Sunday, June 27, 2010

Similar Paths, Different Deliveries: Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft

I've spent the better part of May and June with a couple of short story writers, one of whom is an old friend and the other is a new discovery.  I truly enjoyed their writing — and, though it wasn't my intent, I found myself comparing the two.

I approached Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft with equal parts excitement and trepidation.  (Some "scary" books don't settle well with me, a fact to which my husband David can attest.)  I expected to see their similarities and instead discovered their wonderful differences.

I've read Ray Bradbury since I was old enough to visit the library on my own, which was right around grade school.  As a young journalist in the mid-1980s, I was fortunate enough to interview him for an article on the now-defunct Acres of Books in Long Beach, Calif.  That was a glorious hour with a generous writer, and I reveled in every single minute of it.  (I was horrified to discover my tape recorder hadn't captured a single moment on tape, but that proved either Bradbury was magic or I was inept.  I prefer to believe the former, but more readily accept the latter.)  A recent article by Neil Gaiman prompted me to purchase The stories of Ray Bradbury when I nearly wept at the idea of returning the library copy after maxing out my renewals.  I have consumed a story or so a day for weeks, and I've enjoyed them immensely.

H.P. Lovecraft is a recent discovery.  I was introduced to him at Edgar Allen Poe's funeral last autumn ("The Funeral Poe Never Had — Until Now," Hedgehog Lover, October 2009).  Lovecraft fascinated me, both in form and function.  When I asked booksellers and librarians about him, the reactions were the same: reverence mixed with a little fear.  I was intrigued, and picked up a collection of his short stories: The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.  I started with "The Call of Cthulu" and haven't looked back since  (though I have looked over my shoulder from time to time to see what's actually there).

Reading the two authors at the same time has been a fascinating.  The styles are completely different and yet the stories have a similar spirit.  Both men tell tales of horror and sadness, loss and fear.  However, Lovecraft's tells his stories in dusty Victorian homes that have the faint smell of sulfur wafting up from the cellar with libraries of brown-paged books with curling edges and pen-and-ink writing in the margins.  Bradbury's stories are told on porches in small Midwestern town scrubbed and ready to host its visitors in the first decade of the 20th century — or in a 1950s Laboratory with Scientists, with neat notes in pencil on lined paper, or maybe graph paper.

Lovecraft is more stately and formal in his writing, much like a man at the turn of the 20th century.  He reveals the dark side of humanity that dabbles in the sinister and alien.  Many of his stories fold back onto themselves, with multiple references to the same towns and universities — and often to the Necronomicon, a book that can bring unspeakable horror to the people who think they can use it without consequence.  His characters respect learned men in universities, but hold them in equal regard for their disconnection to the real horrors; their reliance on books blinds them to reality (though in one instance it did save humanity).  Lovecraft's stories usually have a surprise ending, with the last sentence offering the Big Reveal of the horror that lurked juuust out of sight, around the corner.  His descriptions of the horrors of his imagination demonstrate our primal fear of the ooky, gushy unknown that lurks under the bed or in the back of the closet.  There are no explanations, just Evil.

In contrast, Bradbury reveals science to be the king.  Science elicits an inherent trust, despite the threat of the Atomic Age and its imminent self-destruction.  His characters cling to it though they teeter on the edge of disaster.  Bradbury's world is rich with spaceships, outer space and men of authority.  These Men (and they're all Men) have their roots in Small Town Middle America, where he takes us time and again to ground us.  The stories unfold with a logic and precision that gives us straight lines without cobwebs or ookiness.  The narrators of every story are similar to each other in that they act and speak with authority and understanding beyond their character (if that is the chosen narrator).

Frankly, I love the stories of both authors.  I want to read about "The Happiness Machine" that is inaccurately named and "The Screaming Woman" who frightens a little girl into action with a shovel as much as I want to discover what the time-traveler saw in the ancient library in the Australian caves in  "The Shadow Out of Time."  I approached them expecting to see their similarities and instead discovered their wonderful differences: Lovecraft is truly a writer of the horror and macabre, whereas Bradbury puts the "science" in science fiction and the "fantasy" in fantastic.

I am glad I finished another book in my Fill in the Gaps list.  I am glad I also re-discovered a childhood favorite, and I plan to keep the substantial short story collection within reach for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Love Poem to Celebrate Our Anniversary

A Ditty   

My true-love hath my heart, and I have his,    
By just exchange one to the other given:    
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,    
There never was a better bargain driven:      
     My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.     

His heart in me keeps him and me in one,    
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:    
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,    
I cherish his because in me it bides:      
     My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.

by Sir Philip Sidney

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Scrubbing Grease Clean for the Next Generation

Paramount Studios has released a new — and in my mind, questionable — sing-along version of Grease, the musical that Most Americans of a Certain Age have memorized in self defense, if not out of love for the popular movie.

I was among them, an innocent high schooler, arguably much younger than the adults on the screen portraying the risque life of the 1950s. I had no idea what I was singing much of the time (what will the chicks do in Greased Lightning?), so I skipped over the confusing part and the swear words.  (Yes, I was naive.  I was told a joke about Dr. Pepper when I was 14 that I didn't get until I was 25.)

However, that's the way of life.  Someone wrote a story that suggested that women are turned on by a car and teens may become pregnant out of wedlock and act like antisocial punks.  They actually may  smoke, even.  (Perish the thought!)  Someone made a very popular movie out of it.

High schools actually may even stage a production of it, like my friend Corinne's school did.  From what I can tell, the script stayed pretty true to the original script — and the program noted that the school did not encourage the behavior these fictional high school students exhibited.  Teens are warned: don't try this at home.

Paramount has taken that warning a step further.  Cigarettes have been removed from the trailer advertising the sing-along, which is required by the MPAA for viewing by "general audiences."  Oh, and the rating might be changed from PG to something higher.  (PG-13 wasn't available in 1978 when the movie originally was released.) ("'Grease' is the word --- unless it's dirty," The Washington Post, 06/08/10)

May I quote John Stossel?  Give me a break!  It's not up to the studio to change elements because the "general public" might find it distasteful.  Erasing cigarettes from a trailer for a 30-year-old movie is ridiculous.  (I find the Cigarette War amusing; if a 10-year-old girl is felled by the tobacco industry because Sandy takes a puff, she has bigger problems with which she and her family must contend.)  Changing words or using symbols for the text to take the place of rude slang is absurd, especially when the lyrics aren't changed.

And no, I don't advocate changing lyrics or dialogue.  Frankly, my dear, I don't give a darn what the censors say about language when it's up to the parents to decide what their children will sing along to in the living room.

My brain did not melt by hearing boys sing about how they were going to get lucky because of a cool car.  Granted, much of the slang was a little above my head — but that's not new: there's a lot on the screen children should not see.  I think The Incredibles should be rated PG-13 because of the very realistic marital strife portrayed by Mr. and Mrs. Incredible.  No child should see the gut-wrenching, senseless ending of The Bridge to Teribithia.  Also, for the love of all that's holy, don't take youngsters to UP — the opening sequence broke my heart.

However, ratings are simply suggestions.  Parents drag their children to movies that are much too mature for them, and will continue to do so.  (Please don't ask me to tell you about how I was supposed to be asleep in the back seat of my parents' car during Easy Rider.  And no, I didn't understand a thing about it, including the ending.  I was five.)

Paramount can re-package and re-market its library — just skip the sanitizing.  Adults can decide how to expose their children to popular culture, and maybe some movies aren't for "general audiences."  As an adult, I decide what young people will hear in my house and car.

In the end, its a mix of what adults allow and what culture permits. Corinne and I didn't listen to the Grease soundtrack I purchased when she was in middle school.  Ironically, a few years later, she was in that very production.  And guess what?  Despite our exposure to Grease at a young age, we don't drink, or swear — and we don't rat our hair.