Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Lockdown Choices - The Small Assassin

This is the tenth in my series of Lockdown Choices, where I seek to entertain you while in coronavirus-isolation, and remind you of Ray Bradbury's great works in this, his centenary year.

In these posts, I cover each of Bradbury's books, say something about the contents, then pick the best stories and adaptations.

Lockdown Choices: The Small Assassin

First edition, paperback, Ace 1962. The Small Assassin is a British book with no direct US counterpart. Cover artist unknown.


The Book

The Small Assassin is, to us Brits, as essential a Bradbury volume as any other. But it is solely a British volume, with no equivalent in the US. It contains thirteen stories, all of them "leftovers" from the UK editions of Dark Carnival and The October Country. How this came about is bit difficult to explain...

  1. Ray's usual British paperback publisher Corgi Books turned down the option to publish The October Country, as they didn't feel that a book of horror stories matched their usual style.
  2. In 1961, Ace Books stepped in and bought The October Country, but decided to drop seven of the stories ("The Next in Line", "The Lake", "The Small Assassin", "The Crowd", "Jack-in-the-Box", "The Man Upstairs", and "The Cistern". Although they also decided to add "The Traveller", which had appeared in Dark Carnival, but not in The October Country.
  3.  (Are you with me so far? There will be a quiz later.)
  4. In 1962, Ace took those seven deleted stories, put them together with the remaining six stories from Dark Carnival, and issued the result as The Small Assassin. The table of contents of the resulting volume is here.
Another way of looking at it is to say that if you have the UK paperback of The October Country and the UK paperback The Small Assassin, you have in your possession the complete contents of the outt-of-print UK edition of Dark Carnival. (But don't forget that the UK Dark Carnival is a cut-down version of the US edition!)

As far as I am aware, there has never been a hardcover edition of The Small Assassin; it has spent its entire existence in paperback. The last edition to see print was the Grafton edition of 1986. In its twenty-four years in print, it had just three more cover designs, all of them somewhat mismatched to the contents:

The three subsequent covers for The Small Assassin. The art for the middle one is by Richard Clifton-Dey. The others are uncredited. I have a particular dislike for the baby alien/robot on the right, who adorned the first edition I ever owned. He is so obviously a science-fictional creature, and yet this is so obviously not a science fiction book!

So, it's a book of leftovers. Or, alternatively, another one of those remixes which serve only to confuse the Bradbury collector.

The Stories

Now, I have covered some of the Small Assassin stories already, when I blogged about Dark Carnival and The October Country, so I will not repeat myself here - except to say that I heartily recommend "The Crowd" and "The Lake", which I discussed here. As for the others:

"The Small Assassin" - I've mentioned this tale a few times, and it is one of Ray's most anthologised stories - just look at its number of appreances as recorded on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. In case you've somehow managed to avoid being exposed to this classic tale, I'll summarise it by saying it's the one where a woman suspects that her new-born baby is out to kill her. As David Mogen points out (Ray Bradbury, Twayne 1986, p.57) this is a reverse of the monster/innocent victim scenario we would normally expect in a horror tale - and is an instance of "parent abuse" rather than child abuse!

It's classic Bradburyan paranoia of the type we have seen in "The Crowd", "The Wind", "Skeleton" and "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl". And as with most of those stories, the paranoid protagonist turns out to be justified in their paranoia. Bradbury, in his classic horror period, was never one to leave the reader to decide; he nearly always set things up to make you think the hero is crazy, then make you empathise with them, and then vindicate them.

Alice Leiber, the mother, is proof that Bradbury can write strong women characters. You will sometimes hear criticisms that most of his characters are male, especially in something like The Martian Chronicles. But he does have a number of memorable strong females. And if he adheres to the Hitchcockian motto of "torture the heroine", he can at least be defended on the grounds that, actually, he usually tortures his male heroes as well.

The unsung star of "The Small Assassin" is Dr Jeffers, the sceptical doctor whose role is to calm and placate Alice. Until he ends up convinced that she is right...

One last thing to say about "The Small Assassin": it may have its origins, in a sense, in Bradbury's own experience. One of Bradbury's oddest claims was that he remembered his own birth. "Preposterous", I hear you cry; and I cry the same thing. Nevertheless, Ray insisted that he could recall "the camera angle" as he emerged into this world, as well as the pain of being born, and his infant desire to return back to the womb. Whether you believe it or not (and I don't, not for one minute), it was this "memory" which provided the germ of the idea of a child which resents being born, and which desires to exact revenge on those responsible. Bradbury's account is given in countless interviews, but is most clearly explained in Sam Weller's biography, The Bradbury Chronicles (Wm. Morrow, 2005, p. 12).

"The Next in Line" - again, one that I've mentioned before. Again, it's a story with its roots in Bradbury's personal experience, this time based on his visit to Guanajuato in Mexico, where he saw the mummies in the catacombs. The story is what Sam Weller describes as "one of the most powerful stories [...], a psychologically complex creation, dripping with gothic atmosphere [...] Bradbury at his poetic best."

Here's the first view we get as our protagonists enter the graveyard on their way to the mummies:

         It was several mornings after the celebratory fiesta of El Dia de Muerte, the Day of the Dead, and ribbons and ravels of tissue and sparkle-tape still clung like insane hair to the raised stones, to the hand-carved, love-polished crucifixes, and to the above-ground tombs which resembled marble jewel-cases. There were statues frozen in angelic postures over gravel mounds, and intricately carved stones tall as men with angels spilling all down their rims, and tombs as big and ridiculous as beds put out to dry in the sun after some nocturnal accident. And within the four walls of the yard, inserted into square mouths and slots, were coffins, walled in, plated in by marble plates and plaster, upon which names were struck and upon which hung tin pictures, cheap peso portraits of the inserted dead. Thumb-tacked to the different pictures were trinkets they'd loved in life, silver charms, silver arms, legs, bodies, silver cups, silver dogs, silver church medallions, bits of red crape and blue ribbon. On some places were painted slats of tin showing the dead rising to heaven in oil-tinted angels' arms.
And the mummies themselves:

          They resembled nothing more than those preliminary erections of a sculptor, the wire frame, the first tendons of clay, the muscles, and a thin lacquer of skin. They were unfinished, all one hundred and fifteen of them.
          They were parchment-colored and the skin was stretched as if to dry, from bone to bone. The bodies were intact, only the watery humors had evaporated from them.
          "The climate," said the caretaker. "It preserves them. Very dry."
          "How long have they been here?" asked Joseph.
          "Some one year, some five, senor, some ten, some seventy."
 Such precise language in those descriptions - poetic, yes, but with a photographic clarity.

One of the strengths of the story is the way it gradually shifts away from the twin protagonists of Joseph and Marie - they're both together, and Joseph seems to have made their plans for them - to the focus on Marie alone, but with a final shift at the end to Joseph alone (the final shift being for reasons which you will discover when you read the story).

As with "The Small Assassin", there is a strong focus on a central female character here, albeit another "tortured heroine".


The Adaptations

"The Small Assassin" has been adapted for visual media a couple of times, and has turned out well each time. The story has a lot of visual suspense built in, such as the baby's carefully placed toy, intended to cause the mother to trip. Bradbury himself adapted it in 1988 for The Ray Bradbury Theater, and director Chris Charles oversaw a short film version released in 2006.

Dr Jeffers, as played by Cyril Cusack (of Fahrenheit 451 fame) in the RBT production of "The Small Assassin".
The chief suspect in the RBT production of "The Small Assassin".
A troubled mother from the 2006 short film...

...and the dastardly deed committed by the evil child.

"The Next in Line", on the other hand, has worked well on radio. While the story could work well on the screen, it also lends itself to the "better pictures" you often get in the sound-only medium, as evidenced by the BBC Fear on Four series, with a 1992 script by Brian Sibley.

Many of the other stories from The Small Assassin have also been adapted: "The Lake", "The Crowd", "The Man Upstairs", "The Tombstone", "The Handler", "Let's Play Poison" and "The Dead Man" all turned up on The Ray Bradbury Theater, all (of course) dramatised by Bradbury himself. In all, eight stories out of the thirteeen in the book were adapted for that series, probably something of a record.

Find Out More...

See my page for The Small Assassin, here.

Read my review of Bradbury's own screen adaptation of "The Small Assassin" here, and my review of the Chris Charles short film here.

Listen and Watch...

Watch Bradbury's TV adaptation of "The Small Assassin" here. And see the trailer for the 2006 short film here.

Read about Brian Sibley's adaptation of "The Next in Line", and listen to a recording of the play here.


Next Up...

The next of my Lockdown Choices will be Bradbury's second book of the year 1962: Something Wicked This Way Comes.

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