Friday, June 8, 2012

FFB: Ray Bradbury's Weird Fiction (a sampling)

In tribute to Ray Bradbury, who recently left us to go travelling for eternity through space and time, I offer up a brief review of some stories I found in my pulp magazines and the anthologies on my overcrowded shelves.

1. From Weird Tales, May 1946: "The Smiling People"

"Nothing is quite so horrible, so final as complete utter silence" is the tagline for this chilling tale about Mr. Greppin who claims to have found true happiness with Alice. She is the love of his life and he remembers announcing his news that they are to be married to his uncle and aunt and how he made them smile. But now something strange has happened. Mr. Greppin's aunt and uncle sit at the kitchen table in utter silence, not moving, not speaking as he prepares to bring Alice to this house. And every sound in the house is amplified. Drops of water sound like harp strings being plucked at a deafening level, even whispers are like screams.

Bradbury has concocted a devilish little portrait of a diseased mind and a pathetic soul that brings to mind the work of Robert Bloch who seems to have been an influence on so many of the writers who contributed to Weird Tales in the 1940s. It's not hard to figure out what happened to Aunt Rose and Uncle Dimity but that's not the point of the story. It's Bradbury's depiction of the house, its sounds, and the supposed absence of sound, the wonderful silence that Greppin thinks he has finally achieved.

This particular passage is sublime, I think:

But of course nothing is perfect. The police make a visit to the house and Greppin's dream world comes to a literal crashing end.

"The Smiling People " later appeared in Bradbury's first short story collection Dark Carnival published by the preeminent purveyor of weird fiction Arkham House. August Derleth again selected it to appear in his anthology The Night Side (Rinehart, 1947) and it has since been anthologized in numerous collections in both the US and the UK.

2. From Nightmare Garden, edited by Vic Ghidalia: "Come into My Cellar" (originally published in Galaxy, October 1962)

This is a variation on the themes previously explored by Jack Finney in his classic novel The Body Snatchers (1955). Bradbury takes inspiration from those goofy ads seen in the back of comic books and magazines for do it yourself kits and get rich quick schemes. In this case the ad is for  "Sylvan Glade Jumbo-Giant Guaranteed Growth Raise- them-in-Your-Cellar-for-Big-Profit Mushrooms. Tom Fortnum is terribly excited when he receives his order. Special Delivery no less. Tom's father is less than excited about the postage expense but allows his son to tend to his fungus garden in the dank basement. Meanwhile, Mrs. Goodbody, the paranoid neighbor next door, is fearful about an invasion from outer space and is already beginning the fight in her front yard by spraying all the insects attacking her plants. Is it possible invaders from another world could travel to Earth as insects? Or even tinier forms of life? Spores, perhaps. Once they've arrived what would they do with us? Tom and his family find out all too soon.

3. From Masterpieces of Mystery & Suspense, compiled by Martin H. Greenberg: "And So Died Riabouchinska"
(originally written in 1953)

Which was the first story to play with the idea of duality in the life of a ventriloquist I wonder. John Keir Cross wrote a nightmarish version of this theme in his story "The Glass Eye" back in the mid 1940s. Were there others prior to that story? Bradbury's certainly is one of the earliest and predates the famous Twilight Zone episode "The Dummy." William Goldman's Magic, at one time the most famous ventriloquist movie, borrows heavily from all the stories and movies of the 40s and 50s with twisted dummy handlers. It's worth some research, I think.

John Fabian is a successful ventriloquist with a breathtakingly beautiful doll named Riabouchinska as his partner. Fabian's wife serves as his drudge assistant. When the story opens there is a dead body on the floor of Fabian's dressing room and a police detective named Krovitch is interrogating the ventriloquist, his wife and this press agent. They all deny knowing the dead man. As the story progresses Krovitch confronts Fabian with his many lies. He produces a photograph of Fabian's former assistant who bears a striking resemblance to Fabian's female dummy. The assistant even bears a similar Russian name. She disappeared in 1934 and Krovitch now suspects foul play. Krovitch is relentless in his pursuit of the truth and manages to get Fabian to reveal all in a most unusual manner. The story ends on a surprisingly poignant note.

Claude Rains with the lovely Riabouchinska
(talented radio actress Virginia Gregg did the voice of the dummy)

"And So Died Riabouchinska" was adapted for the TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" in a very faithful teleplay by Mel Dinelli who also did fine adaptations of crime novels in his screenplays for The Reckless Moment, The House by the River and The Spiral Staircase. So true is Dinelli to the spirit of the story that he used much of Bradbury's original dialog and managed to craft some of Bradbury's more artful prose into speeches delivered by the great Claude Rains in the role of Fabian. Charles Bronson plays Lt. Krovitch. The adept director was Robert Stevenson, a Hitchcock series regular. It's one of the highlights of the long running series and can be viewed at for free at here.


  1. "There came a day when the plants took over" — those are the kind of sf/fantasy stories and films I like. The weirder the tale the better it gets. I am currently reading as many of Bradbury's short stories as I can find online. Thanks for the reviews, John.

  2. That is a very good AHP episode. Ray Bradbury will be missed, a part of my adolescent years just died too!

  3. Lovely post John - Bradbury was probably the first serious writer I ever read when I was given a copy of THE ILLUSTRATED MAN and I bet there are lof of readers who got their start into literature like that. As for ventriloquist stories, the Ealing anthology DEAD OF NIGHT must have had a pretty big impact.

  4. With me it was THE OCTOBER COUNTRY. There is a beautiful little story called THE JAR, which manages to be supremely creepy without a single drop of blood being seen to be spilled in the whole thing.

    1. I haven't read that story but know it well through another medium -- once again, the Hitchock TV series. "The Jar" is truly one of the most affecting of the entire series. What an amazing cast: Slim Pickens, Jane Darwell, Collin Wilcox, George Lindsey, Pat Buttram and James Best. Most of them primarily known as comic characters actors all doing heavy duty dramatic and often creepy work -- especially Buttram and Wilcox. Eerie and sublime and strangely beautiful in the same way that The Night of the Hunter is all those things.

  5. A wonderful tribute to Ray Bradbury. THE ILLUSTRATED MAN was my first introduction to his writing and I have always been amazed at the beautiful language he employed in his stories. I have that MASTERPIECES OF MYSTERY & SUSPENSE book--haven't read it for like, forever, but I distinctly remember that Bradbury story. That's way his work is--it sticks with you.

  6. 'Which was the first story to play with the idea of duality in the life of a ventriloquist I wonder. John Keir Cross wrote a nightmarish version of this theme in his story "The Glass Eye" back in the mid 1940s.'

    Alsoin the mid 1940s, the film Dead of Night, where michael Redgrave is a ventriloquist with a very strange dummy...

  7. Given that he had his hand in so much I think the Ray Bradbury Theater, from the late Eighties and early Nineties tends to be overlooked, but I'd rank that as one of the better anthology TV shows. Leaned more toward SF and fantasy content, of course, but still worth a look.

  8. There were quite a few radio dramas based on the ventriloquist's dummy theme - I suspect at least one goes back to the 1930s. While I enjoyed the first couple I saw on television, I have to say I'm not a fan of the plot device as a genre. Seen one evil dummy, seen 'em all. ;-)