'Sharp-Finned, Malignant and Inescapable': Ray Bradbury and the Uncanny
We're all paranoiacs at the very heart of our being. Ray Bradbury has the special genius of knowing how to bypass our conscious minds, ever so gently, and speak directly to the lunatic within.
This is the opening paragraph of Ray Bradbury's short story, "The Small Assassin":
Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell. There had been little subtle signs, little suspicions for the past month; things as deep as sea tides in her, like looking at a perfectly calm stretch of tropic water, wanting to bathe in it and finding, just as the tide takes your body, that monsters dwell just under the surface, things unseen, bloated, many-armed sharp-finned, malignant and inescapable. (82)
I quote this passage not only because it's a magnificent opening for a short story, but also because it describes Bradbury's aesthetic technique. He was the master of a certain creeping dis-ease, the producer par excellence of the slowly growing suspicion that the author is trying to murder the reader -- or at least the characters that stand in for her.
I somehow made it through childhood and my teen years without ever having read Bradbury, not even that high-school classic, Fahrenheit 451. I suspect a general snobbishness about science fiction had something to do with it: Robert A. Heinlein's work was about the only sci-fi I read, and unlike Bradbury's, his work (a) came recommended by a friend and (b) featured a lot of sex. I had a PhD in 20th-century American literature before I ever even opened a Bradbury book. I was team-teaching a course on the relationship between technology and art, and my co-instructor recommended that we teach The Martian Chronicles. The brief story that opens that collection, "The Rocket Summer", revealed my foolishness almost immediately.
"The Rocket Summer" is tiny story—more of a sketch, really, in the Hawthorne mode—five paragraphs long and nearly plotless, which is to say, all style and image. In the middle of winter in Ohio, a rocket launch suddenly and temporarily obliterates the season. Under the repeated social litany of the story's title, Bradbury shows the diesel-driven changing of the seasons: "The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work. The skis and sleds suddenly useless. The snow, falling from the cold sky upon the time, turned to a hot rain before it touched the ground" (1). There's nothing complex or florid in those sentences, two of which aren't sentences at all but mere fragments. Like all minimalism, their complexity, emotional and intellectual, lurks beneath the surface: the townspeople's profound, unstated ambivalence toward the rocket; its capacity to disrupt the work of God and man alike; the vague threat, in that final predicate, of human-engineered environmental catastrophe. We feel those things before we understand them, and it's the understated quality of Bradbury's prose that allows our imagination to lead our cognition.
Bradbury's restraint may be even more striking when one realizes Edgar Allan Poe's clear influence in his writing. I've always hated Poe's work for his overwrought prose, which very occasionally (as in the first paragraph of "The Fall of the House of Usher" or the last of "The Masque of the Red Death") works in his favor, but more often reads almost as parody. This is especially true when he attempts to ratchet up a story's emotions, as in the absurd penultimate paragraph of "The Tell-Tale Heart":
No doubt I now grew very pale;—but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it all. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! (559)
Poe uses em dashes as if he bought them in bulk. The only canonical author who uses them more than he does is Emily Dickinson—but where Dickinson's dashes foster ambiguity and ambivalence, Poe's are mere spectacle, fake blood spurting at the audience in a 3-D horror movie. A person who reads more than one or two Poe stories in a sitting courts a migraine (and that's to say nothing of his ostensibly humorous stories, which are, in their way, more horrifying than his horror).
What Poe is good at, and what I think Bradbury learned from him, is atmosphere. Poe's work isn't scary, exactly; his stories aren't likely to give anyone nightmares. But at their best, they are creepy: If a person reads "Masque of the Red Death" alone at night, we can forgive her for feeling as if someone were scratching around the door. But when Poe achieves this effect, it's typically in spite of his style, not because of it.
In this respect, Bradbury far surpasses Poe; he's able to create that misty, unsettling mood without floridity. His style has the illusion of invisibility, of naturalness, but of course, that's only an illusion, because his prose is every bit as studied as Poe's (and probably more so, because he's a much better writer). The economy and impact of his sentences remind me of no one so much as Ernest Hemingway, though Bradbury clearly does not strive for the far extreme of Hemingway's minimalism, so easily parodied: "I drank the wine. It was cold and good." Bradbury is much harder to parody, perhaps because he brings quite a bit of Hemingway to Poe and a little of Poe to Hemingway.
Strictly speaking, however, Hemingway is Bradbury's peer more than an influence on him, despite the two-decade gap in the beginnings of their careers. Their styles have a common source, a common teacher: the beautiful, incandescent stories of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Writing just before the bloom of Modernism, Anderson's work feels -- and feeling is the appropriate way to approach it -- quite different from James Joyce's, or Virginia Woolf's, or Gertrude Stein's. He is in some ways the Debussy to their Stravinsky and Schoenberg, a quiet revolutionary whose whole tones are so beautiful that we can easily miss how revolutionary they are.
Bradbury discovered this sad, mysterious book in his early twenties, and decades later, said that it "set him free": The Martian Chronicles attempts to transplant the desperate small-town sufferers of Anderson's story cycle into the red dirt of Mars. Curiously, Bradbury denies the existence of any "blood traces" between Winesburg and either The Martian Chronicles or the earthbound Dandelion Wine. "There are no mirror images," he writes. "Anderson's grotesques were gargoyles off the town roofs; mine are mostly collie dogs, old maids lost in soda fountains, and a boy supersensitive to dead trolley cars, lost chums, and Civil War Colonels drowned in time or drunk on remembrance" (x).
To further Bradbury's analogy, the connections between his work and Anderson's are genetic rather than blood-borne: The real comparison is between their feels, not their plots. The best story in Winesburg is the first, "Hands," which follows a former schoolteacher named Wing Biddlebaum. Wing in another town, an earlier time, was known as Adolph Myers, as we find out a few pages into the story. Anderson slowly builds up to the incident that cost him his job, his home, and his name:
With the boys of his school, Adolph Myers had walked in the evening or had sat talking until dusk upon the schoolhouse steps lost in a kind of dream. Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads. As he talked his voice became soft and musical. There was a caress in that also. In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream. (13)
No doubt this passage reads differently more than a century after Anderson wrote it. I suspect we are more sensitive to the child abuse it hints at than his original audience was. and yet it's clearly meant to be sinister to a reader in any era. In the next paragraph, Anderson, ever so obscurely, brings the incident to light: "A half-witted boy of the school became enamored of the young master. In his bed at night he imagined unspeakable things and in the morning went forth to tell his dreams as facts" (13). Clearly the narrator sides with Wing—but a gap remains between us and the narrator, and it's not at all a given that we can trust him. He might, like so many of Bradbury's narrators, wish us ill.
Even an insensitive reader will begin to suspect what happened even before Anderson reveals it. The long paragraph above is designed to stoke our doubt, to gradually raise our anxiety about Wing Biddlebaum. Anderson's technique in accomplishing it is quite similar to Bradbury's in "The Small Assassin": Because one's hands can be used for nefarious purposes, we're already a little on edge, and Anderson hones that edge by hiding the suspicion he wants us to feel in soft, lyrical prose, such that we are seduced and unnerved, brought in and pushed back, at the same time. The phrase "the force that creates life" is akin to the hidden sea monsters in the Bradbury paragraph. Something that creates life can destroy it, too, and so something sinister lurks beneath the apparently innocent gesture, the apparent clarity of the water, waiting to pull us under.
Anderson does not write speculative or horror fiction, of course, but then Bradbury doesn't either, at least not all the time. Some of his most effective stories—"The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl", for example, which vastly outdoes "The Tell-Tale Heart" at portraying the obsessive mind of a murderer—take place in the more or less real world. Such stories are written in Bradbury's familiar style, lyrical and disorienting, with imperceptibly rising uneasiness.
"The Little Mice" is narrated by a man who rents to a strange Mexican-American couple; he senses something off about them, but can't define it. The story prompts us to suspect something supernatural, but their strangeness ends up being entirely human: They drink a massive amount of wine and sit in silence under a blue light for hours at a time. The narrator discovers these odd habits when the houses catches on fire:
And then my flashlight shot through the rooms of their house. Light sparkled on a hundred wine bottles standing in the hall, two hundred bottles shelved in the kitchen, six dozen along the parlor wallboards, more of the same on bedroom bureaus and in closets. I do not know if I was more impressed with the hole in the bedroom ceiling [from the fire] or the endless glitter of so many bottles. I lost count. It was like an invasion of gigantic shining beetles, struck dead, deposited, and left by some ancient disease. (80)
The hallmarks of Bradbury's style—its understatement, its imagism, its lyricism—are all present in this passage, and all of them, in relating the narrator's bewilderment, contribute to the reader's. I'll also add that the very qualities that make the scene disturbing make the telling of it beautiful, a quality that certainly unites Bradbury to Anderson more than to Poe. Finally, note the openness of this passage, and of the story that contains it: No explanation is ever given, and probably no explanation is possible for the tenants' bizarre behavior. Thus our uneasiness never resolves; it only fades, when the couple moves away and the story closes. (This is another trick, I suspect, that Bradbury learned from Poe, who almost never provides explanations.)
The word I suppose I've been dancing around is uncanny, a term popularized in a 1919 essay by Sigmund Freud (excerpted here from MIT). The German word translated as uncanny is unheimlich—literally unfamiliar, or better, unhomely. Much of Freud's analysis of the concept is psychoanalytic and thus not terribly useful for our purposes, but toward the end of the essay, he turns his attention to the specifically literary use of the uncanny. Things that would be uncanny in real life—the repetition of a number over a series of days, for example—don't necessarily feel uncanny to the reader of the fiction. The reason is that, when we read a story, we put ourselves totally in the author's hands: He decides the rules of the world of the story. The world of fairy tales is openly fantastic but not uncanny, because Snow White's forest is the sort of place where dead women come back to life when they are kissed by handsome princes. But if such a thing happened in real life, it would be uncanny: The familiar rules of life would suddenly have become unfamiliar.
Which brings us to Bradbury. Freud says that uncanny fiction presents itself as taking place in our world, even while it refuses to adhere to the rules of that world. In so doing, it taps into the deepest and most repressed reservoirs of the human unconscious. The author of uncanny fiction "takes advantage, as it were, of our supposedly surmounted superstitiousness; he deceives us into thinking that he is giving us the sober truth, and then after all oversteps the bounds of possibility" (18). Uncanny fiction is a kind of shell game in which the author leads us to believe that the ball is under one of the cups, while all the while it's been stowed in his front pocket.
This certainly explains the effect of, say, "The Masque of the Red Death": We've been led to see the decadent party as the workings of a depraved rich man's money, so that we're surprised and unnerved when one guest turns out to be a bodily manifestation of the Plague. Subconsciously, we wonder what sorts of nasty surprises are lurking in our own world, which looks like Poe's in so many ways. That's why the reader of Poe might imagine she hears someone scratching at her door—or, for that matter, why the narrator of "The Raven" imagines that the titular corvid is taunting him.
It's also a great explanation of "The Small Assassin", the story with which I opened this essay. The person whom Alice suspects of trying to murder her is the son to whom she's giving birth. Because this is a story set in a world that looks almost exactly like our own, Alice's husband and doctors dismiss her ideas, and a reader who doesn't know what sort of story he's reading will be inclined to do the same. He will understand that Bradbury uses Alice's fear of her newborn son as a writerly metaphor for postpartum depression—a common and painful condition that was perhaps easier to express in fiction than in plain language in 1946.
The problem is that "The Small Assassin" only appears to be a realistic story with a psychoanalytic allegory underneath: Her son is, in fact, trying to kill her, as we become disturbingly aware over the course of the story, and about halfway through, he succeeds. The passage in which her husband, Dave, finds her body uses the techniques used elsewhere for dis-ease in the service of tragedy: "He held her head in his hands, he felt her fingers. He held her body. But she wouldn't live. She wouldn't even try to live. He said her name, out loud, many times, and he tried, once again, by holding her to him, to give her back some of the warmth she had lost, but that didn't help" (96). What we experience as pathos in this passage, Dave experiences as the uncanny: Something familiar to him (his wife's body) has been made unfamiliar, mere matter. The experience is literally unheimlich: He has returned to his home to find it transformed through tragedy into a horrible and foreign place.
The second level of the uncanny—which, unlike the first, the reader shares—comes with his inchoate understanding that the rules of reality have been violated, that a newborn baby hated its mother enough to trip her down a flight of stairs. Dave, as it were, inherits Alice's sense of the uncanny upon her death, and the reader in turn inherits it when the child murders Dave at the end of the story.
Part of the effectiveness of Bradbury's stories, then, is found in their proximity to our lives. He sometimes writes about outer space and futuristic dystopias, but even then the world he shows us is our own, with the difference that something close to the heart of our security has inexplicably grown fangs. "The Small Assassin" may be the clearest example, but it's far from the only one: "The Veldt" mixes parents' fear of their offspring with Fahrenheit 451's wall-screen technology; "And the Rock Cried Out" features an American couple in mortal danger in a once-familiar vacation spot; "Marionettes, Inc." has a husband who uses an automaton to deal with his wife remotely; a man in "The Pedestrian" is thrown into a lunatic asylum for walking around his neighborhood; and the protagonists of "Skeleton" and "Fever Dream" both feel that their own bodies have become their enemies.
All of these unheimlich horrors are narrated in Bradbury's spare, poetic prose, its lightness adding to the reader's sense that something isn't right—that, as we've always suspected, our spouses, our children, our neighbors, our selves are merely biding their time. We're all paranoiacs at the very heart of our being. Bradbury has the special genius of knowing how to bypass our conscious minds, ever so gently, and speak directly to the lunatic within.
He is helped by his cultural era. He wrote most of his best work, including The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, during the decade immediately following World War II, a decade of conformity and prosperity for some, at least, a golden age for consumerist pleasures, conducted under the shadow of the nuclear threat and the red menace. Bradbury wrote during this era with a nostalgia for his own 1930s Midwestern boyhood. The result for the modern reader is a world wrapped in gauze, and then wrapped in gauze again, which makes the bite all the more unexpected when it comes.
There's an old fashioned—I'd almost say corny—quality to much of Bradbury's work, as if vampires were hiding in the alleyways of Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A. He's particularly fond of the carnival, a wholesome bit of small-town Americana that's also vaguely unheimlich: It brings the whole county together, sure, but it also opens them up to dangerous outsiders. His interest reached its peak in the 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, in which a terrifying carnival leader reveals the evil in the various citizens who approach him, but a number of stories—"The Dwarf", "The Illustrated Man", and "The Black Ferris" are the most famous—take place at carnivals, and all of them posit something unwholesome at their core. Even when it came time, in Fahrenheit 451, for him to imagine a form of entertainment that would pacify the masses and turn them off books forever, he didn't choose the game shows, sitcoms, and detective stories popular on radio and television in 1953; he chose clowns, albeit clowns that commit extreme acts of violence on one another. Another wholesome slice of Americana has been made sinister.
What's most interesting about Bradbury's twisting of cultural nostalgia is that he was fully capable of working in an unironically nostalgic mode. Nowhere is this clearer than in his autobiographical novel Dandelion Wine, which fictionalizes a summer from Bradbury's boyhood in 1930s Illinois. Throughout the book, he uses the language and tone of his speculative fiction, but in the service of wonder rather than dread. We see this quite clearly in a remarkable passage from the story "Illumination". The protagonist, Douglas Spaulding, has been picking grapes with his father and brother at the beginning of a mythic summer, when a wave of uneasiness suddenly crests over him:
The grass whispered under his body. He put his arm down, feeling the sheath of fuzz on it, and, far away, below, his toes creaking in his shoes. The wind sighed over his shelled ears. The world slipped bright over the glassy round of his eyeballs like images sparked in a crystal sphere. Flowers were sun and fiery spots of sky strewn through the woodland. Birds flickered like skipped stones across the vast inverted pond of heaven. His breath raked over his teeth, going in ice, coming out fire. Insects shocked the air with electric clearness. Ten thousand individual hairs grew a millionth of an inch on his head. He heard the twin hearts beating in each ear, the third heart beating in his throat, the two hearts throbbing his wrists, the real heart pounding his chest. The million pores on his body opened. (10)
This passage accomplishes something quite similar to the effect of the opening paragraph of "The Small Assassin": It gradually makes the familiar unfamiliar through a kind of creeping revelation. Only what's being revealed in "Illumination" is not the hostility of the quotidian world but its beneficence: "I'm really alive! he thought. I never knew it before, or if I did I don't remember" (10). Wonder and dread have in common that they both involve seeing the familiar unfamiliarly. They are both species of the uncanny. It's no wonder the two feelings elide into each other toward the end of the book, as Douglas writes out the newly discovered fundamental truth of the human condition:
SO IF TROLLEYS AND RUNABOUTS AND FRIENDS AND NEAR FRIENDS CAN GO AWAY FOR A WHILE OR GO AWAY FOREVER, OR RUST, OR FALL APART AND DIE, AND IF PEOPLE CAN BE MURDERED, AND IF SOMEBODY LIKE GREAT-GRANDMA, WHO WAS GOING TO LIVE FOREVER, CAN DIE . . . IF ALL THIS IS TRUE . . . THEN . . . I, DOUGLAS SPAULDING, SOME DAY . . . MUST . . . (206-207)
The thought is too awful, and too true, to complete, but that it occurs to Douglas in all caps assures us that he knows it—as, of course, do we.
The uncanny is an important mode for literature and other art forms because one of the primary purposes of art is its capacity to show us what is true—not so much its capacity to communicate a "message" as its capacity for revelation, its capacity to show us the world in a way we wouldn't otherwise see it. Whether the effect is disturbing or beautiful, eerie or wondrous, art rearranges the pieces of the world we live in so that we see their undersides. So Bradbury's best work reveals the genuine threat and the genuine promise of things we might otherwise take for granted. It does so as well as the work of any writer of short fiction in American literary history; his ten or fifteen best stories ought to be considered in the same category as Katherine Ann Porter's work, or Nathaniel Hawthorne's, or Ralph Ellison's, or Eudora Welty's. (And it's superior to the work of supposed masters of the form like Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald.)
The revaluation of genre fiction that postmodernism supposedly undertook seems to have passed Bradbury by, at least as far as the quasi-official forces of university education are concerned. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, for example, has no place for Bradbury, not even in the expanded five-volume edition. But his strange, revelatory stories perpetually wait to enchant and unnerve new generations of readers—his true legacy, more powerful than anything taught or learned in a classroom.
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