Sunday, May 15, 2016

Ray Bradbury: "The Night"

Folks, spoilers follow, so if you haven't read the story and prefer to read it with no foreknowledge, you should stop here.

As I've mentioned in the past, too many times I suspect, Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite short story writers, regardless of the genre. He is probably best known for his SF and fantasy tales, but many of his stories stray far afield.  This is an example of a tale of his that doesn't fit easily into any category, except that of an excellent story that makes its point quickly and clearly.  "The Night" (perhaps "The Ravine" would be just as appropriate) is a short and simple tale, one of those that many might complain that "nothing happens."

It's a warm summer evening in a small town.  Doug is an eight-year-old boy who has just returned from getting ice cream at the local grocery.  His mother is busy ironing.  They are the only ones in the house. Father is at a lodge meeting and won't be back until around midnight.  Skipper, Doug's older brother, is out in another part of town, playing with some friends. He is late and should have been home some time ago.

Just as Doug is getting ready for bed, his mother decides to look for Skipper.  They set out along the path that Skipper will probably take on his way back.  They drop down into a ravine and about half way through, they hear Skipper and his friends laughing and giggling.  She scolds him for being late and they return home. Doug and Skipper go to bed.  Shortly afterwards, father returns from his lodge meeting.

Did anything happen?

This story is included in the collection The Stories of Ray Bradbury which the unknown editor describes as Bradbury's  best one hundred stories  (there a couple of stories missing that I would include).  Why is this story included?

Perhaps something did happen, something that only Doug experienced.  While Bradbury can do the obvious monsters and demons and horrors with the best, what I like is his grasp of what goes on inside the characters.  Many times I have recognized myself in his tales, something that doesn't happen with most writers.  Perhaps the following quotation (my apologies for its length, but Bradbury says it much better than I could)  may explain why this tale was included as one of his best one hundred.  At least, I think so.

Doug and his mother are on the path, expecting to meet Skipper on his way back.   The narrator tells us:

"You are only eight years old, you know little of death, fear, or dread.  Death is the waxen effigy in the coffin when you were six and Grandfather passed away--looking like a great fallen vulture in his casket, silent, withdrawn, no more to tell you how to be a good boy, no more to comment succinctly on politics.  Death is your little sister one morning when you awaken at the age of seven, look into her crib and see her staring up at you with a blind blue, fixed and frozen stare until the men come with a small wicker basket to take her away.  Death is when you stand by her high chair four weeks later and suddenly realize she'll never be in it again, laughing and crying, and make you jealous of her because she was born.  That is death.

But this is more than death.  This summer night wading deep in time and stars and warm eternity.  It is an essence of all the things you will ever feel or see or hear in your life again, being brought steadily home to you all at once.

Leaving the sidewalk, you walk along a trodden, pebbled, weed-fringed path to the ravine's edge.  Crickets, in loud full drumming chorus now, are shouting to quiver the dead.  You follow obediently behind brave, fine, tall Mother who is defender of all the universe.  You feel braveness because she goes before, and you hang back a trifle for a moment, and then hurry on, too.  Together, then, you approach, reach, and pause at the very edge of civilization.

The ravine.

Here and now, down there in that pit of jungled blackness is suddenly all the evil you will ever know.  Evil you will never understand.  All of the nameless things are there.  Later, when you have gown you'll be given names to label them with.  Meaningless syllables to describe the waiting nothingness.  Down there in the huddled shadow, among thick trees and trailed vines, lives the odor of decay.  Here, at this spot, civilization ceases, reason ends, and a universal evil takes over.

You realize you are alone.  You and your mother.  Her hand trembles.

Her hand trembles.

Your belief in your private world is shattered.  You feel Mother tremble.  Why?  Is she, too, doubtful?  But she is bigger, stronger, more intelligent than yourself, isn't she?  Does she, too, feel that intangible menace, that groping out of darkness, that crouching malignancy down below?  Is there, then, no strength in growing up? no solace in being an adult? no sanctuary in life? no flesh citadel strong enough to withstand the scrabbling assault of midnights?  Doubts flush you.  Ice cream lives again in your throat, stomach, spine and limbs; you are instantly cold as a wind out of December-gone.

You realize that all men are like this.  That each person is to himself one alone.  One oneness, a unit in society, but always afraid.  Like here, standing.  If you should scream now, if you should holler for help, would it matter?"

This ordinary walk in a quiet town has turned into something else.  Is this a horror story?  Or a growing up story when Doug climbs another step towards maturity and most likely doesn't realize it?

Any thoughts? 


  1. a myriad of thoughts! i read a lot of Bradbury when younger and, without recalling specific titles, images come back over the years... parallel worlds, time travel(didn't he write about the butterfly effect, when a time traveler accidently kills one in the Cretaceous and all of subsequent reality is altered?), and the similarity with H. P. Lovecraft in some respects, anyway... The Martian Chronicles, of course, wonderful tales. what an amazing guy, living in L.A. without driving and riding the bus everywhere... he just passed recently, i believe, in his 90's...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Yes he was quite a person. He died in 2012.

      The butterfly effect story is titled "A Sound of Thunder" and a film was made of it. Of course they turned it into a creature feature and lost the real heart of the story.

  2. Superb commentary on this story.

    I read this a long time ago. I want reread it soon.

    Bradbury is also one of my favorite short story writers. His writing is absolutely poetic. He is able to weave it into such powerful themes. This story illustrates one of those themes.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      Thanks for the kind words. Yes, it is his style that grabs me--poetic is the right word.