Isn't this a great cover for a book that is filled with tales of the strange and unusual? I can't remember where I first came across it, but Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature is a real find for short story enthusiasts. It's chock full of stories that deal with the uncanny, and while many are not exactly scary they do give the reader a sense of unease.
". . . a mesmerizing book that evokes the darkness that lies beyond the real world. Seventy-two tales of hauntings, dreams, time warps, transformations, and the dealings with God and the Devil--stories to take you to the edge of the twilight zone."
The stories are chosen and introduced by Alberto Manguel (and there is a companion volume if you want even more) and he always relates each piece back to something personal, so you get the feeling that it was with an undertaking of love which he took on this project and that these are stories that meant something to him upon reading them. I always think I'd like to set myself the task of reading one story a week and reading through from beginning to end, but it hasn't quite happened yet. The authors run the gamut from Daphne du Maurier to Charles Dickens and from Jorge Luis Borges to Ray Bradbury, and it's a story by Bradbury that I chose to read this weekend.
I really like Ray Bradbury and want to read more by him. I've read Fahrenheit 451 twice (and listened to the audio version once as well--one of my better audio book experiences), and listened to Something Wicked This Way Comes (also an excellent audio experience), but I've only read one of his short stories previously--"There Will Come Soft Rains", which I wrote only briefly about. It has to rank as one of the best and most memorable short stories I've ever read.
Just a heads up--there are possible spoilers in my post, but I've tried not to give all the details or ending away.
In "The Playground" (copyright 1953), Bradbury takes the subject of childhood, a childhood not remembered fondly as being idyllic but rather with fear, as his theme. As a parent how far would you go to protect your child? Charles Underhill walks past the neighborhood playground every day on the way from his train, usually with newspaper in hand and attention focused elsewhere. When one day his wife tells him she's going to begin taking their three-year-old son Jim there, he decides he must take a closer look at it.
"At first there was nothing. And then, as his ears adjusted outward from his usual interior monologues, it was like turning the volume dial of a radio louder. And the scene before him, like a grey, blurred television image, came to a slow focus. Primarily, there were faint voices, faint cries, streaks and shadows, vague impressions. And sharp visions, children dashing, children fighting, pummelling, bleeding, screaming! He saw the tiniest scabs on their faces and knees in amazing clarity."
The sights, the sounds and the smells all come into clear and sharp focus. He calls it a "pen of misery" and aks his wife why must children make life miserable for each other? He's happy his own childhood is over and the ugliness, the pinchings and bruisings and everything else associated with it are behind him. He'd do anything to save Jim from having to endure the playground. Why did he ever think back on his own younger days with so much nostalgia, when it is all nothing but silly sentimentality. His wife, however, is of the opposite opinion. "You can't live Jim's life for him, you know that," she tells him. "He has to learn the hard way. He's got to be beat up and beat others up; children are like that." So the question is--do you send in your child to learn the hard way how the world works or do you shelter him from the realities and the pain that are sometimes associated with growing up.
There's one boy at the playground who looks familiar to Charles. The boy shouts at him, calling him Charlie. The son of an old friend, perhaps? His name is familiar, someone Charles grew up with. The resemblance between child and father is amazing. Or maybe it's his old friend in the guise of a young boy. He has the face and body of a child, but speaks with the wisdom of an adult. He looks Charles in the eye and tells him he understands and couldn't face letting his son be broken by the playground either. He tells Charles he "made a deal with the playground", and Charles can, too. The story takes on Faustian overtones when Charles decides to talk to the playground manager.
"Far across the field footballs sailed, baseballs whizzed, bats flew, fists jabbed up, and the door of the Manager's office stood open, the desk empty, a lone light burning in it."
Bradbury's story is simplicity itself, but he plays on fears that every reader can identify with. Children can be cruel and I have my own fair share of stories of the meanness children are capable of. Of course it is always the very best and the very worst that get etched so deeply in our memories. Bradbury has a knack for pulling these experiences out and weaving a story around them and playing on a reader's fears. You'll have to read the story yourself to find out what happens to Charles and Jim. I will say, however, that this is a dark story without a flicker of redemption, which just goes to show that not all scary stories need to have ghosts in them.
Just in case you're curious, this is the painting that the cover detail came from. George Tooker, The Subway (1950). Egg tempera on composition board. Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art. Doesn't the woman look hopelessly bewildered and as if she were lost?