This post inaugurates a series which, featured occasionally, will analyze the techniques employed not only by the masters of the horror genre, but also those of the science fiction, fantasy, and other types of fiction. For both fans and aspiring writers, this series, hopefully, will be fun as well as occasionally informative.
We’re starting with “Heavy-Set,” a deft and tightly written short story by Ray Bradbury in which the horror, although understated, is definitely there.
The tale is, in fact, a lesson in how to use understatement to heighten suspense, terror, and horror.
It starts by identifying the main character, who is not Heavy-Set, but his mother, thus orienting the story to follow from her perspective, although the narrative itself is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. The opening sentence also establishes an everyday setting, which will sharply contrast with the tale’s understated terror: “The woman stepped to the kitchen window and looked out.” In doing so, she sees her son, Leonard, among the many weights with which he works out on a regular basis:
By continuing to insert “and” between the items in the series in which he identifies the equipment that Heavy-Set uses, Bradbury stretches out the list of items, thereby impressing upon his readers how many items of equipment Heavy-Set has on hand. “A man stood surrounded by barbells and dumbbells and dark iron weights of all kinds and slung jump ropes and elastic and coiled-spring exercisors [bold added]” is more effective, for this reason, than “a man stood surrounded by barbells, dumbbells, dark iron weights of all kinds, slung jump ropes, and elastic and coiled-spring exercisors [bold added]” would be. It’s rhythm is also more melodious. It is in these seemingly small matters of diction and style that the truly great writers take pains to shine, and Bradbury, even among other established writers of his genre, is known for his perfection in this regard.
There in the twilight yard a man stood surrounded by barbells and dumbbells and dark iron weights of all kinds and slung jump ropes and elastic and coiled-spring exercisors. He wore a sweat suit and tennis shoes. . . .
This was her son, and everyone called him Heavy-Set.
Next, Bradbury stresses the size and strength of the antagonist:
Bradbury is such a skilled craftsman that he easily accomplishes several objectives at once--or, at least, like all true masters, he makes doing so look easy. In the short paragraph just quoted, for example, he emphasizes Heavy-Set’s size and strength with such phrases as “big fists” and “lost in his fingers,” but his description of Heavy-Set exercising with the “coiled springs,” employing the simile “like magic tricks” and short sentences (“He crushed them. They vanished. He let them go. They came back.”), also makes readers see this character exercising and, more than this, makes them see, also, how Heavy-Set exercises: slowly, methodically, purposefully. For him, exercise is more than merely exercise; it is ritualistic, perhaps even therapeutic. His devotion to his workouts is reinforced by the single-sentence paragraph that follows the description of Heavy-Set at work with the “coiled springs”: “He did this for ten minutes, otherwise motionless.” It is obvious that he is focused. Indeed, it is almost as if he is one with the springs that he crushes and lets go.
Heavy-Set squeezed the little bunched, coiled springs in his big fists. They were lost in his fingers, like magic tricks; then they reappeared. He crushed them. They vanished. He let them go. They came back.
Readers see, next, that lifting a one-hundred-pound set of barbells is easy for Heavy-Set; he does so without effort:
“Then he bent down and hoisted up the one-hundred-pound barbells, noiselessly, not breathing. He motioned it a number of times over his head, then abandoned it” for a punching bag, which he punched. . . easily, swiftly, steadily,” working it over the same way he worked the weights.He is proud of his size and strength; his physical prowess is the basis of his self-image and, perhaps, his self-esteem. As he finishes his evening’s exercise regimen, he fills “his lungs until his chest” inflates to “fifty inches” and stands “eyes closed, seeing himself in an invisible mirror poised and tremendous, two hundred and twenty muscled pounds, tanned by the sun, salted by the sea wind and his own sweat.”
Having established the size and strength of his story’s antagonist, Bradbury next establishes Heavy-Set’s “childlike” nature by having him carve Halloween pumpkins, as if it were a “job” in which to take pride, rather than a few moments’ pastime:
He had gone out earlier in the day and bought the pumpkins and carved most of them and did a fine job: they were beauties and he was proud of them. Now, looking childlike in the kitchen, he started carving the last of them. You would never suspect he was thirty years old. . . .There is the suggestion that Heavy-Set may be mentally handicapped. His mother, who is very much aware of how much her son exercises, hearing “him every night drubbing the punching bag outside, or squeezing the little metal springs in his hands or grunted as he lifted his world of his weights,” seems to dote upon him for this very reason. She is extremely solicitous of his comfort and enjoyment, asking him whether he liked the dinner she prepared for him and telling him that she bought “special steak” and “fresh” asparagus. When he says that “it was good,” she replies, “I’m glad you liked it, I always like to have you like it.” The strange syntax stresses her desire to please her son, and readers wonder whether her solicitude is meaningful beyond itself.
Although girls and “eighteen-year-old boys” are attracted to him, for different reasons--the girls wanting to date him and the boys looking up to him--Heavy-Set avoids their company, and his mother is “used, by now, to hearing Heavy-Set each night on the phone saying he was tired to girls and. . . no, no he had to wax the car tonight or do his exercises to the. . . boys.” He seems to have trouble with relationships with others and avoids situations that could lead to such associations, whether of a dating or of a more general and casual sort, his difficulty reinforcing the suggestion that he may be mentally handicapped.
He seems better able to interact with young people in a group, for a limited amount of time, as he plans to attend a Halloween party to which he‘s been invited indicate. He has “bought two jugs of cider,” he tells his mother, in case “they all show up,” although, he worries, “they might not show up.”
As the story progresses, Bradbury’s narrator continually inserts references to Heavy-Set’s weightlifting and his squeezing of the exercisors. Bradbury also repeatedly alludes to his antagonist’s size. Such repetition has the effect of highlighting these actions and characteristics.
The narrator next associates the character’s physical prowess with his immaturity. After Heavy-Set finishes carving the last of his pumpkins, he moves “into his bedroom, quietly massive, his shoulders filling the door and beyond,” from whence he returns dressed in a very childlike costume, indeed, consisting of “a pair of short black pants, a little boy’s shirt with a ruff collar, and a Buster Brown hat” and “licking a gigantic peppermint-striped lollipop.” To his mother, he announces, “I’m the mean little kid!” If there were any question as to the antagonist’s being mentally handicapped, his dressing, at age thirty, in such an outfit eliminates all such doubt. His mother humors him as he parades before her, pretending to lead “a big dog on a rope,” exclaiming, “You’ll be the life of the party!” Nevertheless, she finds his antics “exhausting.” Readers suspect that putting up with the immature thirty-year-old man is no easy task for her.
Heavy-Set’s “childlike” nature becomes more apparent as one of the “eighteen-year-old boys” with whom he sometimes interacts calls to tell him that many of them won’t be attending the party. Unlike Heavy-Set, who avoids girls, the boys, although twelve years his junior, are more interested in dating than they are in attending a Halloween costume party, and “half the guys,” he learns, “aren’t showing up at the party” because they have “other dates.” Tommy, the boy who’s called to relay this news, says he himself has “a date with a girl.”
When, dejected, Heavy-Set says, “I ought to throw the pumpkins in the garbage,” his mother encourages him to go to the party, anyway, assuring him that “there’ll be enough for a party” and that he should “go on and have a good time,” especially since he hasn’t “been out in weeks.”
The narrator informs the readers that Heavy-Set has dated two girls during the past decade, neither of which date went well. His more customary way of spending his days is in solitary pursuits such as playing “a game of basketball with himself. . . in the backyard,” swimming, surfing, or, of course, working out with his weights and punching bag. In such activities (all of which are typical of men younger than he), Heavy-Set finds momentary release from the tension and stress that results from his loneliness and his inability to establish or maintain adult relationships. They are also a means for him to repress his sex drive, as the following description, with its almost-subliminal metaphorical allusion to orgasm, indicates:
Some nights he stood around like this and then suddenly vanished and you saw him way out in the ocean swimming long and strong and quiet as a seal under the full moon or you could not see him those nights the moon was gone and only the stars lay over the water but you heard him there, on occasion, a faint splash as he went under and stayed under a long time and came up, or he went out [as if on a date] sometimes with his surfboard as smooth as a girl’s cheek, sandpapered to a softness, and came riding in, huge and alone on . . . [an ejaculatory] white and ghastly wave that creamed along the shore. . . .Although he has opportunities to date, he passes on them, and the boys who admire his physique, once they turn twenty-one, abandon him, to be replaced by a new set of youthful admirers who shall also abandon him in due time.
As the protagonist thinks of her son, Leonard, whom his youthful friends call “Heavy-Set” or “Sammy,” which is “short for Samson,” or “Butch” or “Atlas” or “Hercules,” her exhaustion comes through, and readers get a sense of her own desperation. Earlier, while she’d been watching her son parade in his Buster Brown costume, Heavy-Set’s mother felt “exhausted.” Now, readers learn that her son’s condition affects her in other ways, too. She is also lonely. Her son is uncommunicative and regards her not so much as his mother but as a generic female, “the woman,” who waits on him hand and foot and is always solicitous of his happiness and comfort:
He went into the kitchen. “I guess there’ll be enough guys there,” he said. “Sure there will,” she said, smiling again. She always smiled again. Sometimes when she talked to him, night after night, she looked as if she were lifting weights, too. When he walked through the rooms she looked like she was doing the walking for him. . . .Having reassured him, again, that plenty of his acquaintances will be present at the party, his mother shoos him out the door, saying, “Fly away.” These words are as much a hope for herself as they are an encouragement to him. She hopes that he will do just this, like a bird that has been too long in the nest. His presence prevents her from living a full and independent life, for her own is devoted, almost entirely, to caring for him, despite the fact that Heavy-Set does, indeed, have a job of sorts, working “on the high power lines all day, up in the sky, alone.”
As the evening grows later, she keeps an eye out for her son’s return, hoping against hope, all the while, that, at last, he may have met “someone” and won’t be coming home, in which case, she herself will be free:
What if, she thought, he found someone tonight, found someone down there, and just never came back, never came home. No telephone call. No letter, that was the way it could be. No word. Just go off away and never come back again. What if? What if?However, her desperate hope is short-lived, as she thinks, “No!. . . there’s no one, no one there, no one anywhere. There’s just this place. This is the only place.”
Earlier, she wondered what happened in her son’s life to retard his emotional development and to make him want nothing to do with girls, with sex, with marriage, or a normal life. Her questions show that she does not know much about her son, despite having lived with him for thirty years. He doesn’t communicate much, except when he is angry or disgruntled. There may not be much depth to him, and he certainly does seem to be mentally handicapped. He may harbor latent homosexual tendencies, as he is more concerned with what teenage boys think of him than he is with the marginal women who dote upon him. He seems, in a way, to court the teenage boys’ favor and admiration, rather than to avail himself of the pitiable women who display an interest in him, and his mother appears to attribute his behavior to a past traumatic event, possibly molestation, that he’s never mentioned to her:
Leonard, my good boy. . . . just where, in all the years, did the thing happen that put him up that pole alone and working out alone every night? Certainly there had been enough women, here and there, now and then, through his life. Little scrubby ones, of course, fools, yes, by the look of them, but women, or girls, rather, and none worth glancing at a second time. Still, when a boy gets past thirty. . . .Readers also learn that much of the mother’s solicitude has to do with her fear of her oversize, mentally handicapped son rather than with her concern for his comfort and pleasure. She seeks to keep him content, as much as possible, to prevent his losing his temper and becoming violent with her, “the woman.”
Heavy-Set comes home from the party early and upset. He explains to his mother that only a few people showed up, and no one but him wore a costume. Despite his efforts to amuse them, the other partygoers simply stood around. The boys were more interested in their dates than they were in the party, and “just stood around” before, in couples, they went off to the beach together, leaving Heavy-Set alone:
“They had their girls with them and they just stood around with them and wouldn’t do anything, no games, nothing. Some of them went off with the girls. . . . They went off up the beach and didn’t come back. . . . I felt like a fool, the only one there dressed like this, and them all different, and only eight out of twenty there, and most of them gone in a half an hour. Vi was there. She tried to get me to walk up the beach, too. I was mad by then. I was really mad. I said no thanks. And here I am. You can have the lollipop. . . . Pour the cider down the sink, drink it, I don’t care.”
The narrator has suggested that Heavy-Set alleviates tension by exercising and working with his weights. Heavy-Set does so again, now, his mother watching and listening to her son punch the bag. Assessing the level of his anger by the time that he works the bag, she concludes that he is especially angry tonight:
He must have drubbed the punching bag until three in the morning. Three, she thought, wide awake, listening to the concussions. He’s always stopped at twelve before.When he finally stops punching the bag, he comes into the house, and his mother has “a feeling he still” wears “the little boy suit,” but she doesn’t “want to know if this were true.”
She retired for the night long ago. Now, her son joins her in bed, lying beside her, “not touching her.” She feigns sleep, aware that her son’s body is “rigid,” and feels the “bed shake as if he were laughing.” More likely, he is weeping soundlessly, disheartened by the brokenness of his personality and the fiasco of the party at which he’s humiliated himself, and then he begins to work the “coiled spring exercisors,” and she wants to “slap them out of his fingers”--until a disturbing thought occurs to her: “What would he do with his hands? What could he put in them? What would he, yes, what would he do with his hands?” Her only recourse, she believes, is prayer, so she prays:
So she did the only thing she could do, she held her breath, she shut her eyes, listened, and prayed, O God, let it go on, let him keep squeezing those things, let him keep squeezing those things, oh, let him, let him keep squeezing. . . let. . . let. . .Perhaps, readers may suppose, Heavy-Set has gotten into bed beside his mother to assault her, both sexually and physically, and perhaps to kill her. She certainly seems frightened enough to warrant such an interpretation. However, it seems more likely that he has gotten into bed next to her because he seeks comfort. He has experienced a traumatic humiliation, and he understands, perhaps, on some level, conscious or otherwise, that he is not normal, that he does not behave as even younger males do, and that his interests are immature and “childlike,” rather than manly. At thirty, he is single and still lives at home, with his mother. He may even still wear “the little boy suit” over his man-size body, she thinks.
It was like lying in bed with a great dark cricket.
And a long way before dawn.
Physically, Heavy-Set is strong and powerful. He appears to be manly, but he lacks virility, and, intellectually and emotionally, he is weak and boyish. These qualities, and his latent homosexuality, seem to suggest that he sees his mother, as “the woman”--an alien, but, nevertheless, comforting, presence. He does not relate to her sexually but as a dependent and inadequate youth relates to an independent and self-sufficient adult provider and caregiver. He seems to want comfort, not sex. At the same time, however, as he gets older, she is apt to become less and less able to provide the maternal nurture and comfort that she more easily supplied him in his younger days. If she stops giving the reassurances he needs, she is afraid that she will no longer be necessary to him, and he may, in a pique of uncontrolled temper, take out his frustrations and fears, his disappointments and helplessness, his defeat and impotence upon her. As an aging Atlas, he longer carries the world as easily upon his shoulders as his younger admirers, male and female, may suppose.
Although he’s known more for science fiction or fantasy than he is for horror, Bradbury’s “Heavy-Set” proves that the master is capable of writing superb horror fiction as well.
Horror stories typically start with an everyday situation, as “Heavy-Set” does, gradually introducing an element of the bizarre. In this case, this element is the discrepancy between the thirty-year-old, fit and muscular antagonist and his minimal intellect, emotional maturity, and social skills which, becoming clearer and clearer as the antagonist ages, traps both him and his victim, his own mother, in an existential trap that narrows more each year, threatening, ever, to spring shut upon them. Because of Bradbury’s masterful, understated storytelling, this subtle story of a man’s interrupted development is horrific, indeed. Readers are likely to say, along with the protagonist, “Let him keep squeezing those things!”