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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ray Bradbury's "Love Potion": Learning from the Masters

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Ray Bradbury’s “Love Potion,” one of the flowers of evil in his Summer Morning, Summer Night anthology, is a deceptively simple tale, the unexpected twist at the end of which not only horrifies, but also delights.

Reclusive sisters, “large as sofas. . . and stuffed with time,” Miss Nancy Jillet and her sister Julia take “the air at four in the morning,” when there is no one in the sleeping town in which they live to see them except the policeman walking his beat. While the two old ladies are rocking in the chairs on their front porch at two o’clock in the morning, eighteen-year-old Alice Ferguson, unable to sleep, “happened upon the Jillets.”

The women, after identifying their visitor, both by name and by age, tell her that she’s in love but that “he doesn’t love you,” which is why Alice is “unhappy and out walking late.” Nancy, however, assures her that she has come “to the right place.” Alice says that she “didn’t come,” but the woman shush her, saying that they will help her by giving her a “love potion.” They give her a green bottle, the contents of which Nancy describes as harmless ingredients:

“White flowers for the moon, summer-myrtle for the stars, lilacs for the rain, a red rose for the heart, a walnut for the mind. . . . Some clear water from the well to make all run well, and a sprig of pepper-leaf to warm his blood. Alum to make his fear grow small. And a drop of white cream so that he sees your skin like a moonstone.”
When Alice asks whether such a potion will “work,” Nancy assures her that it will; she and Julia have spent many years determining “why we never courted and never married,” and the results of their long investigation into these matters “boils down to” the potion they’ve given to her. Alice will be the first ever to try the potion, Nancy assures their visitor, because “it’s not just something you give to everyone or make and bottle all the time.” The sisters have too many interests, Nancy implies, for them to spend all their time on any single pursuit, even the manufacture and bottling of a love potion:

“We’ve done a lot of things in our life, the house is full of antimacassars we’ve knitted, framed mottos, bedspreads, stamp collections, coins, we’ve done everything, we’ve painted and sculpted and gardened by night so no one would bother us.”
It was while they were gardening, in fact, that they’d first seen Alice, “looking sad,” and had surmised that she was so “because of a man.” That was the moment that the sisters had resolved to try to help Alice, and they’d straightaway picked flowers from among the plants of their garden. All Alice needs to do to win her beloved is to add three drops to a beverage, “soda pop, lemonade or iced-tea.”

Visiting the man of her dreams, he tells her, “I do love you.” Alice replies, “Now I won’t need this,” and shows him the green bottle which contains the sisters’ love potion. Perhaps she has already mentioned the topic, in a joke, to him, because he is not surprised by her production of the bottle and even advises her to “pour a little out. . .before you take it back, so it won’t hurt their feelings.”

She does so, returning the rest to the Jillet sisters, assuring them, in answer to their question, that she administered a dose to her beloved. The women surprise Alice by announcing that they themselves will sample the potion, so that they will “have beautiful dreams and dream we’re young again.”

The next morning, sirens awaken Alice, and she runs to her window, looks out, and sees “Miss Nancy and Miss Julia Jillet sitting on their front porch, not moving, in broad daylight, a thing they had never done before, their eyes closed; their hands dangling at their sides, their mouths gaping strangely.” They have about them the look of death, and the green bottle is set before them:
There was something about them, something that suggested sheaths from which the iron blade is gone. This, Alice Ferguson saw, and the crowd moving in, and the police, and the coroner, putting his hand up for the green bottle that glittered brightly in the sunlight, sitting on the rail.
Because of the apparent kindliness of the aged sisters and their seemingly sincere desire to “help” their beautiful, young, lovelorn neighbor, Bradbury deceives his reader, as it were, into believing the elderly sisters to be harmless. Reclusive spinsters, the may seem a bit eccentric, believing, as they do, in love potions, but they are also apparently harmless, even lovable, old women. However, the reader’s realization that the “love potion” that they gave Alice was really the same poison that they drank as a means of committing suicide shows that the women were anything but the kindly old ladies they appeared to be. Believing themselves to have committed murder, by killing the young man for whom Alice mooned, but who did not love her in return, the women next kill themselves, apparently to put themselves beyond the reach of the law.

Bradbury’s story ends upon an eerie note, and the shock of the ending makes the reader reread the short story for clues as to what would motivate two seemingly nice old ladies to take their own lives after attempting to murder a stranger.

It would be disappointing if Bradbury had taken the cheap way out by leaving the story a mystery, but he is too good a writer to rely upon a dues ex machina. His story does, indeed, contain clues that make the sisters’ monstrous deeds intelligible. The women are reclusive. They avoid others, keeping company only with one another. When they go outside their house, it is early in the morning, when the town is “undercover.” Upon meeting them, “in the milky dark of 2 a.m.,” Alice recalls “the tales of their solitary confinement in life,” a phrase which suggests not only isolation, but also punishment.

If their self-imposed isolation from others is a form of punishment, for what offense are they enforcing it? Their intuitive understanding of the cause of Alice’s unhappiness is a clue. Upon seeing Alice walking past their garden, “looking sad,” they recognize the cause of her unhappiness, as being “a man,” perhaps because a man, in their past, had caused one or both of them to feel similar sorrow. They have spent a good many years, Nancy tells Alice, trying to “figure out why we never courted and never married,” and, having done so, they have concocted their “love potion.” Although it may be “too late” for them to “help” themselves, they can “help” Alice, who seems to suffer from the same heartache that had such a devastating effect upon their own lives.

Whatever the reason for the failure of romance in the days of their youth, it seems that the spinsterish sisters blame themselves, for they have, as it were, sentenced themselves to “solitary confinement in life,” becoming recluses whose only company they keep is one another’s. They have spent the long years, “since 1910,” as they confide to Alice, when, possibly, their hopes for love were dashed, in activities that seem to have been designed to sublimate their sexual drives:
“We’ve done a lot of things in our life, the house is full of antimacassars we’ve knitted, framed mottos, bedspreads, stamp collections, coins, we’ve done everything, we’ve painted and sculpted and gardened by night so no one would bother us.”
Possibly to spare Alice such a lonely and unfulfilling life as theirs has been, despite the many hobbies and pastimes with which they’ve attempted to fill their lives--lives which, nevertheless, the narrator characterizes as “stuffed with time and dust and snow”--they gave her a potent poison to administer to the object of her unrequited love. It is a gesture of kindness that is anything but kind, but the spinsters have apparently long since passed beyond rationality, supposing that the murder of the young man who doesn’t share Alice’s love would be justifiable if it brings Alice relief after her initial grief.

Believing themselves to have accomplished their mission, they drink the poison themselves, thus adding the crime and sin of suicide to that those of murder. Their own unrequited or failed love, it seems, has twisted them, and, over the years, the lonely spinsters, unable to find fulfillment in one another’s company or in the many activities they have tried to pass the time over the years during their self-imposed “solitary confinement,” have come to see their young neighbor’s own unrequited love as a long-lasting torment which may give some purpose to their lives if they can deliver Alice from the hell that they have had to endure since 1910.

Instead, they would have caused Alice untold grief by such an action, since, as the young man confides, he already does love Alice. Their romance, which could lead to marriage, almost ended before it began, in the death of the man of Alice’s dreams, and, blinded by their own torment and grief, neither of the sisters were capable of imagining that their reading of Alice’s unhappiness and its cause was a result not of special insight, as they might have supposed, but of a projection of their own experience onto the life of another person. Their solipsistic self-exile from life and the irrationality that preceded and follows from such “solitary confinement” is the horror that makes them monstrous and villainous, despite their appearances as harmless old ladies to the contrary.

Bradbury’s masterful writing allows the horror and the delight that rear, shockingly, at the end of this compact, deceptively simple story of heartache, madness, and seclusion. By emulating Bradbury’s technique, other writers can accomplish similar results.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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