Something Wicked This Way Comes

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My dad turned me on to Ray Bradbury. The short stories had captivated him in his late teens and early twenties, and on his shelf was a two-volume Grafton paperback collection of them.

There was a waft in them of something dark and strange and menacing and mysterious and infinitely delicious. Picture me, a knock-kneed ten-year-old bookworm in the anaesthetized suburban Surrey of the mid-1980s, taking down from the shelf the first of those two volumes. Its cover had THE STORIES OF RAY BRADBURY in large black block capitals on a red background and, underneath, even larger and in yellow capitals, VOLUME 1. Or rather: VOLUME, and then, underneath and fully half the height of the cover, the numeral 1 pointed upwards like a rocket-ship.

And what a rocket-ship it was. It took me to dozens and dozens of other worlds. Bradbury is a poet of the unheimlich, or unhomely. He transports and unsettles. On the one hand, he has an almost miraculous fecundity of imagination – he’s thought to have written as many as 400 short stories, though nobody seems to be able to put a precise figure on it. On the other, he returns again and again to the same set of vibes, the same themes – the sinister carnival blowing into town, disrupting the safety of the Mid-western America of his small-town childhood in Waukegan, Illinois; the vampiric visitor; the dinosaur; the monster; the lonely beauty of Mars.

The introduction to those volumes was called ‘Drunk – and in Charge of a Bicycle’, and it is at once memoir and manifesto. The way he expresses his relation to his stories is that the muse chased him, rather than vice versa: ‘My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg – I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.’

Bradbury describes a writing life in which he followed his childhood obsessions through a lifelong trip which he identi

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My dad turned me on to Ray Bradbury. The short stories had captivated him in his late teens and early twenties, and on his shelf was a two-volume Grafton paperback collection of them.

There was a waft in them of something dark and strange and menacing and mysterious and infinitely delicious. Picture me, a knock-kneed ten-year-old bookworm in the anaesthetized suburban Surrey of the mid-1980s, taking down from the shelf the first of those two volumes. Its cover had THE STORIES OF RAY BRADBURY in large black block capitals on a red background and, underneath, even larger and in yellow capitals, VOLUME 1. Or rather: VOLUME, and then, underneath and fully half the height of the cover, the numeral 1 pointed upwards like a rocket-ship.

And what a rocket-ship it was. It took me to dozens and dozens of other worlds. Bradbury is a poet of the unheimlich, or unhomely. He transports and unsettles. On the one hand, he has an almost miraculous fecundity of imagination – he’s thought to have written as many as 400 short stories, though nobody seems to be able to put a precise figure on it. On the other, he returns again and again to the same set of vibes, the same themes – the sinister carnival blowing into town, disrupting the safety of the Mid-western America of his small-town childhood in Waukegan, Illinois; the vampiric visitor; the dinosaur; the monster; the lonely beauty of Mars.

The introduction to those volumes was called ‘Drunk – and in Charge of a Bicycle’, and it is at once memoir and manifesto. The way he expresses his relation to his stories is that the muse chased him, rather than vice versa: ‘My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg – I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.’

Bradbury describes a writing life in which he followed his childhood obsessions through a lifelong trip which he identifies as ‘exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration’, which is a good description of how the stories strike a reader. Looked at from some angles, he’s a science-fiction writer; from others the writer of horror stories without whom Stephen King could never have got started.

When I was three my mother snuck me in and out of movies two or three times a week. My first film was Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I suffered permanent curvature of the spine and of my imagination that day a long time ago in 1923. From that hour on, I knew a kindred and wonderfully grotesque compatriot of the dark when I saw one. I ran off to see all the Chaney films again and again to be deliciously frightened. The Phantom of the Opera stood astride my life with his scarlet cape. And when it wasn’t the Phantom it was the terrible hand that gestured from behind the bookcase in The Cat and the Canary, bidding me to come find more darkness hid in books.

Bradbury is a sci-fi writer with the soul of a poet and the nous of a travelling salesman. Just look at the titles. They were frequently ripped off from poets – but what poets, and how stylishly ripped off! ‘Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed’; ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun’; ‘Dandelion Wine’; ‘The Illustrated Man’; ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’; ‘The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’; ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’.

When I say he has the nous of a travelling salesman, I mean, too, that he approached his work as a jobbing writer in the age of the pulps – just a fantastically talented one. He spliced old short stories together and turned them into novels (as did Raymond Chandler), reworked them, repackaged them, resold them. The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles are both ‘fix-ups’: short stories patched together and threaded into a novel. The novel in linked short stories that has had such a vogue in the last decade or so? Bradbury got there first, but through commercial necessity rather than literary experimentation. Yet these stories do what, to my mind, only the very best sci-fi stories (or, perhaps, stories tout court) can do. Each one creates its own pocket universe. And their engines are, as often as not, huge ideas.

Take just one: the justly famous ‘A Sound of Thunder’. Eckels, a wealthy tourist from 2055, travels back to the age of the dinosaurs on a time safari. He has arranged to shoot a T-Rex – one who was going to be squashed by a falling tree only minutes after his hunt, carefully chosen so as to minimize any chance of altering the future. And so as not to disturb the past, Eckels and his guides must keep to a special levitating path. In the course of the hunt Eckels loses his bottle and stumbles off the path into the undergrowth. On returning to his own time, he finds everyone speaking a slightly different language. He looks on the sole of his boot and finds a squashed butterfly. That titular sound of thunder, with which the story ends, is Eckels turning his gun on himself.

What would four astronauts, sent off to their dooms in different directions when their ship explodes, talk about while their communications last? What if the loneliness of deep space drove its voyagers mad? What if there was a planet where it rained ceaselessly for years, and on the one day that the sun came out, just for a couple of hours, one child had been locked in a cupboard by bullies and was forgotten until afterwards? What if the last of a race of prehistoric sea-monsters fell in love with a foghorn? What if the Messiah travelled from planet to planet? What if the crowds who appear as if from nowhere to gawp at the scenes of accidents are, somehow, the same crowd every time?

Those ideas weren’t just intellectual. They were visceral. The story ‘Skeleton’, for instance, is steeped in an almost Cronenbergian body- horror. Its protagonist is a hypochondriac who is feeling aches in his bones. Having been turned away yet again by the GP who has established that there’s nothing wrong with him, he consults a ‘bone specialist’ he finds in the directory, one M. Munigant. M. Munigant has a whistling voice and eager, shiny, darting eyes, and he alludes darkly to ‘an unsympathetic co-ordination between soul, flesh, and skeleton’. Our hero becomes obsessively and horribly aware of his own skeleton.

‘Darling, will you come meet the ladies?’ His wife’s clear, sweet voice called from far away. Mr Harris stood. His SKELETON held him up! This thing inside, this invader, this horror, was supporting his arms, legs, and head! It was like feeling someone just behind you who shouldn’t be there. With every step, he realized how dependent he was on this other Thing.

‘Darling, I’ll be with you in a moment,’ he called weakly . . . A moment later he stood among the ladies, being introduced to Mrs Withers, Mrs Abblematt, and Miss Kirthy, all of whom had skeletons inside them, but took it very calmly, because nature had carefully clothed the bare nudity of clavicle, tibia, and femur with breasts, thighs, calves, with coiffure and eyebrow satanic, with bee-stung lips and – LORD! shouted Mr Harris inwardly – when they talk or eat, part of their skeleton shows – their teeth! I never thought of that. ‘Excuse me,’ he gasped, and ran from the room only in time to drop his lunch among the petunias over the garden balustrade.

The upshot of all this is a final home visit from the mysterious M. Munigant, and the story ends with Harris’s wife arriving home. On the way,

she almost ran into this little dark man who smelled of iodine. Clarisse would have ignored him if it were not for the fact that as she passed, he took something long, white and oddly familiar from his coat and proceeded to chew on it, as on a peppermint stick. Its end devoured, his extraordinary tongue darted within the white confection, sucking out the filling, making contented noises.

And what she finds on the living-room floor . . . My God, that one stayed with me. In another of his greatest hits, ‘The Small Assassin’, he takes the most sacred given about the innocence of the child and turns it on its head. What if a newborn child was absolutely determined to kill its parents? Looked at from one angle – indeed, on the face of it, for most of the story – it looks like a study in post-partum psychosis. But then the paranoid fantasy of the infant’s mother turns out to be true; just as in ‘Skeleton’, what at first looks like a psychiatric disorder is just an inkling of a truly strange and horrible warp in reality. And, yeech, the ending!

It’s telling that ‘The Small Assassin’ is, as are so many of his best stories one way or another (check out ‘The Veldt’ and ‘The Play-ground’), rooted in childhood. Childhood fantasies and terrors and wonders fuelled Bradbury’s imagination; and he knew that children are never innocent.

‘Drunk – and in Charge of a Bicycle’ begins with Bradbury describing getting a fan letter from, of all people, Bernard Berenson. I wrote Bradbury a fan letter, too. In the mid-noughties, as literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, I acquired the serial rights to a piece by Bradbury and put it on the cover of the books section. We used a rust-coloured image of the surface of Mars as an illustration.

When it was printed, I folded two copies of our section into an envelope and posted them to him. I enclosed a handwritten note saying how much his work had meant to me. It felt like sending a message in a bottle, or a rocket towards Mars. I don’t know if they ever reached him. But I hope they did.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Sam Leith 2020


About the contributor

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator.

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