In which a down-on-his-luck drifter takes on the hardest job in the world.
By Ray Bradbury
First published in 1943
Anthologized in The October Country
When Ray Bradbury died in 2012, he was eulogized as a master of science fiction, one of a handful of authors who’d shaped a whole genre, much as Agatha Christie had with the mystery or Zane Grey with the Western. That Bradbury was the author of core genre works such as The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 cemented this view.
What many of the obituary writers missed, however, is that the SF component in Bradbury’s writing is the thinnest of thin veneers. For example, the stories that comprise The Martian Chronicles are full of horror imagery (see, for example, “The Third Expedition,” “Usher II,” “The Off Season,” “The Musicians,” and “The Settlers”). And Fahrenheit 451 is an all-out nightmare for those of us who love books and reading, as well as free thought.
In fact, much of Bradbury’s work is overtly horrific, which is why it’s no surprise that:
- He began writing for Weird Tales in the early 1940s
- His first collection, Dark Carnival, was published by the legendary Arkham House
Bradbury’s sparse prose and heartland settings were starkly different from HPL-style Gothic murk, but no less effective for that. He showed us a world of quintessentially middle-American towns, some of which happen to be on other planets. As far as the people who live in these places go, many are heroic, while others are racists, conformists, or murderers; the problem is that the latter are capable of blending in with the former, at least for awhile.
In Bradbury’s world, unborn children are killers (“The Small Assassin”), the well-intentioned cause bloodshed (“Touched With Fire”), mothers carry out devastating psychological experiments on their own children (“Jack-in-the-Box”), and characters even fear that their own skeletons are out to get them (“Skeleton”). In its way, the universe that he shows us is as hostile as Lovecraft’s.
“The Scythe,” written when Bradbury was 23, is a prime example of Bradburyian horror. In it, the Ericksons, a broke and homeless family straight out of a Dorothea Lange photo, run out of gas on an unmarked road, somewhere in the back country of an unnamed state. They’ve ended up in front of a small, quiet farm. Entering the farmhouse in search of help, Drew Erickson discovers a dead man lying in the bedroom, primly dressed in a suit and a tie. Clasped in corpse’s hands is a single blade of wheat. Nearby is a letter, willing the property to whomever finds the body.
At that point, it looks like the family’s luck has changed. The situation is an odd one, however, and its oddities keep piling up. One example is the scythe that Drew found leaning against the wall, next to the old man’s deathbed. It bears a cryptic inscription on the blade, one that makes no sense to Drew, at least at first. Then there’s the wheat field, which produces grain that rots upon being cut, but which grows back with uncanny speed. This field gains an ever-increasing hold on Drew, as the weeks pass…
One of the things that’s striking about “The Scythe” is that it features no villain or well-defined supernatural threat. The phenomenon that ensnares Drew is as old as humankind, and an inescapable part of existence. Drew has been placed, apparently by fate, into a position of extreme responsibility. He has a tough job to do, perhaps the toughest ever; he does it.
“The Scythe,” like the rest of Bradbury’s writing, is a lean tale. It’s as if Strunk and White were hovering over Bradbury as he wrote. This is a trait he shares with many of the greatest American writers of the period, from Chandler to Hammett to Hemingway.
At the same time, Bradbury’s prose is vivid, even cinematic. It’s no coincidence that he worked for so long in Hollywood, writing classic science fiction films (e.g., It Came From Outer Space, 1953) as well as movies by major directors (e. g., Moby Dick, 1956, directed by John Huston). His writing is visual, and, as any Bradbury fan can tell you, his images stay with you. Speaking for myself, there are Bradbury stories that I haven’t read in 35 years that are as vivid to me now as when I first encountered them.
No matter what the story, all Bradbury’s fiction has an underlying consistent philosophical view: the world is a place of both black and white magic, and they are indivisibly mixed. The white magic has the upper hand.
Most of the time, at least.