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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

I was trying to keep Ray Bradbury Week going today with a discussion of Bradbury's use of horror and violence, so I sat down last night with a big pile of paperbacks. Beginning with The Martian Chronicles, I Sing The Body Electric, R is for Rocket, S is for Space, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of The Sun, Long After Midnight, The Toynbee Convector—yes, I'm apparently one of the few people who bought that one—I made a terrible discovery...

First off, Bradbury—or more likely, his publisher—recycles. A lot. Just how many times do "The Veldt," "A Sound of Thunder," and "The Fog Horn" need to be anthologized, anyway? I now remember why I stopped buying Bradbury books some decades ago: because I got tired of buying "new" books and discovering they were filled with stories I'd already bought in different collections.

But that's off-topic. The real discovery here is that, while there are macabre hints and suggestions galore, there are very few actual grisly bits, and almost all his violence takes place offstage. He routinely hints, foreshadows, or has his characters discover afterward. Very little physical action actually happens within the narrative confines of the story, in clear light and full view.

I suppose it was the tenor of the times. Most of these stories were written in the 1940s and early 1950s, and he has the same sense of detachment about sex. There are hints and suggestions of sexual attraction, affairs, and infidelities all over the place, but almost never anything actually onstage. In a way, there is a charming, refreshing, naïveté to this style: it's hard to imagine anyone else before or since writing a story like "The Long Rain" without throwing in at least one pitched and gory hand-to-flipper battle with the Venusians; writing a story like "Marionettes, Inc." without exploring the question of just exactly how anatomically correct these companion robots are; writing a story like "There Will Come Soft Rains" without going into icky detail about how the cleaning robots dispose of the dog that dies in the house; or in general, writing as frequently as he does about men on rocket ships without firing off at least one spread of space torpedoes or salvo of electro-zap cannon fire.

But no, that never happens. Bradbury never explains how his spacecraft work or what they look like, how his soldiers' and space-sailors' long-arms and sidearms work or look like, and almost never splashes blood onstage. And yet he had this reputation for writing stories of HORROR! and TERROR! that SHOCK! (I'm stealing adjectives from the marketing copy on the jackets, now) the reader! So I'm guessing today's lesson is that sometimes less is more, and sometimes it's far more effective to hint at something and let the reader's imagination fill in the rest than to actually work out the details of the thing. Either that, or maybe we've all just become a whole lot more jaded since 1950.

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