Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ray Bradbury: Long After Midnight, "The Blue Bottle"

Ray Bradbury
Long After Midnight

Long After Midnight is a  collection of short stories that I had read many years ago, but as usual, I had forgotten what stories it contained.  I sat down yesterday and began. What I found surprised me.  I am a great admirer of Bradbury's short works, but I missed recognizing just how good these simple little tales are.

Since this collection contains 22 stories, I will comment on a number of them in several subsequent posts.  "The Blue Bottle" is the first story in the collection. .

"The Blue Bottle"
 This story takes place on Mars.  To be sure, I checked my copy of The Martian Chronicles, but it wasn't in there.  After reading the story, I wouldn't have been surprised to find it there because it contained elements reminiscent of those tales.

The story begins with two men searching for the Blue Bottle.

  "The sundials were tumbled into white pebbles.  The birds of the air flew in ancient skies of rock and sand, buried, their songs. stopped.  The dead sea bottoms were currented with dust which flooded  the land when the wind bade it reenact an old tale of engulfment.  The cities were deep laid with granaries of silence, time stored and kept, pools and fountains of quietude and memory.
  Mars was dead.
  Then, out of the large stillness, from a great distance, there was an insect sound which grew large among the cinnamon hills and moved in the sun-blazed air until the highway trembled and dust was shook whispering down in the old cities.
  The sound ceased.

  In the shimmering silence of midday, Albert Beck and Leonard Craig sat in an ancient landcar, eyeing a dead city which did not move under their gaze but waited for their shout:
  A crystal tower dropped into soft dusting rain.
  'You there!'
  And another tumbled down.
  And another and another fell as Beck called, summoning them to death.  In shattering flights, stone animals with vast granite wings dived to strike the courtyards and fountains.  His cry summoned them like living beasts and the beast gave answer, groaned, cracked, leaned up, tilted over, trembling, hesitant, then split the air and swept down with grimaced mouths and empty eyes, with sharp, eternally hungry teeth suddenly seized out and strewn like shrapnel on the tiles."

They were searching for the Blue Bottle, a mysterious Martian artifact which legends claimed that it held that which one most wanted.  Craig came along for the ride; it was Beck who drove the two of them from one deserted city to the next.  Many had found the bottle, according to various tales, and many had died, but still the Blue Bottle remained elusive.

Beck's search, though intensive and driven, was a strange one: "Only after he had heard of the Blue Bottle. . .had life begun to take on a purpose.  The fever had lit him and he had burned steadily ever since.  If he worked it properly, the prospect of finding the bottle might fill his entire life to the brim.  Another thirty years, if he was careful and not too diligent, of search, never admitting aloud that it wasn't the bottle that counted at all, but the search, the running and the hunting, the dust and the cities and the going-on."

It is Craig who finds the Blue Bottle, but he doesn't recognize it. He opens it to discover that the bottle is filled with bourbon; he takes a drink from it and discards it.  Beck, however, realizes what it is and places "it on the table.  Sunlight spearing through a side window struck blue flashes off the slender container.  It was the blue of a star held in the hand.  It was the blue of a shallow ocean at at noon.  It was the blue of a diamond at morning."

Beck picks it up and shakes it: Craig hears it gurgle (some bourbon is still in there), but Beck hears nothing.  He is about to open it when a man appears with a gun  (another fanatic searcher obviously), takes the bottle, and drives off.  Beck and Craig give chase.  They find him, by the side of the road, his body dissolving away. They see three men hurrying up a hill. Craig decides enough is enough and is no longer interested in the search, but Beck goes on after them.  He finds them, dead, their bodies also dissolving.  Beck now realizes what is in the Bottle.  It is what each searcher most desires, and now he knows what he most desires.

Beck's search for the Blue Bottle reminds me of the Arthurian tales of the Search for the Holy Grail. Those who find it will recognize it, as Beck recognizes the Blue Bottle, his Holy Grail, but that's only part of the story.  Why the search that absorbs so many people?  The mystery of both is the meaning of the Bottle and the Grail--what the Blue Bottle and the Holy Grail signify and that seems to differ for each searcher.

I think this story could well have been included in The Martian Chronicles.  The tone, the setting, the causal destruction of Martian cities and structures by humans, and those strange almost recognizable artifacts that possess an alien aura.  In this story it is the Blue Bottle.  Blue bottles are not alien to earth cultures, but what it contains may be.


  1. What a great opening!

    The sundials were tumbled into white pebbles. The birds of the air flew in ancient skies of rock and sand, buried, their songs. stopped. The dead sea bottoms were currented with dust which flooded the land when the wind bade it reenact an old tale of engulfment. The cities were deep laid with granaries of silence, time stored and kept, pools and fountains of quietude and memory.

    I will check with the library. Perhaps Bradbury will be available. Thanks for instigating my search for life on Mars!

  2. Fred: FYI / new address and new name for blog --
    All the best from the Gulf coast,

  3. R.T.,

    Don't forget Bradbury after you've finished your tour of Hawthorne.

  4. i've liked Bradbury a lot in past years; tx for reminding me how good he was; his writing , upon first perusal, seems run of the mill, but then strange elements creep in: always present, that sort of ghostly breathing on the back of one's neck feeling, wherein the reader senses something behind the words that is more meaningful than the words, but also more alarming... wasn't it he who invented the "butterfly effect" - where a minute change in the past produces major alterations in the present...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Yes, his stories seem very simple, but there's always something there that produces an eerie feeling.

      I don't know if he invented the butterfly effect which is a classic example of what is now called Chaos Theory, but he did write "A Sound of Thunder" in which a time-traveling dinosaur hunter stepped on a butterfly and this changed his present when he returned. I did a post on it and the film loosely based on it.

    2. that's right, i remember now... tx

    3. Mudpuddle,

      It's one of my favorite Bradbury tales.