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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Monday, October 14, 2013

October Country

“Suddenly the day was gone, 
night came out from under each tree and spread.” 
                     Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree

"Tombstone" -  Concord, Massachussets
October is one of my favorite months of the year. 

Not only has the heat of summer largely dissipated -- at least here in Southern California -- but the slight chill in the air means it's almost Halloween. There is a dimming of the sun's glow, just a bit and not quite to Winter's cold glare. A few yards in the neighborhood sprout tombstones and gourds and ghosties and goblins and other spirits of the night. Television channels turn to the macabre for days at a time and the Travel Channel explodes with specials related to getting a good fright.

For as long as I can remember, and reliably even before that, Halloween has been among my favorite holidays. It's a time of year that, back in my boyhood on the Eastern Seaboard, was full of the charms only a boy's mind could create. The cold chill of the wind as it blew down from the hills. Ray Bradbury's October Country stories resonate with me to this day. As a boy I was a voracious reader. And much of the material was related to those things that go bump in the night. I'm not going to comment much on the current state of what is called "horror" these days -- too many of these things are built mainly out of ways to dispatch teenagers in the most gruesome possible ways. I understand that not one of us hasn't wanted to carry through on our nefarious thoughts regarding teens at least once in our lives, but that's not the sort of thing that keeps you in suspense over the long term.

For me it's all about mood. Imagery. This comes as no real surprise given my love of the visual arts. But real chills don't come from the visual scene of an axe-wielding murderer chopping down on the victim. True horror comes from those moments right beforehand when you, as an audience member, are aware that there's something lurking in the dark behind the victim. The murder is the follow through, the gore. It's the tension of "what if" right beforehand that is the crux of what scary things ought to be.

This is something the masters understand. In Ray Bradbury's classic story "The Scythe" he describes the horrible and painful loss of a loved one, and yet in his also-classic story "Obstinate Uncle Otis" he is able to turn the tables and make it an amusing little tale of obstinacy and its impact on the unwitting. In my friend Harlan Ellison's brutal tale 'I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" it isn't the brutality of the deaths which frighten us, it's the fear of the things in the darkness around the five human characters in the piece -- and of the hatred, the visceral hatred for the main characters expressed by the electronic pseudo-God AM.
"Nightmare" - Skagway, Alaska

Lazy directors and writers have come to equate body count with horror and it's unfortunate that we are losing that fear of the dark itself which is the basis for all horror around us.

What does any of this have to do with travel? I love visiting those places which give us the heebie-jeebies. The scary and spooky places which, by their simple nature, bring out that dark part of ourselves and let us play with it. It's a form of therapy, really, this focus on the things which frighten us. And so it stands to reason that I often seek out the scary stuff to expose it and play with it and understand it a bit better both as an artist and as a human being.

The Jerome Grand Hotel, Arizona
In my wandering I've been underground in Salem, Massachusetts. Stayed a night in a haunted former hospital on a mountainside in Jerome, Arizona. Wandered the dark below decks of the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach. Felt a chill walking a hallway at the Hotel del Coronado. Stood in the crypt of John Paul Jones at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Wandered cemeteries in places as diverse as Newport, Rhode Island and Kennebunkport, Maine; in Skagway, Alaska; in El Paso, Texas and Taos, New Mexico; in Paris; Saint Barthelemy; in New Orleans; and Williamsburg and Arlington, Virginia. New York City. Places of history, of legend.

The Garden District, New Orleans
To me it's simply part of being a seasoned traveler. Yes, the element of fun is unquestionably there, but how can you properly respect a place without taking a moment to honor the dead, the legends, the history of a place. Some places, like Salem and Jerome, embrace the spooky parts of their past. And that's all right. Others prefer to leave it to the traveler to find that place, that history that scary spot and to understand and appreciate it for what it is: a dark part of our ancient selves come out to play.

The illustrations for this blog entry, in honor of Halloween, are more directed towards otherworldliness than pretty pictures of places I've been and am able to recommend. These are not stories of delicious treats in Sicily, or the spectacle of mountains along the California coast…no, these are the places that are eerie and fun and reach a part of our collective psyche to jump out of us and shout "boo". It's the fear of the dark and the soothing nervous giggle when you discover it was a cat that knocked that can off the shelf and not something horrific coming for your soul. It's a part of our ancestral heritage which we ought to cuddle and nurture and reassure, here in our modern world.

Our ancestors feared the dark and created the supernatural as a way to explain it and handle it as they gathered around campfires and pulled their children closer to the family bosom. For that is the nature of our fascination with the unknown. It's a way to understand the fear, give it context. Let us, when the mood strikes, have some fun at our own expense.

Happy Halloween.

Boot Hill. Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas

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