This a well-crafted collection of short stories that had been written early in the career of this well-known author.
The horror in many of the stories is gradually unfolded with the deteriorating sanity of the protagonist, or with the protagonist's growing awareness that something is not quite right. Deteriorating sanity features in the eponymous story of the collection when a mother fears her newborn wants to kill her; a tourist develops an obssessive desire to leave a Mexican village after seeing some mummified human remains with her husband in 'The next in line'; another female tourist or traveller obssesses over the tombstone left by the previous tenant of a room she and her husband rent for the night in 'The tombstone'; and a male teacher develops an obssessive fear of the children he teaches in 'Let's play “poison”'. Those protagonists already insane or cognitively impaired to begin with include an elderly woman who describes to her sister a macabre dream or insight about her town's drainage system in 'The Cistern'; a young man goes to extraordinary and macabre lengths to satisfy his obssession with suppressing noise at his home in 'The smiling people'; and an undertaker/embalmer's bizarre treatment of the dead in 'The handler'.
Stories that deal with the protagonist's increasing awareness of something strange include: 'The lake', in which a young man is confronted by a bad event from his childhood; 'The crowd', where a crash victim notices something strange about the crowd that gathers around him at the scene; 'Jack-in-the-box', where a young boy discovers that there's more to the world beyond the limits that had been set for him; 'The man upstairs', which deals with a boy's suspicions about a strange lodger; 'The night', in which another boy learns that grown-ups have fears and uncertainties too; and in 'The dead man', yet another boy (who is not the sole protagonist) learns a few things about an old man who believes himself to be dead. Even in a couple of these stories, sanity is an issue for one or more characters, so it can be said that insanity in one form or another is a major theme in this book.
There are a few stories that have supernatural elements to them or that they involve strange coincidences that could be seen as having a supernatural cause, so it's not all about madness! But I'll leave the reader to find these stories himself/herself. Also, while there are some shocks and macabre elements to many of the stories, there is no reliance on gore as is more common in today's writing, although it seems likely that readers of these stories at the time they were first published might've been disgusted by some of what they read.
A product of its time, the women in the stories are generally portrayed as housewives or as mothers/maternal figuresand this possibly reflects the young Ray Bradbury's primary experiences of adult women by his twenties. While some women are portrayed as being (maternally) level-headed (notably in 'The man upstairs' and 'The night', and in the case of the sister in 'The cistern'), they tend to be portrayed as anxious, neurotic, hysterical or insane. But while some of Bradbury's male characters also suffer from anxiety or lose their sanity, men tend to be less over-wrought or are more sceptical than their female counterparts. Also reflecting the time in which the stories were written is a doctor's somewhat paternalistic attitude – as much towards a distraught housewife as to her husband, such as when he tells the latter '“Go on along now, and take that look off your face”' (p. 17), as if he were dismissing a child.
Children, especially boys aged between eight and thirteen, feature as the protagonist or as secondary characters in six of the stories (and as murder victims in one other story). Again, this may reflect Bradbury's youth when he might have drawn on his own life experiences in writing these tales, but stories centreing on childhood characters are, I think, very successful because many adult and teenage readers will find some point of familiarity in them (such as school, teachers, street games, pranks, toys, spankings, rules, ice-cream, sandcastles, bedtimes, looking through coloured glass, the mystery of death, and childhood perceptions of the world around them or of the strange behaviours of grown-ups). In each of the stories of this collection, children, especially the boy protagonists, while lacking information or maturity, are nevertheless intelligent and observant.
One thing I found intriguing about Bradbury's style is his fairly frequent use of smells or odours in his descriptions. These evoked familiar situations, times, places, and people's ages/identities. Consider these examples:
An odour of tweeds, a pipe, a certain shaving lotion. David was standing over her. And beyond him the immaculate smell of Dr. Jeffers.
There was a movement behind him, and then the odour of soap and water-rinsed flesh, wet towel, fresh cologne; Marie was at his elbow.
The room smelled of [his father], rubbed wood, tobacco, leather, and silver coins.
Skipper is your brother. He is your older brother. He's twelve and healthy, red-faced, hawk-nosed, tawny-haired, broad-shouldered for his years, and always running. [...] Soon he will come clomping in, smelling of sweat and green grass on his knees where he fell, and smelling very much in all ways like Skipper; which is natural.
All of the hot-dog stands were boarded up with strips of golden planking, sealing in all the mustard, onion, meat odours of the long, joyful summer.
...the melancholy smell of autumn settling in around the town.
Morning was the smell of vines and grapes and moss in his room, a smell of shadowed coolness.
Together you walk down St. James street. You smell lilacs in blossom; fallen apples lying crushed and odorous in the deep grass.
In back of the church a hundred yards away, the ravine begins. You can smell it. It has a dark sewer, rotten foliage, thick green odour.
Gilpatrick laughed softly. 'What woman would marry Odd? Sometimes I almost believe he is dead. He's got an awful odour to him.'
...after looking at Tom's clean, soap-smelling face and seeing the pretty blue jacket his sixteen-year-old girl friend wore....
Using the sense of smell seems to be an effective way of conveying atmosphere, sense of place and personal identity – my surprise at its frequency in this volume underlines how under-utilised it seems in much modern fiction.
Another thing I liked about these stories is that, while some of them are set in a given year (for example, 'The lake' is set in 1943 while both 'The night' and 'The man upstairs' are set in 1927), they could easily be read as tales set in the present day. Even the absence of any mention of mobile phones, personal computers and the Internet, for example, is hardly noticeable. Except in one story, 'The tombstone', where a husband and wife are said to be driving a model-T Ford, cars are referred to only generically, not by their make or model. Occasionally, we do get references to things that are different – that the starter of a car was controlled via a pedal instead of with the ignition key (p. 44),that a tourist used a 'little box Brownie' as his camera (pp. 26, 37), that fifteen thousand dollars was a remarkable salary (p. 10), that people still possessed razor strops and spanked their children with them (pp. 103, 157), that a farm would only cost $500 (p. 173), or that children would listen to records as opposed to CDs or iPods and that the music concerned was by 1920s bands/singers like the Knickerbocker Quartet and Al Jolson (p. 155). That these stories could otherwise be read as being set in the present day rather than between the 1920s and 1940s will mean that these stories retain their appeal as (near-) contemporary fiction for some time to come.
I would recommend this book as a quick, enjoyable read for anybody who likes subtle horror.
Uploaded 7 May 2011; edited 9 May 2013.
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