The Crowd by Ray Bradbury

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“How swiftly a crowd comes… like the iris of an eye closing in out of nowhere.”

Note: this post contains spoilers…

Mr. Spallner, this story’s protagonist, is involved in an automobile accident. Though hurt and dazed, his injuries are not life-threatening. He is conscious enough to notice the details of his surroundings – particularly that, in a location that was deserted moments before, a crowd had gathered “out of nowhere” to surround him. He notices too that the tires of his now upside-down car are still spinning “with senseless centrifuge.”

Someone in the crowd says “Is he dead?” And another one answers, “No, he’s not dead.” And another, “He won’t die. He’s not going to die.” It sounded to this reader like the crowd was disappointed. Spallner has his suspicions too, although he realizes he may have been dazed after the accident, there is something strange about the crowd.

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He discusses his fears and observations with several people, first his attending doctor when he awakens two days later in the hospital, then a cab driver, then his friend, Morgan. All of them challenge his idea that there was something sinister in the crowd, yet all of them have also witnessed the phenomenon of how quickly a crowd appears at accidents. The cabbie sums it up as “Same way with a fire or explosion. Nobody around. Boom. Lotsa people around. I dunno.” It is primarily the speed at which the crowd gathers that is eating at Spallner. He tells his doctor that they were there in thirty seconds. The doctor suggests it “was probably more or like three or four minutes” since Spallner’s senses were disordered by the accident.

Spallner knows better, though. Why? Because he remembers that, when HIS crowd was there, the tires on his car were STILL SPINNING. They wouldn’t have been spinning for three or four minutes. Friction would have slowed them down much faster than that. Sometimes the (natural) laws of physics conspire to reveal or confirm the supernatural, eh? An interesting idea…

Riding in a cab, he witnesses another accident and is certain he sees some of the faces in that accident’s crowd that he saw at his own accident. When visiting his friend Morgan in an office building, their talk is interrupted by the sound of a car crash on the street below. Again, Spallner thinks, the crowd includes some of the same faces. Not all, of course, but some.

He does some detailed research in archived newspaper clippings and photos of accidents over the years and sees the same people over and over. They are always the same age. They are always in the same clothing. They are always in the crowd. He shows his findings to his friend Morgan and says he is going to take them to the police.

“Do you think they’ll believe you?”
“Oh, they’ll believe me all right!”

Spallner begins driving very carefully to the police station. Not carefully enough, however, as he is involved in another “accident”….

How did I learn about this story? Well, back in March a local library branch had a day honoring Ray Bradbury, with a couple talks or presentations by Jonathan Eller, the director of the “Center for Ray Bradbury Studies” located here in town at IUPUI (that’s “Indiana University -Purdue University Indianapolis”). Mr. Eller, who knew Bradbury personally and is also his biographer, shared many photos and stories about the author. One memorable photo to me was of his family’s small house in Los Angeles (maybe “cottage” is the better word). It was located right next to one of the local power company’s substations, and one photo showed the window of the room where Bradbury did his writing, which looked out at this structure. One can easily imagine the author’s imagination humming right along with the audible drone from that station…

<below: Ray Bradbury memorabilia on display at the library>

bradbury memorabilia

Eller shared many anecdotes about Bradbury stories. The one that piqued my interest, though, was of how Bradbury – who never learned to drive – witnessed a horrible accident in 1934 Los Angeles while walking on what was moments before a seemingly abandoned street. A woman victim of the accident even died while Bradbury was tending to her. Obviously such a traumatic event would leave quite an impression on anyone, and for Bradbury his amazement at how quickly a crowd gathered led to this story.

<below: the first volume of Eller’s Biography of Ray Bradbury>

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Of course this is just one of many many great short stories by this prolific writer. Which ones have you read that are your favorites? (I’m still working my way through the collection “The Illustrated Man” and have a couple of his stories on my list for my 2013 edition of my annual short story reading project.)

(below outside the Irvington Branch of the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library system. I used to live right across the street, just out of the picture to the right…)

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<we even got to listen to Bradbury’s own voice – it was a “super fascinating” day!>

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(Below, the power substation located next to Bradbury’s house in Los Angeles. As Jonathan Eller wrote me when forwarding this picture: “Imagine seeing this at night, with the sub station machinery lights glowing through the tinted windows. Creative energy as tangible metaphor.”)

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Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms”

It’s been a couple months ago that I read this short story as part of my 2013 Short Story Reading Project. I acquired it, along with nineteen others, when I purchased “The Best American Short Stories 2011” anthology, edited by Geraldine Brooks.

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I selected several of the stories therein to include in my annual project in hopes of adding a more contemporary flavor to my roster (I tend to read or re-read a lot of classic stories and authors in these projects). Not all of the stories in the anthology are on my list for 2013, but the ones that are were chosen based upon the contributors’ notes in the back of the book. Millhauser (a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1997) says of this story: “For a long while I wanted to write a story about a phantom woman. It never came to fruition, for reasons I can only guess at. One day, unexpectedly, a different kind of phantom story appeared to me and dared me to write it. The story “Phantoms” is the result of that dare.” I liked that. Especially how a phantom story “appeared” to him – what else would a phantom story do? The story was originally published in issue 35 of McSweeney’s Magazine (cover pictured below).

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The narrator of this story (which should not to be confused with the Dean Koontz novel of the same name) is from an old town, founded in 1636, and surprisingly, matter-of-factly explains how these non-malevolent phantoms “plague” his town. So many of the people in the town have encountered phantoms that those who haven’t are actually a small minority.

What I Liked about this story was the unique way in which the supernatural was presented. Calmly, rationally, the author enumerates six separate proposed “explanations” for the phantoms. E.g., “the phantoms are the auras, or visible traces, of earlier inhabitants of our town,” or that “…the phantoms are not there, that those of us who see them are experiencing delusions or hallucinations brought about by beliefs instilled in us as young children,” and so on. Millhauser also includes numbered “case studies” and “histories” that sync-up with the different explanations.

The phantoms of this town always, upon discovery, disappear, but not after giving their spotter “The Look” described in this passage:

“Most of us are familiar with the look they cast in our direction before they withdraw. The look has been variously described as proud, hostile, suspicious, mocking, disdainful, uncertain; never is it seen as welcoming. Some witnesses say that the phantoms show slight movements in our direction, before the decisive turning away. Others, disputing such claims, argue that we cannot bear to imagine their rejection of us and misread their movements in a way flattering to our self-esteem.”

There is something about the rational and matter-of-fact way the town’s phantoms are presented that makes the story more chill-inducing than your standard issue “ghost story” too. In a section titled simply “You”, Millhauser challenges the reader:

“You who have no phantoms in your town, you who mock or scorn our reports: are you not deluding yourselves? For say you are driving out to the mall, some pleasant afternoon. All of a sudden – it’s always sudden – you remember your dead father, sitting in the living room in the house of your childhood. He’s reading a newspaper in the armchair next to the lamp table. You can see his frown of concentration, the fold of the paper, the moccasin slipper half hanging from his foot. The steering wheel is warm in the sun… the shadows of telephone wires line in curves upon the street… You pass through a world so thick with phantoms there is hardly room for anything else.”

Good stuff, huh?

In his final section, titled “How Things Are,” he finishes us off:

“For though we have phantoms, our town is like your town: sun shines on the house fronts, we wake in the night with troubled hearts, cars back out of driveways and turn up the street. It’s true that a question runs through our town, because of the phantoms, but we don’t believe we are the only ones who live with unanswered questions. Most of us would say we’re no different from anyone else. When you come to think about us, from time to time, you’ll see we really are just like you.”

I really enjoyed this story and its fresh approach. I’m sorry to say I had neither read nor even heard of Steven Millhauser before now, but I certainly plan to seek out other works of his. What about you? Does your town have phantoms or not? Have you seen any yourself? I have. (Well, kindasortamaybe.) Have you heard of, or read something by this author before?

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(above: author Steven Millhauser)

Memories of “Discovering Gold!”

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A couple weekends ago, my short story reading project led me to read Jack London’s short story “All Gold Canyon.” I own an ebook of London’s complete works and added this tale to my 52-story roster for 2013 reading. I chose it because of its tantalizing title and because it was one I hadn’t read before. I was not disappointed.

***Mild Spoiler Alert*** (this story is in the public domain and may be read/found for free online in many places – like this one.)

The story begins with the protagonist, a solitary prospector, coming upon a pristine canyon in the Southwestern U.S. The canyon is singular in its unspoiled natural beauty, and London’s description of it is a real tour de force. The prospector takes out a pan and begins testing the dirt for traces of gold. As  you could imagine by the story’s title, he is not disappointed either. Things go well and eventually he finds the source of the gold deposit. Extracting the gold won’t be that easy, though, as he must deal with natural obstacles as well as a nefarious “claim-jumper” before the story ends.

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All Gold Canyon struck a chord with me because it invoked some fond memories. The story includes a pretty lengthy description of the panning for gold, maybe more than I’d ever heard or read about that practice before. At that point in the story, a recollection from childhood hit me and for several minutes I became lost in “the realm of memory“…

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When I was growing up, my family had some LP records from a series called “My First Golden Record Library” that my two brothers and I listened to often, and of these our undisputed favorite was one titled “Adventures that Built America.” (album jacket pictured above) This record sounds somewhat cheesy when listened to today (a few years ago my Mom burned a copy to CD for me), but at the time it was high, “adventure” – for lack of a better word. It contained five individual tracks where the listener would ‘actively participate’ (there were quiet spots on the record where we were supposed to respond. The breathless narrator would urge us with “Say, ’yes,’ adventurer!” – or whatever the situation called for.) There were five separate adventures on the record, starting with Christopher Columbus discovering America (“You’ve sighted land, Adventurer!”) and moving on to Paul Revere’s ride, The Pony Express, and the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk. There was also one about the California Gold Rush that started with its discovery at Sutter’s Mill (pictured below) in 1848.

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The sound effects were great, and in the Gold Rush “episode” the listener is part of a wagon-riding, claim-grabbing rush. Even as I’m typing this, I can hear the water swishing as the listener is panning for gold (“You’ve discovered gold, Adventurer!”). Re-listening to this record today – some ’drive-by’ research indicates it was produced in 1962 – it sounds pretty corny and campy. Complete with its often breathless narrator, over the top songs and music, it’s a wonder I didn’t grow up and become a great patriot of some kind…

(below: panning for gold)

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Have you read any of Jack London’s shorter works?  You’re missing out if you haven’t.  Which are your favorites or which do you recommend?  Are you a member of the generation that grew up listening to records like “Adventures that Built America?” Do you enjoy it when your reading opens a portal backward in time and into your own “realm of memory?”  I’d love to hear about it…

(Below: author Jack London)

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Stories Like White Icebergs

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I didn’t really start getting into Hemingway’s writing until a few years ago. I’d only read the famous short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” for a class in high school. That was it. Then a couple years ago I was blown away by one of his short stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and began further exploration, including one novel (The Sun Also Rises) and several more short stories. After this additional exposure I began to learn a little more about him, and also his “Iceberg Theory” (or theory of omission) of writing which, as you might guess from the name, proposes that most of the story should lie “beneath the surface.

” I already enjoyed Hemingway’s economy of words and learned from a fellow reader (Hi, Richard!) in my Great Books Foundation discussion group at the Nora Library to think in terms of “everything in a Hemingway story is there for a reason.” (I can still hear Richard asking, perhaps somewhat mischievously, “Why is he giving him a cigar?!?” at our discussion of the Hemingway story, Indian Camp.) I learned a lot at that meeting. 🙂 Another Hemingway story that had been frequently recommended to me was the story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” so when coming up with a roster of stories to read for my 2013 short story reading project, I made a place for this one as the “five of clubs.”

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***spoiler alert*** But why not just read the story online yourself, though? One place you can find it is here:

  What was memorable to me about this story, which involves a couple traveling in the Ebro valley in northeastern Spain to a city where the woman will have some kind of procedure (never actually mentioned but clearly An abortion), is that the two characters themselves could be said to apply the “Iceberg Theory” to their relationship. Hemingway doubtless is applying it to the story, but their relationship adds another layer. An ice cube floating in a puddle of water on an iceberg? I’m sure that can happen in nature, so why not literature. Have you read this story? What did you think of it? Do you enjoy the theory of omission or do you prefer stories that are told in a more straightforward way? (Below: the Ebro valley in Spain – looks beautiful!)

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What is your favorite Hemingway story?

Veronica Roth’s “Divergent”

I finished this book on Sunday morning. I liked it well enough but, based upon its wild popularity, I admit I was hoping for more.

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Divergent is a novel centered in a Chicago of the future. Civilization – as it is known to us in the present day – has broken down (the reasons are not fully explained in this book) and a new civilization has replaced it. In this new civilization, the populace is divided into five groups or “factions,” and when children come of age they must choose which faction they want to identify with. Most choose to remain in the faction they were born into, but some choose to transfer during a kind of “sorting-hat ceremony” (no, there’s not really a Harry Potter-esque sorting hat, but that’s what I was reminded of) called the Choosing Ceremony, carried out after “aptitude tests” are administered.

Two siblings, Caleb and Beatrice (or “Tris” as she chooses to be called later), abandon their parents and their faction (“Abnegation”) and choose new factions. Caleb chooses “Erudite” while Tris, the main character in this book, chooses “Dauntless.” The other two factions are “Amity” and “Candor.” The factions got their names based upon the values each thought would have prevented the original civilization’s breakdown. Candor values honesty; Abnegation values selflessness; Amity, friendliness; Dauntless, bravery, and Erudite,knowledge. This novel, the first in a trilogy (“Insurgent” is already published and third installment is scheduled for October 2013) follows the adventures of Tris as she goes through her training as a Dauntless initiate and begins to discover all is not well in this five-factioned society.

I enjoyed the camaraderie and the rivalry amongst Tris and the other initiates, and also enjoyed seeing Tris grow into a more independent and confident young woman. I didn’t so much enjoy the typical YA romantic plot lines. I also have to say that I had a lot of trouble accepting or believing this post-apocalyptic? (not even sure it is) world. Too much is left out, as if this future world was hastily or incompletely constructed by the author. We don’t know the fate of the rest of the world, but we do hear that it is the job of the “Dauntless” to guard the fence around the city (from what?). Also noteworthy is that the trains still run, even though the infrastructure, for the most part, appears to have fallen apart. And somehow there is still power and moving parts enough in the John Hancock building for the Dauntless to use the elevators in order to participate in a harrowing zip-line ritual from time to time.

I loved the cover art of the book, and I have to admit it was a page turner which I completed in just a few days. I liked the Dauntless faction’s style, which included wearing black and multiple piercings and tattoos. I didn’t like that (*very minor spoiler alert*) the Erudite faction are the “bad guys.” Knowledge is evil! Haven’t we had enough of that these days? Will I read on in this series? Probably. A movie version is in development and may have started filming already. So, it might be “worth it” to keep up with this one. It’s no Hunger Games, which it somewhat reminded me of, but it should make an excellent and very popular film.

What about you? Have you read Divergent or both it and its follow-up, Insurgent? What did YOU think?

(below: author Veronica Roth – from Chicago herself, oddly enough 🙂 )

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May Reading – The Month Ahead

I’m always interested in hearing what my friends are reading (this is why Goodreads.com is favorited in my browser). Maybe you are the same way? Here’s what I think I’ll be working on in May:

First, a few ‘required’ reads, including a re-read of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slapstick, for the monthly meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club. The club has covered all of his novels already and this will be the first “repeat” since I began participating. I think this was only the third Vonnegut novel I had read at the time of my initial reading, and – now that I’ve learned so much more of this author and his works – I’m really looking forward to revisiting it.

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(above: the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s replica of Kurt Vonnegut’s study)

One of the reading groups at Bookmama’s Bookstore in Irvington is meeting on the 29th to discuss the second half of the Tolstoy Classic, Anna Karenina. I attended the first meeting, but have kind of left the daunting novel lie fallow for a few weeks. I need to pick it up again and see what happens to Anna, Vronsky, Constantin, & Kitty. When I finish this book, a serious gap (one of very many, I’m afraid) in my cultural literacy will finally be filled. I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie adaptation with Keira Knightley in the title role either…

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My Great Books Foundation discussion group is meeting on the 21st to discuss the famous Lawrence Sargent Hall story, “The Ledge.” It is also my turn to lead the discussion, so I plan to thoroughly read this one and be prepared.

(below: Lawrence Sargent Hall, author of “The Ledge”)

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I’ve also been reading Veronica Roth’s novel, Divergent, and may even wrap that one up this weekend. I’m liking it so far, but I admittedly have a thing for dystopic fiction. This one kind of feels like Harry Potter meets Hunger Games meets Brave New World. I know a few of my fellow bloggers were disappointed in the sequel, but enough of them also liked this one to cause me to take the plunge.  Oh, and it’s set in a post-apocalyptic(?) Chicago too (don’t you recognize Lake Michigan on the cover?), so as a midwesterner that’s a plus.

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What else? Oh, yeah, I hope to start reading The Shift Omnibus by Hugh Howey. It’s the anticipated prequel to the addictive “Wool” omnibus, which I tore through last month and have been recommending around to anyone who dares ask me. Someday I’ll post about “Wool” – if I can get my act together and write something decent.

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There are four Saturdays in May, so that means I’ll read four stories for my annual “Deal Me In” short story project. Which stories I read, however, will be determined by the luck of the draw, which is part of what makes this annual project so fun for me. That, and my line-up of fifty-two stories this year is perhaps my strongest yet. AND It’s not too early to starting thinking about coming up with YOUR OWN list of fifty-two stories for 2014 and join in the fun. Fellow blogger Dale at Mirror With Clouds is also doing the short story “Deal Me In” project with me this year.

Well, that’s about it for me (even though I will likely read a few random and unanticipated stuff too, as always). What about YOU, though? What will you be reading in May? I’d love to hear about your reading plans…

“The Great George Helmoltz Hoax of 2013”

A recurring character in the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut is the oft-beleaguered high school band teacher, George Helmholtz. He appears in four stories that I can immediately recall (there may be another or two) – “The Ambitious Sophomore”, “The Kid Nobody Could Handle”, “The Boy Who Hated Girls” and, from the collection “Look at the Birdie,” the very funny story “A Song for Selma.” In this last story, reference is made to a musical composition by the sixteen-year-old genius, Al Schroeder, entitled “Hail to the Milky Way.” Unlike the song from the title of this story, there are no lyrics mentioned to go along with “Hail to the Milky Way.” (although we are treated to the humorous acknowledgment that, with the furthest star in The Milky Way being “approximately ten-thousand light years away” that “if the sound of the music was to reach that star, it would have to be played good and loud.”

At The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meetings here in Indianapolis, we have previously wondered about this Helmholtz character, and whether he was based on a teacher Vonnegut knew at Shortridge High School, or if instead he was a conglomeration of several real people. At our most recent meeting last week, Bill Briscoe, the library’s historian, uncorked the revelation that he “had done some research” and that there was a music teacher during Kurt’s high school years named Herman George, upon whom the character was based. We were all fascinated and unaware – as yet – that Bill was reeling us in. For my part, the name was perfect – I could see Vonnegut combining Herman George & that famous name from science, Herman Helmholtz, into George Helmholtz. That would be so Vonnegut.

Bill went on to explain that he had even located Herman George’s son, who related that most of his father’s personal effects had been “lost in a fire,” but one thing from his papers that survived was a few stanzas of a song, “Hail to the Milky Way”(!) It should be mentioned here that Bill is also our club’s unofficial poet and our meetings usually end with him sharing his latest work (related to the book we’ve read that month). He brought the song fragment (though charred around the edges and encased in a plastic sheath) with him to the meeting and read the three verses it contained:

Hail to the Milky Way
And to the Sky we pray
While stars do dance and play
Hail, hail, all hail, we say!

Our galaxy we tout
It’s great without a doubt
It has such big clout
hail, hail, all hail, we shout!

Our universe is dear
Nothing else comes near
And so we raise our beer
Hail, hail, all hail, we cheer!

Bill passed around the alleged “artifact” but, as far as most of us were concerned, the jig was up. How conveniently the burned edges of his “historical document” circled the perimeter of the verses, and few could mistake the well-known style of our poet in residence. When the document reached me, I inquired aloud, “Are you sure this isn’t a Briscoe original?”

So, some fun was had and nobody got hurt. I think this would have been a meeting that Kurt Vonnegut himself would have heartily approved of.

(Below is a photo I snapped of this historical document – sorry for the focus issues…)

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A couple other examples of Bill’s work from prior meetings:  A tribute to Breakfast of Champions (extra credit goes to anyone who can identify the four initials on the olives); and, at bottom, a visually impressive poem from our meeting on Hocus-Pocus.

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