Home > Critic-At-Large > The Autumn People
The Autumn People
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
We're still weeks away from the official start of the fall season, but to me autumn began last week, on August 15th, the day the weather broke and everybody turned off their air conditioners. The cool weather didn't last too long, of course, and it's a certainty that the humid Indiana summer will continue to reign for another four weeks. Still, it was an important, noteworthy day, one of my favorite days of the entire year. A gentle reminder that sweaters and clear nights are not too far away. With a sense of delight I noticed that school buses — the other major harbinger of the season — started rolling out the very next day.
Spring is usually the season most associated with rebirth but I never really come alive until autumn. I'm not at ease during the lazy days of summer — the pressure to live fully and make the most out of all your days is just too daunting. It's a relief when school starts and everybody locks back in place, when the familiar hum of the fixed schedule sharpens the wits and redoubles the resolve. Coffee tastes better in the fall. Appetites, dulled by the haze of summer excess, return with gusto and chefs usually produce their most adventurous and interesting menus. New fashions arrive, new seasons begin at orchestras and playhouses, and the tiresome summer blockbusters are replaced by thoughtful, award-bound cinema.
The change in the weather provides a daily tonic. It's hard not to be dazzled by the blasts of color from dying leaves in the fall, but frankly I'm just as happy looking at a drizzling and chilled October rain. Lots of people feel cheated by an endless autumn of color-sweeping showers, yet I love the clarity of a steady downpour. The only day I wish for clear skies is full moon day — October 23rd this year, as any committed selenologist would already know. It's one of the few days circled on my calendar, as important to me as Christmas or Easter. The appearance of the Harvest Moon every October shouldn't be jarring yet every year it's impossibly dramatic. One moment you're driving home from work in soft sunlight and then out of nowhere the blood orange sphere descends and engulfs the entirety of the sky. The moon seems too large, otherworldly. Spooky.
Reading in the fall is an undiluted pleasure for me and I like reading stories that reflect the autumn mood. I do this all year round, by the way — I'm so affected by the change of the seasons that I usually adjust my reading lists to accommodate the weather outside. In spring I read young-man adventures, Hemingway and The Razor's Edge, in summer it's hot-weathered novels from Faulkner and All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. Winter usually puts me in Russia, for another re-reading of Anna Karenina or the brutal short novels of Dostoyevski, and fall invariably finds me reading American stories of the uncanny — Edgar Allan Poe, "The Turn of the Screw," "Young Goodman Brown."
This year, in preparation for the season, I'll be re-reading Ray Bradbury's 1962 horror classic, Something Wicked this Way Comes, the story of a dark carnival that rolls into a small Illinois town one October and threatens to steal the souls of all the town's inhabitants. Bradbury is more famously known as a science fiction writer so it's sometimes forgotten that's he written some of the definitive horror stories of the 20th century. A collection of his short stories, The October Country, features some truly creepy tales of the macabre, including "The Jar," "The Scythe," "The Small Assassin,", "The Crowd," and "The Emissary," most of which were filmed for "The Ray Bradbury Theatre," an anthology TV show that occasionally turns up on the Sci-Fi channel. The stories use familiar, small-town America settings and then stands them on their ear. Think "The Lottery," but with more poetic flourishes.
I've read most of his short stories and I like them, but it's his novel about the evil carnival that gets me the most. It's unusual to describe a horror story as being beautiful, but Something Wicked this Way Comes is a beautiful black pearl, a book that perfectly captures the wonder and sadness of being human. Bradbury's carnival employs some truly demonic devices--the carousel, for instance, can run backward, and any traveller that jumps on discovers that for each revolution, he goes back a year in life. This may sound appealing to a youth-obsessed or regretful person, but on further look it's a horrific proposition: "If I became young again, all my friends would still be fifty, sixty, wouldn't they? I'd be cut off from them forever, for I couldn't tell them what I'd up and done, could I? They'd resent it. They'd hate me. Their interests would no longer be mine, would they? Especially their worries. Sickness and death for them, new life for me. So where's the place in the world for a man who looks twenty but who is older than Methuselah, what man could stand the shock of a change like that?" So speaks the novel's hero, Charles Halloway, a middle-aged librarian, a man who sees pretty clearly the deception of the carnival's goals.
I read the book for the first time when I was sixteen, in October, and I'll always be grateful for the timing, for Bradbury was able to give a name to a feeling that I was just beginning to experience yet couldn't identify. At the time I was a pretty well-adjusted kid, yet I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss for something, something I couldn't even name. It wasn't sadness, really, or even regret, and I knew it couldn't be chalked up to mere hormonal teenage changes. It was something deeper, more elemental. A dull ache. Reading the book made me realize that what I was feeling was a common malady called "melancholy" and that "melancholy" wasn't necessarily a bad thing — the middle-aged librarian was a melancholic of the first order, yet he was also insightful, brave, gentle. After reading the book I thought about the librarian a lot, and discovered that he wasn't a bad role model. His sadness wasn't depression, it was just a heightened awareness of the capriciousness of life. I soon recognized that "melancholy" would probably always be a part of my life, too, and that I'd better get used to it.
I have friends who are irreducibly cheerful and I have friends who are complete bittermens, yet I have the most affection for the ones in-between--the autumn people, the sunshine-and-clouds sorts who aren't unaccustomed to bouts of aching and indescribable sadness. This is their time, my time, as the calendar moves inexorably toward September 23, the official start of the season.