Strange California “October Country”

“October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . 

—Ray Bradbury

 

Southern California has its own particular kind of October County: the smell of sunbaked earth, the electricity in the air that comes not from gathering storms but from the harsh, dry Santa Ana winds; and the chill in the air in the evening that smells of eucalyptus, sagebrush, smoke and skunk, but it’s something elusive that is rarely captured in the pages of a book.  

California authors and even filmmakers—even Bradbury, a longtime LA resident— often seem to turn to colder, gloomier settings far from the California sun. Rod Serling’s legendary Twilight Zone TV series, which was filmed in and around LA and written by LA screenwriters, is arguably the closest thing we have to a California Halloween mythology, and even in The Twilight Zone, the monsters show up on Maple Street, not a suburb in the San Fernando Valley—in fact, the entire “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” episode was filmed on the New England Street set at MGM studios right here in LA.

The editors of a recent anthology of speculative fiction entitled Strange California have channeled the spirit of Bradbury’s October Country with a distinctly California twist of the supernatural. The book features 26 stories by a mix of established and emerging writers. It’s illustrated throughout by J. Daniel Batt, who also edited the collection with Jaym Gates. 

Batt and Gates suggest in their introduction that any place can be weird, but that California is more than weird, it’s strange. 

“Weirdness exists and is perceptible because it deforms our familiar reality,” the editors write. “Strangeness, on the other hand, suggests a more lasting difference: that reality in the strange place has always been like that, and it is you who are out of place.”

The book is a somewhat uneven collection, but it does convey a convincing feeling of strangeness, and there are some standout stories. Between the pages of this anthology are people who talk to the dead, monsters in human form, sea serpents in a suburban bathtub, and a witch who haunts an orange grove. 

“The borders of California are easily imagined to contain a myriad of oddities and wonders,” the editors write in the introduction. One warning: while Strange California is wonderfully creepy, it leans heavily towards horror and is not for the squeamish. 

That is often true of Bradbury as well, but for a taste of California October County that is atmospheric and macabre but not overtly gory, Bradbury’s novel Death Is a Lonely Business, published in 1985, is an ideal choice. Although many of his stories are rooted in the Illinois of his childhood, this novel is a murder mystery with supernatural elements set in the Los Angeles of the 1950s. 

“Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad,” Bradbury begins his story. “It had fog almost every night and along the shore the moaning of the oil well machinery and the slap of the dark water in the canals and the hiss of the sand against the windows of your house when the wind came up and sang among the open places and along the empty walks…”

The author lived in Venice in that timeframe, and the book is filled with vivid descriptions of life in the ramshackle beach community. It includes the Santa Monica Pier carousel, Marion Davies’ extraordinary beach mansion (a small part of which is now the Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica) and the Red Car trolley from the beach to Downtown LA. 

Death Is a Lonely Business finds a distinctly Bradburian balance between Raymond Chandler’s noir detective thrillers and HP Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors. It is written in the first person by an unnamed narrator very like Bradbury, who is drawn into investigating a series of bizarre murders. This is a loving and strange portrait of a lost Los Angeles at the edge of modern suburbia and the bright lights of Hollywood.  

Although, Hollywood’s bright lights have cast plenty of shadows of their own, perhaps it’s not surprising that the entertainment industry has created some of the best stories of supernatural California. This is especially true of TV. The original Twilight Zone continues to influence new generations of writers and filmmakers; it, in turn, was influenced by Bradbury, who only wrote one episode, ”I Sing the Body Electric,” that was a major influence on Rod Serling, the show’s creator.

The Twilight Zone wasn’t the only series to showcase the stranger side of California in TV’s so-called Golden Age, and it wasn’t the only one influenced by Bradbury. Alfred Hitchcock Presents was an anthology series in a similar vein. It debuted in 1955, four years before The Twilight Zone, and ran for 10 years. Bradbury wrote seven episodes. 

Joss Whedon’s 1997-2003 TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer also belongs in the supernatural California genre. Like The Twilight Zone, this series also had a major influence on pop culture. Like Rod Serling, Whedon credits Bradbury as one of his influences as a writer and filmmaker.

Whether old or new, book or TV show, Bradbury’s October Country is aliveor possibly undeadin all of these stories.

Strange California and Death Is a Lonely Business are available at Amazon, as is The October Country, Bradbury’s collection of supernatural short stories from which the quote at the start of this article was drawn (this collection has one distinctly California story, “The Wind,” about a vindictive Santa Ana windstorm). The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are all available from various sources to stream or buy. All of the books and many episodes of the TV shows are available through the county library.

 

HALLOWEEN ACTIVITIES

There are also many local activities this month that offer a Bradburian taste of autumn:

The Calabasas Pumpkin Festival, Saturday, October 19–20,10 a.m.-5 p.m., Juan Bautista de Anza Park, 3701 Lost Hills Road, Agoura Hills. $5-$10. https://calabasaspumpkinfestival.com/index.html

Nights of the Jack at King Gillette Ranch, a walk-through pumpkin display, every night 6:30- 8:30 p.m. through October 28. $22-$27 per person. https://nightsofthejack.com/

The Forneris Farm Corn Maze, through October 31, 15200 Rinaldi Street, Mission Hills, Weekends: 9 am-5 pm, weekdays, 1- 5 p.m., $15-$20. https://fornerisfarms.com

Topanga’s own Will Geer’s Theatricum BOO-tanicum, Saturday, October 26, 4 p.m., $10-$22. theatricum.com/boo-tanicum/

Topanga Elementary School’s annual EnWitchment Programs’ Halloween Carnival, Topanga Community Center, 1440 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Saturday, October 19, 4-8:30 p.m. $20 per child; $50 for a family pass; $10 for accompanying adult. topangaelementary.org/halloween-carnival

 

Halloween at Malibu Feed Bin. Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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