Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 30: It is All Disease and Nobody Will Know

When I wrote briefly about Ray Bradbury last October, circumstances dictated that I focus on those aspects of his writing about which I'm less than fond -- the particularly Spring-choked nostalgia, the cuteness, his special brand of densely sentimental prose. I haven't warmed to those aspects since he passed away earlier this year, but the story under discussion last year, "The Tombling Day," offered the opportunity to talk only about those things, and while I tried to temper my negativity with a "but I like these ones" list of Bradbury stories I was quite fond of, the overall impression I gave was not what I would call sympathetic to Bradbury's vast body of work. Given that vastness, I might have tried to temper things a bit more, but for what it was, the post was an honest one.

When Bradbury died on June 5, like the rest of you I read a lot about him on-line, and along with coming across this quote...

I learned that I was right and everyone else was wrong when I was nine. Buck Rogers arrived on the scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living. The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; they are my enemies.

I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

...which is unimpeachably magnificent, I also picked up a lot of recommendations for Bradbury stories I hadn't read. That night, I scoured through my collection of his books and picked two of those stories, "The October Game" and "Heavy-Set," and read them. Both are terrific, "The October Game" being an especially nasty horror story of unconscionable revenge, and "Heavy-Set," while not horror, turned out to be a pitch-black chronicle of a mother and son relationship that ends, I suspect, right before it did, in fact, become a horror story. I loved "Heavy-Set" in particular -- there was no genre category in which it could be slotted, it didn't deal with imagination, there was no hint of fantasy, even in a metaphorical sense, which in my experience of Bradbury was up to then unheard of. That one opened up the possibilities of Bradbury for me a bit, that for every story I disliked there could be one or two or three that hit me like a brick across my jaw. The fact that both stories were rather chillingly bleak did not escape my notice, and did not strike me as coincidental. I hope that doesn't say anything about me.

I read four Bradbury stories for today, but one of those wasn't horror, and I plan on dispensing with it quickly. Also, I didn't like it. While "The Haunting of the New" is certainly not a happy story (I'm not sure Bradbury wrote a lot of those, to be honest), in terms of the prose it does make room for just about all of the things about Bradbury I don't like. Nearly a ghost story, but a self-conscious flip on the idea, "The Haunting of the New" describes characters who live lives of unending and frivolous decadence, the globally scattered crew coming together every few years at Grynwood, the home of Nora, the chief and most enabling sybarite. But Charles, the narrator, arrives one day after being invited to another blowout only to be told by Nora that Grynwood burned down four years ago -- the identical structure he can see and walk through is a complete, exact-to-the-last-dust-speck replica. And this house being new, despite looking old, it doesn't want them anymore. Nora says that people like her and Charles are "evil" (a strong word that I doubt even Bradbury means) and is forcing her to leave. She offers the house to Charles, but the house wants him gone, too. A fine enough idea for a story, I suppose, except:

"There are a thousand young men in me, Charles.

They thrust and buried themselves there. When they withdrew, Charles, I thought they withdrew. But no, no, now I'm sure there is not a single one whose barb, whose lovely poisoned thorn is not caught in my flesh, one place or another. God, God, how I loved their barbs, their thorns. God how I loved to be pinned and bruised. I thought the medicines of time and travel might heal the grip marks. But now I know I am all fingerprints. Their lives no inch of my flesh, Chuck, [that] is not [in the] FBI file systems of palm print and Egyptian whorl of finger stigmata. I have been stabbed by a thousand lovely boys and thought I did not bleed but God I do bleed now. I have bled all over this house. And my friends who denied guilt and conscience, in a great subway heave of flesh have trammeled through here and jounced and mouthed each other and sweat upon floors and buckshot the walls with their agonies and descents, each from the other's crosses. The house has been stormed by assassins, Charlie, each seeking to kill the other's loneliness with their short swords, no one finding surcease, only a momentary groaning out of relaxation."

So. Lots of metaphors in there. I won't try to sort through them all, but I'm pretty sure "barbs" are penises. So are "thorns" and "short swords." This story made me groan and squirm and fire buckshot at crosses, and I was very glad to realize it wasn't a horror story and I could flee from it in good conscience.

But the Bradbury stories that were horror? Or near enough anyway? Those are something else again. Taking the stories in the order of least to most horror, I'll begin with "A Touch of Petulance," first published in Kirby McCauley's Dark Forces anthology. This story exemplifies one of Bradbury's greatest strengths, which was to take an old idea and employ it towards an end no one had thought of before. "A Touch of Petulance" begins this way:

On an otherwise ordinary evening in May, a week before his twenty-ninth birthday, Johnathan Hughes met his fate, commuting from another time, another year, another life.

His fate was unrecognizable at first, of course, and boarded the train at the same hour, in Pennsylvania Station, and sat with Hughes for the dinnertime journey across Long Island.

That "fate" turns out to be Hughes's future self, an old man who has traveled from 1999 (that Bradbury doesn't waste a second with some useless explanation of the mechanics of time travel is also to his credit) just a few days after murdering his wife, a woman that present-day Hughes has only been married to for one extremely happy year. It is the goal of future Hughes to make current Hughes aware of this, and to plant the seeds that will stop this from happening. What could have gone wrong in their marriage, the current Hughes wonders, and his older self really doesn't have an explanation. All he can say is that over time, Hughes will come to hate his wife, and he must avoid this at all costs. To say more about the plot would be to ruin it, but this story did wind up in a horror anthology. I'm not sure it is horror, really, but it's black, all right, even hopeless. The old man is referred to as Hughes's "fate," after all. That's no accident.

Better still is "The Women," from his 1969 collection I Sing the Body Electric!. If "A Touch of Petulance" is a great example of one of Brabury's creative gifts, "The Women" is an example of what may have been his greatest gift, which was to imagine something entirely new, to look at something ordinary and imbue it with a mystery that is unique. In "The Women," a man and his wife are near the end of their vacation at a beach-side hotel. They are on the beach, and the man is anxious to take one last swim before they have to leave, but his wife keeps finding ways to distract him, by asking him to do a favor, or getting him talking about some other topic. She does this because she knows she has a romantic rival, namely, the ocean.

This sounds absurd when phrased bluntly, but at his best, Bradbury's magic was to take the most wild and ridiculous fantasy or horror ideas and make them seem, if only for the span of a ten page story, entirely believable. Not to beat a horse I'm sure I killed years ago, but one of the keys to this is to not explain himself. Bradbury doesn't tell us why or how the ocean can love anything (the thinking and feeling part of the ocean is described only as "the phosphorescence"), let alone this particular man, whom Bradbury describes as having a "cow body," nor does he let us in on how the man's wife clues into this. That's just how it is, and the world is a mysterious place. Bradbury writes:

Each day he should have come down to the water, to bathe, to swim. But he had never moved. There was a woman on the sand with him, a woman in a black bathing suit who lay next to him talking quietly, laughing. Sometimes they held hands, sometimes they listened to a little sounding machine that they dialed and out which music came.

The phosphorescence hung quietly in the waves. It was the end of the season. September. Things were shutting down.

So from the ocean's point of view, it's now or never. Well, it turns out to be now, and the end of "The Women" is brutal and tragic and free from any maliciousness or villainy. Like any natural disaster, it just is.

Finally, there's "Fever Dream," an eight-page bit of awfulness and horror that seems to have been written specifically to terrorize all of Bradbury's young readers the next time they got sick. Available any number of places, but read by me in The Vintage Bradbury, "Fever Dream" is about a young boy named Charles, who is sick. With a cold, maybe, or maybe, according to his genial but possibly arrogant doctor, scarlet fever. Charles is convinced something else is going on, something much worse. He sees his hands and legs changing color and twitching, and he forms a theory that he explains to his doctor this way:

"I've been thinking...Do germs ever get big? I mean, in biology class they told us about one-celled animals, amoebas and things, and how millions of years ago they got together until there was a bunch and they made the first body. And more and more cells got together and got bigger and then finally maybe there was a fish and finally here we are, and all we are is a bunch of cells that decided to get together, to help each other out. Isn't that right?"

"What's all this about?" The doctor bent over him.

"I've got to tell you this. Doctor oh, I've got to!" he cried. "What would happen, oh just pretend, please pretend, that just like in the old days, a lot of microbes got together and wanted to make a bunch, and reproduced, and made more--"

Of course, no one else can see these changes in Charles's body, which leaves the door open for more than one explanation for what's going on here, but the best-case scenario is that a thirteen-year-old boy has gone insane. The worst case scenario is one of the blood-chilling "Patient X" scenarios I've ever read, and, like I say, "Fever Dream" is all of eight pages long. It really is a superior story, and the last page or so is so wonderfully precise in its clinical horror that I had to smile. Wonderful, and terrible. That, to me, was Bradbury's greatness.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Thanks Bill! Bradbury has always been a favorite of mine, so glad you kept looking until you found some you liked too! And I agree about the strengths you mentioned, his prose my get overly colorful from time to time (not for me, but I can see it) but his imagination always makes up for it!