Welcome back, my fellow creatives! October is here for just a bit longer, so we’ve only a few nights more to enjoy reading tales deliciously eerie on chilly autumn evenings.
Today I return to an author I’ve discussed on occasion in years past, but this time I’m tasting something of his work I’ve never tasted before. With All Hallows Eve but a few days away, we simply must take a sip from The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury.
What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!
November is a time of transformation and gratitude, so I cannot think of a better reason to return to sharing the indie authors who have been so kind in supporting my transformation as a writer. Come December…ah, December. Blondie and I have something fun in store for you lovely creative souls. xxxxxx
Autumn washes over Wisconsin with gold, crimson, orange, and steel. Rain keeps the farmland cold and wet, turning three pumpkin pickers into wet whiners.
Still, we manage to pick pumpkins without kicking them at the tractor like soccer balls (don’t ask about that year). Bo stocks our freezer with delicious apple pies. Time to settle in with some hot spiced cider and a spooky read.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And it it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.
One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.
The prologue goes on for just a little bit, but I want to focus on the setting here. The first paragraph establishes a unique focus: the autumn season through the eyes of a boy. Sure, we grown-ups might like the pretty colors. The little kids may be keen to jump into leaf piles. But we’re not talking about those age groups. We’re talking about boys, boys the age of 13, we learn. They’re not too old for pirate voices or costumes for Halloween, not too young for pranks about the town. Bradbury’s voice and choice in detail are going to reflect this “elder youth,” which come in a beautiful trio of sensory details in that second paragraph: “…everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” In a single sentence, Bradbury moves us from the boyish plans of Halloween to the smell, sight, and sound of late October. We are on the streets as child-ghosts float by in the dusk, adults sitting round their fire-pits in drive ways with chili and beer…
…oh wait. That’s Wisconsin now.
Timeless details, I tell you!
But it doesn’t end there. Let’s keep going a bit. I want to show you how just a few drops of sensory detail in the first chapters fill readers—and our protagonists—with foreboding before Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show even arrives.
Take the opening of Chapter 1:
The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.
Firstly, one doesn’t come across a traveling lightning rod salesman every day. Already, we have a touch of not-normal coming into a typical small town, the kind of town that builds on the railroad in the middle of farming country. That the man “sneaks glances over his shoulder” gives readers that sense of foreboding and intimidation. Were this man unafraid, he’d simply look back. But no—he’s “sneaking” the looks, just like Bash sneaks looks out of his bedroom door when the scary owl flies towards the television screen at the beginning ofIt’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Bradbury also instills a visual in readers of something not yet seen: the storm, a “great beast with terrible teeth.” A storm-sized monster “stomping” the earth surely cannot be stopped by mere mortals, can it?
By opening our first chapter with this storm, we already have a sense of “something wicked” coming—only the true wickedness is something else. Bradbury continues to use the storm, too, to crackle the setting and our senses: “Thunder sounded far off in the cloud-shadowed hills…The air smelled fresh and raw, on top of Jim Nightshade’s roof” (11, 12). Once more Bradbury touches our ears, eyes, and noses. The thunder may be “far off,” but the “cloud-shadowed hills” reveal its hiding place. We all love our “fresh” smells, so very pleasant and enjoyable, but “raw”? “Raw” immediately calls up bloody meat, yucky veg, skin cracked and bleeding beneath a dry cold.
These unsettling sensations follows protagonists Will and Jim to the library in Chapter 2. Now we’re in town, where something creeps along behind them, invisible yet…
Jim and Will grinned at each other. It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.
Jim listened. “What’s that?”
“What, the wind?”
“Like music…” Jim squinted at the horizon.
“Don’t hear no music.”
Jim shook his head. “Gone. Or it wasn’t even there. Come on!”(13)
Because only one ear catches it, both boys are quick to excuse this single-sense moment. But when the boys leave the library in Chapter 4, another single sense is touched again…
Mr. Crosetti, in front of his barber shop, his door key in his trembling fingers, did not see them stop.
What had stopped them?
It moved shining down Mr. Crosetti’s left cheek. He breathed heavily. … “Don’t you smell it?”
Jim and Will sniffed.
“Heck, no. Cotton candy! … Now, my nose tells me, breathe! And I’m crying. Why? Because I remember how a long time ago, boys ate that stuff. Why haven’t I stopped to think and smell the last thirty years?”
…And they left him behind in a wind that very faintly smelled of licorice and cotton candy. (21-22)
Now we know that the boys aren’t the only ones catching a whiff, as it were, of something peculiar in the wind. Not only is this adult moved to concentrate on a single smell, but he’s moved to tears. This speaks to a longing inside the character, a want for what was.
For what’s coming.
With lightning and licorice, Bradbury tangles our senses with intrigue. We need to see what lightnings stomp in the hills. We need to see what brings the cotton candy so sweet the very scent of it makes a grown man cry. As you write the first few chapters of your story, take a moment to drop setting details for a few senses, just enough to put the heroes–and readers–on edge.
Charlotte’s hand presses the pendant into her sternum as if to cover
whatever’s cracked open inside her. It’s all she can touch—Anna’s out of reach,
she and every other passenger, their bodies floating about behind dimmed
windows. Does no one else smell the old oil and neglect, like meat burned down
to nothing? The way Jamie stands by the door, hands clasped behind him,
grinning like a choir boy, all pleased with himself, Charlotte knows, freakin’ knows, someone’s pulled an Ed Gein and made the bus seats out of bodies.
“Sweetheart, you’ve got to board, okay?” Maisy calls from the coach. “You
can’t stay here with me. It’ll take days to get the bus fixed.”
And you know you’re oversmelling it, Charlie, just like earlier with the bears and shit. It’s just an old bus, is all. But Charlotte continues to hesitate.
“Hurry up, Charlie, let’s go!” her sister calls from a window. “They’ve got
food in here. And it’s all posh, come on!”
Jamie’s grin grows.
It’s just a bus. Charlotte decides, and tucks the necklace away.
~STILL SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~
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