Thoughts On: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, the First Four

Everyone wants to see the pictures, and yet nobody wants to see them.

The Illustrated Man is a collection of eighteen short stories published by Ray Bradbury in 1951. The stories are all connected through the man on the cover above, a wanderer and part-time circus worker whose body of deep, illustrious tattoos move and come alive at night, predicting the future and revealing the past. And, while I’m not completely done with the collection at this point, I’m starting to seem some major themes of religion, spirituality, technology, and the value of both life and death beginning to develop! It’s impossible for me to discuss short stories without spoilers, however, so beware now!

“Prologue: The Illustrated Man”

It’s in the prologue that we meet both our narrator and the Illustrated Man. Our narrator is a traveler just completing a hiking trip, and the Illustrated Man describes himself as a part-time carnival worker who occasionally finds work, but inevitably ends up losing it do to the tattoos he bears all over his body. He shows the man his tattoos and explains that at night they come alive, begin to move, and tell the stories of both the past and the future. On his shoulder, however, there remains a jumbled part section of skin that will begin to predict the future of whomever the Illustrated Man is around, given enough time. Night begins to fall, and as the Illustrated Man settles in to sleep, he warns the narrator to not spend too much time staring at the tattoos, or he may get lost in them and learn things he doesn’t want to know.

He was a riot of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and color that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body…There were yellow meadows and blue rivers and mountains and stars and suns and planets spread in a Milky Way across his chest…The colors burned in three dimensions. They were windows looking in upon fiery reality. Here, gathered on one wall, were all the finest scenes in the universe; the man was a walking treasure gallery.

I LOVED the prologue that Bradbury provides us with! I immediately envied our narrator the chance to look at all the beautiful tattoos, and cursed the lack of detail on the cover of my copy, lol. I also liked the kind of sadness and almost-terror that the Illustrated Man seems to embody, a feeling that I think takes over a lot of the work, making each story a gut-twisting turn towards the least expected, or the most saddening. On the whole, I also enjoy the use of the mans body and his physical tattoos as a semi-psychological bond between the stories being told. Because while each tattoo and story are different, there is a basic commonality they do seem to share.

The sun was gone. Now the first stars were shining and the moon had brightened the fields of grass and wheat. Still the Illustrated Man’s pictures glowed like charcoals in the half light, like scattered rubies and emeralds, with Rouault colors and Picasso colors and the long, pressed-out El Greco bodies.

“The Veldt”

This story is TERRIFYING. We meet the Hadleys, George and Lydia, and their full-on technological smart house. Including a nursery that belongs to their children, where the walls turn in to whatever lands and characters and realms occupy the imagination of their two kids. When the story starts, the nursery has begin displaying a real, scorching, life-like savannah complete with hungry lions, where before it had displayed Wonderland and Aladdin’s cave of wonders. For many days in nights in a row, George and Lydia go to sleep and wake up to the lions, and occasionally hear screams that sound awfully familiar. Afraid of what this could indicate for the children’s imaginations, the parents decide to board up the nursery and shut down the house and take a “vacation” from technology for a few days. The children pitch a fit, and George consents to one last night in the nursery before the shut down begins. But when the parents hear the screams yet again, but louder, the rush in to the nursery hoping to help. What the find, however, is the door locked behind them and the lions prowling closer and closer. The two believe that it’s only an image on the wall until they realize why the screams always sounded so familiar.

How often had he seen Pegasus flying the sky ceiling, or seen fountains of red fireworks, or heard angel voices singing. But now, this yellow hot Africa, this bake oven with murder in the heat.

Like I said, I thought this story was truly, chillingly terrifying. Not in a, like, serial killer or GOTCHA! movie kind of way. In a Poe or H.P. Lovecraft kind of way. The coldness behind these two children, who clearly spent weeks imagining their parents death by lion eating, only to orchestrate in the end. And then! AND THEN! At the end, when a friend of the parents drop by, the daughter just offers him tea like nothing happened! Freaky Damien Demon Child! Plus the whole idea of your “smart house” somehow turning on you has always been something that kind of freaked me out about technology. I think that Bradbury does such a good job drawing the reader in to stories only to turn the tables and pull something gut-punching. Some people find it emotionally manipulative or schmarmy. I find it totally. addicting.

Long before you knew what death was you were wishing on someone else.

“Kaleidoscope”

This is so far my absolute favorite story in this collection. This is the only story that, so far, has kept me coming back to it, thinking about it day after day. It’s haunted me because the idea of just floating through space to your end is just…haunting. Daunting. It gives me the chills on a deep level, and one that I think will be with me for quite some time. It’s got a fairly simple plot: the story begins with the explosion of a rocket, and the crew members don’t have time to attach their gravity packs, so they all go floating off in to endless space. We follow one of them, Hollis, as he floats to his death, the only of the astronauts on a path for Earth. The astronauts communicate by radio, going through phases of regret, remembrance, apologies, and cruelty as they float further away. As Hollis hits the atmosphere, he burns, and on Earth a young boy makes a wish on what he thinks is a shooting star.

When life is over it is like a flicker of bright film, an instant on the screen, all of its prejudices and passions condensed and illumined for an instant on space, and before you could cry out, “There was a happy day, there a bad one, there an evil face, there a good one,” the film burned to a cinder, the screen went dark.

I’ve already explained some of the reason that I love this story so much. If this were to happen, I think that the emotional overload is nicely portrayed by Bradley. So many different phases, from anger to bargaining and finally to acceptance, when you know what is coming and there is nothing to do but wait and…well, make peace. I think that the writing speaks for itself. It most definitely speaks to me.

There were differences between memories and dreams.

The quality of death, like that of life, must be of an infinite variety, and if one has already died once, then what was there to look for in dying for good and all, as he was now?

Hollis looked to see, but saw nothing. There was only the great diamonds and sapphires and emerald mists and velvet inks of space, with God’s voice mingling among the crystal fires.

If only I could do one good thing to make up for the meanness I collected all these years and didn’t even know was in me! But there’s no one here but myself, and how can you do good all alone? You can’t.

“The Other Foot”

Of these first four, this was actually the story that I liked the least. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like it. Of course. Lol. This story again takes place in the future, in space, on the planet Mars. In the alternate history of this story, the African Americans left Earth for Mars shortly after the Civil Rights movement, and have been living there sense. On the day the story opens, white people are landing his rocket ship on Mars for the first time in history. Hattie and Willie and their neighbors are going to see the landing, and Willie puts in to action a hateful plan to remind the white people just how horrible they were once treated: he paints WHITES ONLY on the back seats of buses, and has the town begin designating sections for white eaters. He essentially establishes the Jim Crow south. And then the rocket lands. And it’s just one white man, an emissary from an Earth that is destroyed by nuclear war. As the man continues to talk, Willie learns that all the places he ever knew – his home town, the house where his mother was shot, the tree his father was lynched from – were all destroyed in the war. And, he realizes, with Hattie’s help, if the places that held his memories of hate are gone, perhaps he can let go of his hate. Willie tells the men to dismantle his racist plan, and Willie claims to have finally, for the first time that day, to have truly seen the white man.

She wanted to get at the hate of them all, to pry at it and work at it until she found a little chink, and then pull out a pebble or a stone or a brick and then a part of the wall, and, once started, the whole edifice might roar down and be done away with.

This story was nice! It was nice to see Willie realize how silly has plan of revenge racism had been, and I was glad that Hattie was basically vindicated, since she’d been trying to make him see that all along. I also thought that the story made an interesting point on hate and memory – if the peoples, places, or things that remind or embody what we hate the most are gone, destroyed, don’t we essentially punish ourselves by keeping that hate alive in memory only. I’m reminded of that scene in Forrest Gump where he takes Jenny back to the house where she was abused as a child and she just keeps throwing rocks at it until she’s emotionally broken, and then later in the film he has it torn down for her. That example has always been a great example of how we, as people, tie our memories up in things, in objects and places and even people.

Nothing, nothing of it left to hate – not an empty brass gun shell, or a twisted hemp, or a tree, or even a hill of it to hate.

I’m sorry all of that was so long! I won’t make it any longer by apologizing more, but needless to say I’m having a GREAT time really digging in to these Ray Bradbury stories, and am excited for what I’ve officially decided will be my summer of Neil Gaiman!

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts On: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, the First Four

  1. I remember The Illustrated Man as a character from Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is one of my favourite horror-fantasy books. I didn’t know there was an entire short story collection named after him and I can’t wait to read it. Nice review and thanks 🙂

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