Saturday, November 13, 2010

Long After Midnight By Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight
By Ray Bradbury
Copyright 1975

The Blue Bottle
Two down on their luck men hunt for a mysterious artifact on a post-apocalyptic Mars. The mythical blue bottle is said to contain exactly what the finder wishes for. Many scavengers search the Martian ruins for the elusive prize and a few find. When our hero finds the bottle, what will be inside for a man who wants nothing?

This was an intriguing, it not particularly strong story. Had it been any longer than 11 pages, it would have made for tedious reading. But it was good enough for the short time invested in reading it. It was a good story idea that perhaps Bradbury could have developed into something more significant. Would have worked well as a Twilight Zone script.

One Timeless Spring
A young adolescent is convinced that everyone around him is trying to poison him. His parents are poisoning him with the food they give him. His teachers are poisoning him with the knowledge they provide. And the girls start to poison him in a way that only girls can weave a spell over an adolescent boy’s mind. He fights hard against it because he knows what their poison will do. Its evidence is all around him.

The poison is, of course, the nourishment of body, mind, and soul that helps us grow and mature. Fear of growing up and growing old are the prevalent themes of Bradbury novels, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer. These books span 50 years of Bradbury’s career and are written from three different points of view of the subject of aging.

The Parrot Who Met Papa
A journalist is hired to write a story about a parrot gone missing from a bar in Cuba. This bar was frequented by none other that Ernest Hemmingway and it was to this remarkable bird with an astounding vocabulary, that Hemmingway revealed the idea and outline for what was to be his final novel. The bird was kidnapped by an unscrupulous writer who wants all of the secrets Papa revealed to his feathered confidant.

This story is mainstream fiction. Perhaps its because I loathe Hemmingway’s work or it just wasn’t that compelling a tale that I did not enjoy this story. In any event, I would rank it near the bottom of his body of work.

The Burning Man
A woman and her young son, on their way to a day at the beach, pick up a raggedy stranger from the side of the road. During the course of a bizarre conversation, he poses the question, “Do you think there is such thing as genetic evil in this world?” They promptly dump him at the side of the road. On the way home, they encounter a well dressed young boy whom they pick up. He asks the same question.

This story could have been developed a little more. There’s nothing particularly frightening in the way the strange man is written and there is nothing disarming about the young child which is what I assume Bradbury was going for.

A Piece of Wood
A young soldier is brought before his commanding officer after demonstrating discontent with his job. His commander asks him what he wants. He wants nothing less than total world peace, and he has developed the means to achieve it, if the rest of the world wants it or not.

This is the type of story that makes Golden Age sci-fi so enjoyable. No lengthy technical explanation. Just a little magic.

The Messiah
The Martian who is all things to all people makes a return – or at least one similar to him. This time, he appears at a Catholic church before a priest who wants nothing more than to see Jesus. The priest is confronted with a moral dilemma when he encounters the Martian who appears to him as Christ. Can he set free what he loves for the greater good?

I always thought that The Martian was one of the stronger stories in The Martian Chronicles. This one is much shorter, but recaptures the tragic nature of that poor Martian species doomed to be the person who people want to see the most. Exceptionally enjoyable!

G.B.S.-Mark V
A crewman aboard a rocket bound for a destination two years beyond Mars is able to channel George Bernard Shaw and enjoy discussions of philosophy, literature, and culture with the esteemed scholar. When disaster strikes the ship, the crewman and George Bernard Shaw discover they have damn near infinity to ponder and discuss.

Simple and unremarkable sci-fi story. Based on what I’ve read online, this is one of Bradbury’s more popular works, but it did not resonate with me. Perhaps it’s because I know (and care) so little about George Bernard Shaw.

The Utterly Perfect Murder
A 46 year old man wakes up one morning with the idea of returning to his old home town and killing one of his childhood buddies to get him back for slights real and imagined. The plan is perfect. Who would suspect an old childhood chum, now living far away, for getting revenge. But when he arrives at the man’s house and prepares to do the deed, he finds that someone or something has already had its way with his childhood nemesis.

This story has charm. I like stories with killers with seemingly no rational motivation. It’s also revealing of the nature of how we remember people of our youth and imagine how they must have turned out, only to find something much different than we ever conceived. It’s a phenomena encountered by anyone who’s ever attended a class reunion.

Punishment Without Crime

This is a sequel to the famous Bradbury story, Marionettes Inc. Marionettes Inc. no longer sells replica spouses to unhappy husbands and wives. They are now rented to angry spouses for revenge fantasies. When a man finally gets around to killing a marionette of his wife, his is prosecuted for murder without having actually killed a person.

This is a little less inspired than the original, which was a masterpiece. Still, it was a worthwhile sequel. Bradbury tells a great story with few words.

Getting Through Sunday Somehow

An American writer is cruising Dublin on Sunday, looking for inspiration for a story. While walking around, he finds a woman playing harp. He praises her playing and she is so disconcerted by his praise that she can play no more. She bids him to leave so that she might resume playing as she wanted to.

I think this is an allegory for the creative process. Every writer I know writes for an audience of one: themselves. I write for my own pleasure, not to impress anyone. Seeking approval of others for what you create is a track to mediocrity.

Drink Entire: Against the Madness of Crowds

A New Yorker, struggling against the heat of the night by taking a late night walk, is drawn to an odd shop by a cool breeze wafting from an unlit alleyway. The shop’s proprietor is a purveyor of potions magical and powerful. In exchange for wealth, power, and the love of the beautiful witch, he must part with his soul. Needing to consider the bargain, he flees from the store only to encounter his bitter rival from work. He directs him to the strange shop.

This story is one of the magical tales that have made Bradbury a legend! It’s dark, creepy, and without a happy end. Its darkness reminded me very much of Something Wicked This Way Comes. We can also surmise that Bradbury is not a fan of New York with his dark depiction of its life destroying nature.

Interval in Sunlight
A woman travels through Mexico with her domineering, petulant husband who controls her and oversees every moment of her day. She fights with him, but always ends up giving into his demands and apologizing. When she’s finally had enough, she decides to make a break. But is her desire to be free of the burdensome, tedious mental abuse stronger than her need for the man she loves?

This story contained not an iota of sci-fi, fantasy, or horror. But Bradbury is well known for weaving traditional tales as well told as his sci-fi and horror classics. This story is longer than most, but Bradbury makes use of the extra words to develop an interesting, complex heroine and strong tension between her and her husband.

A Story of Love
An 11 year old loner falls in love with his teacher, a single woman of 26. The teacher is at first touched by the ardor of her pupil. But as the boy falls more deeply in love and invites her to join him on a walk, she becomes alarmed. She meets him and lays out some hard facts of life for him.

This is purely mainstream fiction and a beautifully told tale. In just a few pages, Bradbury develops two wonderfully deep characters caught in a relationship that must end in heartbreak. There is not even a hint of prurience. It’s simply a tale of tragically unrequited love that most boys experience at some point in their lives.

The Wish
Two lonely writers spend a Christmas evening together. Inspired by the crucifixion and rebirth of Jesus Christ, one of the writers wishes that, for just one hour, his late father would live again.

This is an oft-told tale of someone wishing a dead loved one back to life. The consequences are usually tragic. However, Bradbury spins the tale just a little differently and breaks the cliché.

Forever and the Earth
Thousands of years in the future, wealthy financier who is also a failed writer decides he must bring Thomas Wolfe into the future to rejuvenate literature. Wolfe is brought forward and writes stories so splendid that he is loathe to leave them behind. Alas, Thomas Wolfe is told he must go home again.

Not a terribly engaging story, but a nice homage to Thomas Wolfe.

The Better Part of Wisdom
A grandfather drops in on his grandson and his friend. The two are struck by the strong resemblance between themselves. That perception is driven home by a painting the grandson’s friend has made of his roommate. The two have a deep discussion of the importance of close friendships.

No supernatural or sci-fi elements here. The way Bradbury describes friendship between boys and men is contains much of the same intensity as that of the Hobbits in Tolkien.

Darling Adolf
An actor playing Adolf Hitler is convinced that, to make the movie a masterpiece, the producer will have to replicate the Nuremberg rallies and comes up with an elaborate scheme to draw thousands to hear the actor play Hitler and capture the energy of the crowd just like the Fuhrer once had.

This story did not work at all. Characters were entirely undeveloped and the story lacked any clear direction. A rare Bradbury clunker.

The Miracles of Jamie

An 11 year old boy is capable of pulling off small time miracles like athletic and academic triumphs. But, can he work his magic to save that which is most important to him?

The October Game

On Halloween night, a man, trapped in a loveless marriage, father to a loveless child, ruefully contemplates the emptiness of his life. He is determined to find a way, not only to separate himself from his wife, but to make her suffer in the process.

This story is a textbook example of good, old fashioned horror. With limited words, Bradbury develops the characters and motivation. Then, he provides the action and the twist. I’m sure those who get off on trying to anticipate the twist would get it, because it’s not too well disguised. Me, I like to just go with the story and let it take me where it’s going. Trying to anticipate plot twists takes energy away from simple enjoyment. What’s the point?

The Pumpernickel
A man and his wife stop at a deli on their way home from the movies. A loaf of unsliced pumpernickel makes the man nostalgic for his youth and a long remembered picnic at a swimming hole he and his buddies took when they were teenagers. He resolves to use that pumpernickel to find and reconnect with them.

Age is so pervasive in the works of Bradbury. He waxes nostalgic about the carefree nature of the child. His adult characters long for the freedom of youth. Most of these stories were written in Bradbury’s salad days. Now, as he has reached 90 years of age, I wonder what his attitude is toward being young.

Long After Midnight
Three mortuary drivers retrieve a suicide victim from a hanging tree. On the trip back to the morgue, the youngest of them berates the other two older men for not being more distraught over the death of such a young girl. As they are debating, the young man makes a discovery about the body that changes the entire picture.

This story is years ahead of its time! To say more would be to give away the ending, but I love the rhetorical question that is the last sentence in the story!

Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You!

A grumpy priest hears the confession of a young man who is addicted to chocolate. The priests suffers the man’s tales of woe for days and weeks until the man announces himself healed and ready to see the world. Many years later, the priest receives a special thank you gift.

I think this story was supposed to juxtapose two extreme lifestyles. One lived by a glutton, and one sworn to poverty. It didn’t work for me.

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