Friday, October 14, 2011

Countdown: Ray Bradbury's Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories--#7

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#7."Let's Play 'Poison'" (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales)

Perhaps the most overlooked piece in Bradbury's autumnal oeuvre is this weird tale first published in November 1946.  Traumatized by the tragic fall of one of his students from a third-story window, schoolteacher Mr. Howard moves away to Green Bay and settles into "self-enforced retirement."  When finally coaxed into returning to work as a substitute teacher seven autumns later, he tyrannizes his new charges, calling the children "invaders from another dimension" and "little monsters thrust out of hell."  Adopting the role of neighborhood curmudgeon, Howard also chases the students away whenever he finds them cavorting outside his house.  The kids seem particularly fond of "playing poison,"  a macabre bit of make-believe involving cement sidewalks.

These sidewalks are conspicuously littered with autumn leaves, and Bradbury further weaves in a sense of season when describing the mounting tension between Howard and his pupils: "the silent waiting, the way the children climbed the trees and looked at him as they swiped late apples, the melancholy smell of autumn settling in around the town, the days growing short, the night coming too soon."  Also, in the story's climax, the children's harassment of Howard (via a white skull raised to and tapped at his window) can easily be seen as an act of mischief laced with Halloween spirit.

When Howard is lured outside by the pranksters, he soon discovers that for some people, "playing poison" is no fun at all.  Readers who think that Bradbury's writing is all about paeans to childhood are in turn forced to realize that the author has never been afraid to explore the sinister side of prepubescence.  Kids can be so cruel sometimes, and sometimes Bradbury uses that fact to horrific effect.

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