This summer I traveled to the Great Northern Woods of New Hampshire, where my lady friend’s family gathered to clean out a barn. In the loft, my girlfriend found several science fiction paperbacks which, fortunately, hadn’t been damaged by mice or weather. When she discovered “Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow,” I felt compelled to snag it.
Edited by the late Ray Bradbury, this collection of short stories operates on two premises. The collection’s title explains the first, and Bradbury outlines the other in the introduction: to present stories written by authors who do not often write fantasy. For him, the importance of these stories are the “facets of fantasy” they employ—small tricks that would turn an otherwise realistic story on its head.
The collection is packed with uncanny fiction. Two particular favorites that resound with modern times would be “The Hand” by Wessel Hyatt Smitter and “The Sound Machine” by Roald Dahl. The former story takes place in a steel mill, where the narrator witnesses a murder committed by a giant mechanical hand. Things go from creepy to worse as he “looked at the arm and I thought it was moving… if it was moving it was coming so slow I couldn’t be sure. Then I looked at the hand and I saw the big claws slowly starting to open” toward the operator’s vile coworker. This subtlety of perception-versus-truth drives the story to an ending that’s worth the goosebumps.
Roald Dahl’s story proves sinister in a different fashion. In “The Sound Machine,” an audio specialist finishes a machine that will detect all sounds that the human ear cannot. What he finds is hardly music. In his dooryard he hears “a throatless, inhuman shriek, sharp and short, very clear and cold… The woman next door was the only living thing… and he saw her reach down, take a stem in the fingers of one hand and snip the stem… Again he heard the scream.” From here on out, the man struggles to fathom that the human ear is deaf to all the world’s pain. He begins to crack, along with his perception of reality. Even as others around him grow increasingly shocked at his strange behavior, the reader accepts his sense of compassion, and mourn with him when a terrible accident prevents him from ever proving the terrible truth he unearthed.
Not all of the collection is grim, however. In “The Eight Mistresses,” a man sells his soul for infinite wealth. The only catch is that Mr Satin, as he’s called, will return to reap the protagonist’s spirit after eight mistresses betray him. The story’s twist is worth the trip, as is the story, if only to laugh at the story’s sexism the same way we might gawk at it an episode of Mad Men.
The one story that stands out to me as a “timeless tale” was John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio.” Bradbury singled this piece out in his introduction, and with good reason. What was science fantasy in 1951 is a savvy metaphor in 2012. The story follows a man and wife who acquire a radio that seems broken, but the more they experiment with it, they realize that the device broadcasts the conversations and private lives of their neighbors.
This story reflects the murky morality surrounding reality TV and the internet. It peers through a spyglass in both past and future directions, and tackles the subject of privacy’s decline with eerie familiarity. This becomes most apparent in the wife character, who grows addicted to the radio and its information, to an extent that she begs her husband to stop domestic abuse occurring elsewhere in their building. That’s the last straw for him—he orders a whole new radio and, in a twisted, gut-punching sense of irony, the following argument exposes the dark corners of their personal life:
“Please, Jim,” she said. “Please. They’ll hear us.”
“Who’ll hear us? Emma can’t hear us.”
“Oh, I”m sick!” he shouted. “I’m sick to death of your apprehensiveness. The radio can’t hear us. Nobody can hear us. And what if they can hear us? Who cares?”
Irene got up from the table and went into the living room. Jim went to the door and shouted at her from there. “Why are you so christly all of a sudden? What’s turned you overnight into a convent girl? You stole your mother’s jewelry before they probated her will. You never gave your sister a cent of that money that was intended for her–not even when she needed it. You made Grace Howland’s life miserable, and where was all your piety and your virtue when you went to that abortionist? I’ll never forget how cool you were. You packed your bag and went off to have that child murdered as if you were going to Nassau. If you’d have any reasons, if you’d any good reasons—”
That’s the testament to privacy’s end. As they were able to peer into others’ lives, so too did the reader peer into theirs. It’s a subtly horrifying story that reminds us of how the camera so easily turns against us. While the concept of a spying radio might seem science fiction now, it was fantasy sixty one years ago—and the wife’s voyeurism is so familiar, it’ll make you squirm.
These tales ride the line between the surreal and the fantastic. It is a fragile line because realism can feel too familiar in one story, and something mildly fantastic can come across as ludicrous in another. Speaking as an author, these tales don’t require the extensive world building we’ve come to expect from today’s fantasy and science fiction. Everything is self-evident. These stories are much leaner, and as such, they can be consumed rapidly.
Mister Bradbury’s collection is important not only because of the timeless qualities that most of these stories present, but also a keen glance into the author’s sense of taste. For those of who followed the writer throughout his life, this slim volume will give you a glance into an earlier time when an author’s ability as an editor counted as much as his own work.
Lucas Ahlsen edits Isotropic Fiction with an iron pen and red ink.