So, Ray Bradbury’s The October Country — Is it pioneering dark fiction or classic horror fiction?
Ray Bradbury is one of America’s most distinguished writers. The author of acclaimed works Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, he has attained the status of legend deservedly. His death in 2012 brings disheartening loss to a great many loyal fans and readers.
The October Country is perhaps one of Bradbury’s least heralded accomplishments. The collection of stories includes staple-pieces put to film in his television series, The Ray Bradbury Theater, which aired many years ago and featured guest stars like Star Trek’s William Shatner.
Ray Bradbury’s The October Country may well be one of dark fiction’s earliest manifestations. Quite unsuitably, Bradbury’s short stories in this collection were dubbed horror stories, but that instance is rarely sufficient to describe just how expansive this body of work is in comparison to horror fiction before or since. After closer inspection, Ray Bradbury’s The October Country is successful at unsettling readers more so than traditional or contemporary horror fiction.
If a reader were to ask precisely what dark fiction is, we can answer that by examining just what dark fiction isn’t in a close comparison to the genre it holds most similarity with. Horror fiction has many sub-genres. Amongst them, the much-maligned splatterpunk and it’s on-screen manifestation in splatter films. There is psychological horror in the example of Bret Easton Ellis’ literary classic American Psycho. There is Gothic Horror, a fusion of rich, Victorian literary tradition and a perverse desire to inspire terror in readers. There is shock horror and its rather straight-forward use of contemporary themes and savagely violent imagery.
In this way, we see the many different incarnations that horror has undergone stylistically throughout centuries of literary evolution. Dark fiction is simply horror fiction that uses crafty subtlety to minimal effect, themes of quietly unsettling nature that do not seek to repulse or inspire fear or dread to degrees otherwise known for horror fiction as we have described. It is intensely literary, without the urge to repeat what Gothic fiction has exemplified throughout time, and it is largely without constraint for clear protagonists and villains. It has an underlying philosophical relevance thematically, and seeks to provoke thought in its readership.
This is because horror fiction as a genre has largely evolved into the body of work that ultimately wields the purpose of achieving more potent results. In a sense, contemporary horror is known to inspire greater dread and lasting discomfort than dark fiction hopes to create. Such a case may be alluded to with Rob Zombie’s body of work. Rob Zombie uses visceral horror elements that seek to amuse with shock value and simpler plotlines.
In fact, dark fiction as a sub-genre is significant for the use of literary aesthetics that create atmosphere and overarching themes that use less of what the horror genre seeks to entail. In a sense, dark fiction has always used subtlety to achieve its purpose of conveying thought-provoking ideology than horror fiction typically ever does.
Why then would anyone argue that The October Country would belong in the horror fiction genre when dark fiction as a sub-genre had yet to emerge from the boiler plate? But indeed, Ray Bradbury did in fact create an intensely literary rendition of the genre template we know as horror, and used subtle psychological fiction in order to temper its literary aesthetics, thusly requiring a moniker more fitting for the distinct combination of characteristics that would help it stand apart.
That said, horror fiction of the literary quality cannot be dispelled simply as dark fiction. Edgar Allan Poe achieved what literary horror fiction has pioneered in great disparities to dark fiction as a genre. This is because dark fiction arose from the ashes of the earliest forms of horror fiction out of a desire to convey devotion to literature more so than horror fiction has ever attempted to do otherwise.
The October Country therefore sees fitting dedication to the pioneering value of dark fiction’s earliest manifestation than Poe’s body of work deserves. Sure, some stories in The October Country sit on that fence more so than provide clear distinction. Otherwise, why would we in fact make great difficulty out of rendering one sub-genre distinct from another.
Such is the case with “The Next in Line” and “The Small Assassin”, which are very obvious cases of horror fiction driven by the desire to horrify. But, stories such as “The Jar” and “The Emissary”, seek more closely to set the mood, rather than inspire supreme dread in the hearts of readers. In saying this, I would state that these two are indeed more subtle, and in fact resolve to convey an underlying message that is not suitably horrific. It is with some of these tales in The October Country that raises the argument that dark fiction was spawned primarily by Ray Bradbury, and could be attributed to him as its earliest practitioner. It also raises the argument of how dark fiction as a sub-genre needs to be distinguished apart from horror fiction altogether.
Another story, namely “Skeleton”, presents an interesting juxtaposition of elements with acclaimed work of literary fiction The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Clearly possessed of such rich sophistication and detail more closely literary and thematic, “Skeleton” raises another argument against the use of horror to describe Ray Bradbury’s storytelling in The October Country.
Like the stories penned by writers Kelly Link and Dan Chaon, stories that unsettle only somewhat and seek to amuse from a literary standpoint more so than genre fiction hopes to accomplish, the two writers are largely the benefactors of dark fiction’s earliest manifestations and provide principal argument for the existence of dark fiction at all.
For writers like those mentioned, horror as a fitting moniker is ill-suited. That is the idea proposed by this article. Whether or not horror as a genre has sought to evolve past genre templates is beyond the scope of one short dissertation. It is quite true in fact that horror fiction as genre fiction has also sought to embody certain characteristics of literary fiction in order to amuse readers in a more widespread fashion. For stories that are intensely literary and more provocative for quiet contemplation, use some elements of horror fiction without making a clear distinction for something different, dark fiction as a moniker may describe such a body of work more fittingly. Therefore, it is with this earliest example of the movement that has been falsely alluded to as horror fiction that dark fiction emerges as a fitting moniker for it in the present age. Authors who dispel the use of horror fiction as a moniker for work more intensely literal may find comfort in the dissertation of such disparity. Why genre tags are relevant to description is only helpful for the sake of denoting what evolution has taken place within the confines of the genre. In essence, genre tags are best kept to intellectual conversations and philosophical discussions that seek to identify what traits befit a writer’s work in alignment with that which can be described as similar. Whether or not The October Country ever raises this argument is not the point that rests easy for the sake of arguing as such for its own benefit, but merely to give credit to an author’s achievement of expanding said genre template into forms that no longer aptly reside within one overarching genre moniker.
In closing, I would like to say that although genre tags may be irrelevant in considering the merits of a particular published work, the argument over the presiding set of core traits that distinguish it sets that published work apart in the context of its distinctiveness. Therefore, if the context of a discussion arguing the validity of said work of art were to improperly identify said characteristics, then discussing a published work’s merits may reveal less in reality. If so, The October Country is due far more recognition than it has gotten and has not attained what it thusly deserves. For, it is in fact a pioneering work, blazing a trail for others to explore with their own writings, we can truly conclude that the legacy The October Country leaves behind has been overshadowed by the author’s more acclaimed works. Hopefully, by arguing the merits of The October Country and its value in pioneering dark fiction as we know it, we can better appreciate the legacy it leaves behind, and the true impact Ray Bradbury has made in literature can be properly realized.
— Al Necro