“The October Game” (1948) is a short Hallowe’en horror story by American author Ray Bradbury. It has the plot of an urban legend with characterisation typical of a written narrative.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE OCTOBER GAME”
A monster of a father spikes the punch at a Hallowe’en party organised by his wife, then uses real human entrails for the basement party game. His own eight-year-old daughter is the first to realise what her father is planning. She watches carefully.
The monster-father takes over organising the party games. Other mothers tell Louise how lucky she is to have such an involved husband, so good with the kids.
Monster-father sets up a ‘fun’ game in the cellar. Everybody slides down a slide into the darkness where he passes around innards. This creeps the children out. Louise notices her own daughter is very quiet, so reassures her. But there comes no reply. The mother starts to panic.
When Marion can’t be found, readers deduce that the neighbourhood guests are dipping their hands into the entrails of monster-father’s dead eight-year-old daughter.
The suburbs are frequently a horror arena in storytelling, because they are so often a ‘snail under the leaf‘ setting: Everything looks great, but move a leaf and find a horrible, slimy snail. Thinks aren’t so pretty now, are they?
(Coincidentally, more on snails below.)
The family live in a suburban Dream House, which are always two-storeys high and usually have a basement and attic.
Bradbury also utilises the symbolism of seasons. Autumn affects this man by infusing him with the melancholy of an ending. Spring has the inverse effect on him, because everything is is springing to life.
A father with an eight-year-old daughter called Marion and a wife called Louise lives in the suburbs and hates Hallowe’en. He despises how his ice queen/witch wife really gets into the spirit of the season, decorating the house and yard, organising a fun party for the neighbourhood children. This year, he considers murder.
Since this is the post-war period, we might deduce this guy has returned from war with complex post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD) but that’s reading beyond the text. On the page, the guy has some kind of personality disorder. He has no emotional connection to his wife and child. Whether this was brought on by wartime experience or because he’s a narcissist doesn’t matter to the story. He arrives on the page in statu nascendi — as if he’s just been born. We get no backstory and, in a narrative like this, it would be a mistake to give him one. It really is enough for readers to know that he’s completely cold.
ASEXUAL (MIS)REPRESENTATION IN FICTION
From under the mask, blonde hair showed. From the skull sockets small blue eyes smiled. He sighed. Marion and Louise, the two silent denouncers of his virility, his dark power. What alchemy had there been in Louise that took the dark of a dark man and bleached and bleached the dark brown eyes and black hair and washed and bleached the ingrown baby all during the period before birth until the child was born, Marion, Blonde, blue-eyed, ruddy-cheeked? Sometimes he suspected that Louise had conceived the child as an idea, completely asexual, an immaculate conception of contemptuous mind and cell.“The October Game” by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury describes how the guy is cold without attempting to hint at the whys and wherefores. This man feels so little for his daughter that he describes his wife as ‘asexual’. She reproduced without him. In the 1940s, the word asexual was not used to describe humans, except in metaphor describing people as snails and amebae.
This is not how the word should ever be used today, even in fiction, because around the turn of the 21st century, another usage of the word asexual started to be used more widely, eventually cementing into the lexicon. Asexual now describes a sexual orientation, in the same word family as homosexual, heterosexual, bi-plus, pansexual and so on. Asexual now does describe humans — without metaphor — and refers to a sexual orientation which doesn’t point anywhere in particular.
I am careful to mention this because ‘asexual’ continues to be used as an insult and asexual people are still, far too frequently, compared to lower order species. In stories like these, to psychopathic, unfeeling fictional characters who do terrible, terrible things to other people are somehow associated with asexuality, as if someone’s orientation affects more than attraction.
The husband in “The October Game” actually accuses his wife of being asexual because he feels nothing for his own daughter, but readers will likely interpret that he doth protest too much. It is clearly the husband who is struggling with lack of attraction, love, empathy etc., as if all of those completely separate aspects of humanity can be bundled into one.
Of course, we can’t blame Ray Bradbury for using the word asexual like this, because he wrote “The October Game” more than half a century before ‘asexuality’ widely described human sexual orientation. He really was using the scientific sense of the word, in the way we still describe snails today. (Not all snails: Some reproduce sexually, some asexually. The New Zealand mud snail is versatile.)
On another level, the experience of Louisa can serve as asexual allegory, forcibly impregnated in the 1930s then required by society to marry her rapist, who then accuses her of being a ‘loveless mother’. He was hoping all along to recreate a boy in his own image. Since that’s not how genetics works, the woman he forced to be incubator has let him down badly.
Of course, it is the man who wishes to reproduce asexually (like a snail), cloning a baby version of himself without the influence of a pesky woman’s gene pool.
putting the pieces together
“The October Game” is one of those stories where you may get to the end and think, “Oh no, what happened, exactly?” Whenever this happens in a short story, return to the opening paragraph and, if the writer has pulled it off, all becomes clear. “The October Game” opens like this:
He put the gun back into the bureau drawer and shut the drawer*.
No, not that way. Louise wouldn’t suffer that way. She would be dead and it would be over and she wouldn’t suffer.“The October Game” opening sentences
This opening paragraph contains part of the answer but it also contains misdirection. For the majority of the story, readers expect the man to kill his wife, but slowly. Since men killing intimate partners and former intimate partners is such a prolific reality around the world, I really hoped Ray Bradbury wasn’t writing that plot. I was glad to see Louise still alive at the end, after Bradbury lets us believe for a page or so that she’s been killed. But after a brief sigh of relief, the story-reality is even worse.
*Interesting use of word echo in the opening sentence, don’t you think? He uses the word ‘drawer’ twice. I this sloppy editing or does the repetition exist for a reason? Let’s assume everything Ray Bradbury did was for a reason. In which case, I refer you to my post on The Symbolism of Containers, in which items which open and close, concealing other items are frequently utilised for their symbolism in stories. This guy is hiding a secret motivation to inflict trauma on his family, ‘keeping his plans and emotions locked away in a drawer’. (On the nose? Maybe.)
LEAVING GORE OFF THE PAGE
Judiciously, Bradbury leaves the details off the page. I don’t recommend thinking about it too hard. Instead, let’s turn to another Ray Bradbury short story, “The Man Upstairs“, which utilises a similar storytelling technique but in a more morally ambiguous narrative. Readers will fill in the gaps to the extent we are comfortable.
FORESHADOWING IN “THE OCTOBER GAME”
Russian writer Anton Chekhov famously said that if a gun appears in a story, it must go off. We call this “Chekhov’s Gun”. (When it happens in children’s literature, I call it Chekhov’s Toy Gun.) As evinced by this story, guns don’t always ‘go off’. But they are symbols of death. Guns indicate impending death. That’s what Chekhov would have meant by ‘going off’.
On the subject of Chekhov’s Guns in literature, is this opening paragraph a subcategory of foreshadowing? I don’t believe so. I explain my reasons in this post, but foreshadowing works at a metaphorical level.
This gun and the subsequent death of the daughter is an example of set-up and pay-off, creating a click like a mortise and tenon carpentry joint. (Not ‘satisfying’, but terrible in this case. ‘Satisfaction’ comes only from understanding what happened.)
Sticking to the carpentry analogy, Ray Bradbury takes readers by the hands, places the mortise in one palm, the tenon in the other and requires us to click the two parts together for ourselves. If set-ups and pay-offs create satisfaction in readers, letting us join parts for ourselves increases the (sometimes harrowing) pleasure of reading.
Although the gun is not an example of foreshadowing per se, Ray Bradbury does utilise foreshadowing elsewhere:
His daughter had been in and out all evening, trying on various masks, asking him which was most terrifying, most horrible.“The October Game” by Ray Bradbury
Death imagery aside, this is a good example of foreshadowing because it works at a metaphorical level. The young daughter tries on literal masks, whereas the murderous father wears the metaphorical mask of a caring, suburban dad. As the father considers how to cause the most trauma, the girl considers hot to cause the most fun (by subverting trauma items in the spirit of Hallowe’en).
RAY BRADBURY TALKS ABOUT HIS OWN CHILDHOOD HALLOWEEN
Header: Frederick Siebel (1913 – 1991) 1953 advertisement illustration for Ballantine Beer