I’ll let you in on a secret. Despite my library loving, independent book store supporting rhetoric, I still shop on Amazon (a lot). I have the best of intentions, but I am constrained by both reason and finance. Reason being why would I pay $34 for a hardcover when I could pay $14? And finance…is the exact same thing. This is not to say I don’t support independent book stores. I do, but I can only do so – reasonably – for about 20% of the books I buy (so save the stern looks, I already have enough guilt to go round). If we’re going to break it down into percentages, 60% of the remaining books are bought from used book sales and 20% are bought through Amazon. My latest acquisition, which was unavailable through my local independent shop and nowhere to be found on the used book rack, was purchased through the company that is likely trying to take over the world.
Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin is not an easy book to find anymore, but thanks to said giant retailer, I am now the proud owner of these 1962 short stories. It’s a collection of haunting tales of horror by a master storyteller. Or at least it’s billed as such. It is composed of 13 short stories ranging from murderous newborns to honeymoons in a cemetery to unfortunate events involving a lake. I’d had every intention of reading this around Halloween, but apparently the copy I purchased had to ship from West Sussex (even though the seller is listed in the US). So I had to wait weeks for it – three and a half weeks, to be precise. I wish I could say it was worth the wait, but it wasn’t.
I’m never sure how to classify Ray Bradbury. During his heyday, I imagine he was to science fiction what Stephen King is to horror – the one name everyone knew from that genre. However, I don’t think of Bradbury as a science fiction writer, I think of him as more of a talented fabulist (and wordsmith) who could also be damn funny, at least by Green Shadows, White Whale standards. That’s why this particular collection was such a letdown. While The Small Assassin (the first story from which the collection takes its title) is rather creepy, I found the rest lackluster.
To go with what’s good, I’ll stick with the title story. In “The Small Assassin”, Alice and David are planning for a child. All is going according to plan when Alice delivers a seemingly healthy little boy, although the delivery itself was quite difficult. Alice is convinced that the baby is trying to kill her. Is she suffering a breakdown? Postpartum depression? Or is the little boy hell-bent on seeing the demise of his mother? Bradbury never answers the question outright, but he manages to instill fear just by making you wonder. Because what if?
“But suppose one child in a billion is – strange? Born perfectly aware, able to think, instinctively. Wouldn’t it be a perfect set-up, a perfect blind for anything the baby might want to do? He could pretend to be ordinary, weak, crying, ignorant. With just a little expenditure of energy he could crawl about a darkened house, listening. And how easy to place obstacles at the top of the stairs. How easy to cry all night and tire a mother into pneumonia. How easy, right at birth, to be so close to the mother that a few deft manoeuvres might cause peritonitis!”
Aside from that story, I found the rest mediocre in terms of horror. The short stories were well done, as Bradbury is a lovely writer, but I don’t think they accomplished what he set out to do, which is haunt the reader with tales of horror. Further, it bothered me that nearly all the women were the ones who were hysterical, anxious, or insane while few of the men were. On a positive note, he uses little to no gore to be disturbing and instead uses the possibility of insanity quite effectively (even if there is a bit of a gender bias). What he also did well was to make the reader question everyday, mundane things. He didn’t write what would typically scare you – vampires, werewolves, and the like – he wrote about childbirth and car crashes and honeymoons (though, if you were to ask me, I find the idea of childbirth downright terrifying – so maybe he was on to something). Each story has a fun twist at the end*. 4/5 for “The Small Assassin”, 2.5/5 for the other 12 tales (“The Man Upstairs” and “The Cistern” are two of the best). If you’re a Bradbury fan, you’ll enjoy the writing.
Have you ever read anything by Ray Bradbury? Do you buy from Amazon? If you do, do you feel guilty about it? I do. But sometimes I think it has more to do with my (now lapsed) Catholic upbringing than any sort of real repentance for my book purchase. I’m kidding. Sort of.
Serve with lemon ice, as was served at a little boy’s birthday party – just before he went insane.
*I suppose this depends on how you define fun.