Friday, June 25, 2010

Similar Paths, Different Deliveries: Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft

I've spent the better part of May and June with a couple of short story writers, one of whom is an old friend and the other is a new discovery.  I truly enjoyed their writing — and, though it wasn't my intent, I found myself comparing the two.

I approached Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft with equal parts excitement and trepidation.  (Some "scary" books don't settle well with me, a fact to which my husband David can attest.)  I expected to see their similarities and instead discovered their wonderful differences.

I've read Ray Bradbury since I was old enough to visit the library on my own, which was right around grade school.  As a young journalist in the mid-1980s, I was fortunate enough to interview him for an article on the now-defunct Acres of Books in Long Beach, Calif.  That was a glorious hour with a generous writer, and I reveled in every single minute of it.  (I was horrified to discover my tape recorder hadn't captured a single moment on tape, but that proved either Bradbury was magic or I was inept.  I prefer to believe the former, but more readily accept the latter.)  A recent article by Neil Gaiman prompted me to purchase The stories of Ray Bradbury when I nearly wept at the idea of returning the library copy after maxing out my renewals.  I have consumed a story or so a day for weeks, and I've enjoyed them immensely.

H.P. Lovecraft is a recent discovery.  I was introduced to him at Edgar Allen Poe's funeral last autumn ("The Funeral Poe Never Had — Until Now," Hedgehog Lover, October 2009).  Lovecraft fascinated me, both in form and function.  When I asked booksellers and librarians about him, the reactions were the same: reverence mixed with a little fear.  I was intrigued, and picked up a collection of his short stories: The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.  I started with "The Call of Cthulu" and haven't looked back since  (though I have looked over my shoulder from time to time to see what's actually there).

Reading the two authors at the same time has been a fascinating.  The styles are completely different and yet the stories have a similar spirit.  Both men tell tales of horror and sadness, loss and fear.  However, Lovecraft's tells his stories in dusty Victorian homes that have the faint smell of sulfur wafting up from the cellar with libraries of brown-paged books with curling edges and pen-and-ink writing in the margins.  Bradbury's stories are told on porches in small Midwestern town scrubbed and ready to host its visitors in the first decade of the 20th century — or in a 1950s Laboratory with Scientists, with neat notes in pencil on lined paper, or maybe graph paper.

Lovecraft is more stately and formal in his writing, much like a man at the turn of the 20th century.  He reveals the dark side of humanity that dabbles in the sinister and alien.  Many of his stories fold back onto themselves, with multiple references to the same towns and universities — and often to the Necronomicon, a book that can bring unspeakable horror to the people who think they can use it without consequence.  His characters respect learned men in universities, but hold them in equal regard for their disconnection to the real horrors; their reliance on books blinds them to reality (though in one instance it did save humanity).  Lovecraft's stories usually have a surprise ending, with the last sentence offering the Big Reveal of the horror that lurked juuust out of sight, around the corner.  His descriptions of the horrors of his imagination demonstrate our primal fear of the ooky, gushy unknown that lurks under the bed or in the back of the closet.  There are no explanations, just Evil.

In contrast, Bradbury reveals science to be the king.  Science elicits an inherent trust, despite the threat of the Atomic Age and its imminent self-destruction.  His characters cling to it though they teeter on the edge of disaster.  Bradbury's world is rich with spaceships, outer space and men of authority.  These Men (and they're all Men) have their roots in Small Town Middle America, where he takes us time and again to ground us.  The stories unfold with a logic and precision that gives us straight lines without cobwebs or ookiness.  The narrators of every story are similar to each other in that they act and speak with authority and understanding beyond their character (if that is the chosen narrator).

Frankly, I love the stories of both authors.  I want to read about "The Happiness Machine" that is inaccurately named and "The Screaming Woman" who frightens a little girl into action with a shovel as much as I want to discover what the time-traveler saw in the ancient library in the Australian caves in  "The Shadow Out of Time."  I approached them expecting to see their similarities and instead discovered their wonderful differences: Lovecraft is truly a writer of the horror and macabre, whereas Bradbury puts the "science" in science fiction and the "fantasy" in fantastic.

I am glad I finished another book in my Fill in the Gaps list.  I am glad I also re-discovered a childhood favorite, and I plan to keep the substantial short story collection within reach for the foreseeable future.

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