One of the first books I ever read, and one of the reasons I still read. I found some of the other reviews dismaying (poor dialogue?, silly concepts?, antique writing style? - has the world and the people in it really changed that much? Have people lost their hearts? Perhaps, they've just never read "The Smile" by Bradbury, not included in this collection).
Granted, Bradbury's style does take some getting used to - the man is emotionally honest and as people everywhere become more emotionally guarded, such honesty appears to be naivete. It isn't, but that's an argument for another day. And Bradbury occasionally enjoys being poetic or lyrical, so people marking time until they can rush through volume #17 of "Lilith McHotpants, Ace Ghoul Slayer"; "Part the Twelveteenth of the Saga of Kaaarfgaaasr", and "P is for Perfunctory" or whatever they spend the majority of their time "reading", may find such a style annoying. Because, you know, it's about evoking feelings and such, not pushing buttons.
But for those with the eye for a well-told tale, and senses neither dulled by crap or so highly attuned by High Lit that they can't enjoy solid pulp, this should go down a treat.
"The Dwarf" - still as sad and dark and painful as I remember it. You have to love the breezy way Bradbury can just roll a story along with a deft turn of phrase or description ("the sea was a burning sheet of tinsel and glass"). So sad, but honest, that the cruel person doesn't even see what's wrong, and suffers nothing, while the girl's attempt to be human and humane puts the chain of events into motion. And Mr. Bigelow wrote detective stories! Heh! I like the fact that there's no overt supernatural elements in this collection at first, the first few stories turn on human psyches and neurosis, until "The Skeleton".
"The Next In Line" - notorious to me because it was so long I never finished it as a kid. Here, again, no overt supernatural elements, just a woman suddenly overwhelmed by the inescapable awareness of her own mortality, exacerbated by the horrors of unburied mummies of Mexican peasants (they can't afford the rent to remain buried anymore, in the ultimate capitalist scam ever - something to keep in mind for our futures) and strangeness of culture shock and the unloving husband to whom she's already dead. This might be a tad overwrought/overwritten but the feverish pitch of her nervous breakdown really does drag you along and the scenes in the catacombs (counting to avoid the screaming dead but you can't because here they are, and here, and here...and HERE!), the descriptions of the little Mexican town at night (the streetlight blowing in the wind), the desperate race to escape the town (but you can't escape death), the little details ("whirled and cavorted before the coffin-shaped mirror") and omens (a sugar skull with your name on it), are aces! I especially liked the bit where she seeks escape and safety in the writing from "her world", news + pop magazines, but even those are consumed far too quickly. Also appreciated seeing the gestation for the idea of "Skeleton" in her comments on skeletons not bothering her. Just great, solid writing.
"The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse" - Nice for a number of reasons, foremost in that its a a horror story and funny at the same time, the horror arising, again, from the psyche and how it responds to the attentions of groups (beginnings of "The Crowd", possibly) and popular culture. Couldn't help thinking of that George Carlin Book Club routine throwaway book title - "Self Mutilation As An Attention Getter" as the story wrapped up, and that aspect is really where the dry, bitter horror lies (and why the story is oddly relevant today, as well). Loved seeing VIC & SADE get a name-check (the best OTR comedy show EVER!) but I guess that also makes me a hipster doofus like the rest of the Cellar Septet (great band name waiting to be snagged!). I know Bradbury's tone towards the avant garde-ians, like the tone of most people towards the artistic fringe, is disdainful, but personally I love characters like this, ironic posing or no. So Garvey's eventual transformation into a surrealist object is both sad and cool for me (the Surrealists knew that desire and death were intricately linked).
"Skeleton" - this rocked my world as a little kid and only impresses me more as an adult. The concept is just wonderfully simple (man at war with his skeleton), then toss in the resonant symbolism (the organic, painful messiness of life, his outsides, pitted against the clean, orderly, solid, reliable support structure of his insides, all of which symbolize death. "Only the dead are eternally cool." as Hakim Bey said), the little details (he's great at ceramics!), and even some unexpected argument from the other side (the fat man's fat as a buffer against the battering of life, and a way to trap the skeleton in organic tar), topped off with a bizarre character that makes it a bona fide "weird tale" (salty breadsticks) and a memorable last line and you've got yourself a killer story.
"The Jar" has been adapted a few times (I seem to remember a version on the "New Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV show from the 80s in which the country bumpkin setting is switched with a modern art one) and it's a pretty solid, creepy story, although Bradbury's tendency to overwrite becomes a bit cartoonish when (at least, I feel) he's writing characters of a "type" that he's not directly familiar with. Still, the inchoate mass in the jar is strangely evocative (a blank screen onto which everyone projects their ideas) and it's a nice reversal of "The Watchful Poker Chip", in that one man desires to make himself the center of attention from people who don't really care about him.
"The Lake" is very touching. I have a reading of this by Bradbury himself and it really is an effective, emotional piece about lost childhood love and the uncaring blankness of death.
"The Emissary" still gives me chills. This was a favorite of mine as a child, and reading it as an adult, I wondered if perhaps it seemed darker or more threatening to me back then, but, no, the ending is ominously "not good". Bradbury really stretches his evocative language shtick here, conjuring autumn in a million ways while bolting the whole thing to a life-lived memory of being an invalid and then wrapping it in a strange variation of "The Monkey's Paw"...except this time...the door gets to open....
"Touched With Fire" was also adapted on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", (albeit the original b&w version). It very well-done and I like the fact that the terrible events partially arise from the main characters' desire to help people (as in "The Dwarf" and, inverted strangely, the presumption of "The Crowd", which is proven wrong). The writing makes the harridan woman a bit cartoonish, but that's part of the point, to draw you into feeling what Foxe (or the other one, I forget) feels and this building of tone and mood (hot, irritable, loud, abrasive) is well-conjured. Cute.
"The Small Assassin" is a genuine classic, postpartum depression twisted into a horror tale before there was even a term for it. The last line is a killer and the modern resonances it brings, of abortion and sociopatholgy, are especially powerful. What a great story!
"The Crowd" is another one of those unabashed classics - a simple idea marvelously realized. It's amazing how effective it is. I don't even know if there's much more to say - I love the idea that the people encompass all character types and are immortal. I also love that there's never a specific explanation or explication from "the Crowd", so while the ending confirms the narrator's theory, we only ever really have his suppositions to go on. I wish more modern horror writers wrote stories this sharp.
"Jack-In-The Box" is...okay. It almost seems like an idea more pregnant with possibilities than can be addressed in the short story form, although I do like idea that kid thinks he's dead at the end, and that this year's special room was an elevator. For some reason, this story strikes me as a partial riff on Lovecraft's "The Outsider".
"The Scythe" is another great one - solid, well-told, well-imagined, painful. Another great idea that doesn't need world-building or explication - just accept it, because Bradbury is such a good storyteller, why would your ruin the story with more questions? It's like reading a creative person's first realization that death isn't fair and logical.
"Uncle Einar" is, of course, not really a horror story, more of a weird tale in that fine old tradition. It's also one of his stories about "The Family" that eventually influenced Charles Addams. It's probably the slightest of those Family stories (Cecy's story, "The Traveler" is really dark!) and I've never read Bradbury's late-in-life reworking of this material into a novel-form, because I feel so close to "Homecoming" and The Family, et. al (having discovered them at exactly the right moment of my childhood). But this one is a wonderful bit of dark fantasy, touching and sweet.
"The Wind" - a simple idea simply told, as long as it needs to be and no longer. I love how it locates the main narrative away from the important action, and then comments upon that very thing ("as we sit here, people are dying"), using the set-up for an effective punchline. Nice.
"The Man Upstairs" really made an impact on me as a kid. With the imaginings of multicolored worlds seen through glass, the focus on innards of all types, the reinvention of the "vampire", and the implied gruesome ending dissection, this is a great creepy horror story. Again, even better for the lack of explanation.
"There Was An Old Woman" is another charming weird tale, with an unexpected ending (usually, stories like this would be about acceptance of the inevitable). The cantankerous old biddy is strongly sketched and the humor is well-delivered.
"The Cistern", slight but poetic, more about evoking Ophelia-like images of drowned bodies and flowers deep underground.
"The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone" is also, I fear, a bit slight for my tastes. It's a cute idea and, as expected, well-told, but the central idea - eh, too romantic an envisioning of a "writer as character" for my tastes.
I left "Homecoming" for last because its one of my favorite Bradbury stories ever, ur-text for Charles Addams
, The Munsters, etc. and thus a component of the whole 1950's-on "Monster Kid" culture. It also still brings tears to my eyes. I hope he continued to walk the fine line the originals tread so assuredly (the "monsters" are monsters, as Cecy's interaction with the old woman and the mud-pits illustrates) in his later re-use of this material. I wonder if all the Tim Burton fans even know a story like this exists?
Great stories from a great writer. What more could you want?