror” than his novels, but these novels are something special. There’s definitely scariness here, but Bradbury presents his world through the eyes of children, and this combination makes these books feel very Halloweeny. This is crucial October reading. Pick up a Bradbury book right now.

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