28 pages 56 minutes read

Neil Gaiman

October in the Chair

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “October in the Chair”

“October in the Chair” by Neil Gaiman is a supernatural short story published in his 2006 collection Fragile Things. The story won the 2003 Locus Award for Best Short Story, and the collection won the 2007 Locus Award for Best Collection. Along with earning these awards, Gaiman is a widely read, critically acclaimed author of comics, short stories, novels, and screenplays, mostly in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres.

This guide refers to the story as it appears in the 2010 Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers) edition of Fragile Things.

The story opens with the anthropomorphized months of the year gathering around a fire to tell stories. Gaiman presents this as a frequent family tradition in which the sibling who corresponds to the current month occupies the chair and acts as speaker and leader. In “October in the Chair,” it is October’s responsibility to head the meeting. 

Many of the months are introduced through small talk and snarky comments as they snack on sausages and drink hot apple cider. September begins the storytelling with a tale about a chef with an intense love of wine, but August soon interrupts and reminds the group that September told this story years ago, which is a violation of the rules. The attention then shifts to June, who tells a concise account of an airport employee falling in love with a traveler. The protagonist does not pursue love, however, because of the significant age gap between the two. It is an underwhelming start to the meeting, and it is soon suggested that October tell his story despite the tradition that the chairman’s story concludes the meeting.

After pushback about breaking the usual order and various procedural votes from his siblings, October begins his story. At this point, the story shifts into an “embedded narrative,” transitioning to a story within a story. October’s tale follows the protagonist Donald, or “the Runt,” a young boy who is consistently overshadowed by his popular and athletic older twin brothers. Not only do his brothers dub him the Runt for his diminutive size and personality, but they also deprive him of their parents’ attention, as they are too focused on the twins’ athletic activities. After a particularly cruel encounter with his brothers, the Runt decides to run away. He packs a bag full of beef jerky, comics, and coins and takes the bus west. 

The Runt departs from the bus and follows a river, hoping to reach the sea, but instead, he finds himself in a ghost town. He is drawn toward an unsettling abandoned farmhouse, and while it could provide shelter from the growing darkness, the Runt can’t bring himself to enter the house. He instead settles in a meadow and drifts to sleep full of hope and dreams of returning to a loving family. Sometime during the night, the Runt wakes to a bright moon and a pale face. He finds that he is not alone and meets a ghost boy named Dearly. A former town resident, Dearly becomes the Runt’s guide and partner. When questioned about his presence there, the Runt proudly explains that he ran away, to which Dearly reacts with admiration. The Runt asks Dearly if anyone lives in the run-down farmhouse. Dearly explains that people used to, but they left, and no one lives there now. 

The Runt and Dearly then leave for the town’s graveyard, but not before the Runt leaves his bag against the farmhouse’s fence, necessitating a later return. In the graveyard, Dearly shows the Runt his gravestone and continues to describe the town. Dearly’s gravestone is worn from time, and while the Runt can make out that the boy died about a hundred years ago, no name remains on the stone. Dearly cannot remember his original name and adopted “Dearly” from the remaining words on his stone: “Dearly Departed.” Once again, the farmhouse is brought up, and Dearly explains that the other houses in the town are not the same and can be safely played in. The Runt and Dearly explore the town, and the Runt is impressed by what he sees. After a bathroom break, Dearly suggests they climb a particularly tall tree. 

At the top of the tree, the boys discuss their pasts and hopes for the future. Dearly shares that he died from an illness and that his mother screamed and cried over him. Both boys express that this was the best day that they have ever had, and the Runt, curious about Dearly’s life in the graveyard, asks what it is like to be dead. Dearly shares that it is pretty lonely, as he has no one to play with, and most of the other spirits just sleep. The Runt wonders if he can stay with Dearly and whether that would mean he’d also need to be dead. Dearly cannot give a definite answer, and as the sun begins to rise, the Runt reflects on what lies ahead. 

While the Runt still dreams of a future filled with freedom and love in which he can see the sea, travel the world, become wealthy, and have a vindicating reunion with his family, reality begins to creep in. He hopes to one day return to his family and not only hear their regrets for how they treated him but also flaunt his wealthy, successful life before leaving them again for good. He knows, however, that within a day or two, he will be found, returned, and punished for his actions. He will go back to being the Runt and only experience his family’s ire, now made worse by his attempted escape.

The boys climb down the tree in the early morning light, and before they say goodbye, the Runt asks how he might be able to stay. He knows that his dreams won’t come true if he returns to his family and doubts he will ever have another chance to change his life. He realizes that his dreams also will not come true if he stays with Dearly, but he knows that he could finally have a life in which he is seen and supported. Dearly explains that he cannot help him, but maybe the things in the farmhouse could. The Runt, who thought no one lived there, is confused, but Dearly explains that while no one lives there, it is not abandoned. With a final squeeze of the hand, Dearly disappears, and the Runt is left alone to make the decision. He returns to get his bag, eats a final candy bar, and contemplates the farmhouse’s darkness. He can smell its rot and believes he can hear something moving inside. After hesitating, he enters the farmhouse.

October’s story ends with this cliffhanger, and his siblings are in awe. December comments that it was a story, while June hopes for a resolution. May, however, assures her that it is best to not have one in this case. October’s story dampens the mood, and no one wants to follow with a story of their own. The meeting is voted to a close, and all leave except for October and his neighbor, November. November is to be the next in the chair and compliments October on his story, expressing that his stories are always too dark. October replies, “I don’t think so. It’s just that your nights are longer. And you aren’t as warm” (43). November is comforted by this sentiment, accepting his own identity and its impact on his stories. They touch hands as they depart, leaving the fire until the next time they convene.

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