31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 1: “Skeleton” by Ray Bradbury

May 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Vintage Bradbury

The_Vintage_BradburyRay Bradbury is most often referred to as a writer of science fiction, but as Gilbert Highet states in the introduction to The Vintage Bradbury, that description is sadly limiting. “He knows little about science,” Highet writes, “he cares even less. He is a visionary.” Highet goes on to point out that Bradbury’s true literary forefathers are not Jules Verne or H.G. Wells (though he acknowledges the partial influence of the latter), but Lucian and Aristophanes, Kafka and Poe.

Poe’s influence can be detected throughout “Skeleton,” a creepy little tale about a man at war with the very bones that support him.

The story opens innocuously enough, with a man named Harris visiting his doctor for the tenth time in less than a year. The doctor’s exasperation (he is overheard moaning to his nurse, “Oh, my God, again?“) is made more palpable by the fact that Harris is not suffering any specific symptoms, plagued instead by phantom pain and a grave unease. The doctor diagnoses a case of hypochondria and suggests Harris take a vacation.

Dissatisfied with this diagnosis, Harris seeks out a second opinion. He locates a bone specialist with the vaguely European name M. Munigant, who seems to understand that the condition arises from distemper in the skeletal structure: “He had seen cases like this before. The bones of the body. Man was not aware of his bones. Ah, yes, the bones. The skeleton.”

True to M. Munigant’s assessment, prior to their consultation Harris had been more or less unaware of his own skeleton, not connecting it with the pains he feels. Following the visit, however, he can concentrate on little else. The fact that he has a skeleton at all begins to appall him and he starts to feel his skull pressing against his brain and his ribs squeezing his lungs in a manner he decides is actively malicious, as though his bones were staging a kind of uprising. (The man’s ribs are likened to “pale spiders crouched and fiddling with their prey.”)

Bradbury’s style is conversational to the point of being almost colloquial, but his straightforward presentation serves to heighten the sense of dread. Unlike, say, H.P. Lovecraft, who located unfamiliarity at least partially in a baroque linguistic approach, Bradbury’s spare diction and simple sentences render the quotidian uncomfortable by infusing it with a sense of creeping psychological terror.

The tension in the story resides in the question of whether Harris’s distress is entirely in his head, or whether his skeleton is literally attacking him. References to Harris’s subconscious would appear to suggest the former, although his revulsion at the thought of creaking bones beneath the skin is articulated in such a way as to render his terror intelligible: “Skeletons are horrors; they clink and tinkle and rattle in old castles, hung from oaken beams, making long, indolently rustling pendulums on the wind …” The notion that the skeletons hanging in university anatomy labs or dangling from front porches on Halloween are the very things that support us and allow us movement is, when considered in these terms, vaguely discomfiting. Harris’s affliction is unusual, to be sure, but far from incomprehensible.

Nor is Bradbury averse to including moments of mordant humour. Harris encounters a fat man in a cocktail bar and figures the man has piled on the pounds as a means of overpowering the bones beneath his skin, not allowing their lines and angles to give his features definition. “Yes, the fat man’s skeleton was luxuriously closeted,” Bradbury writes. “There were pillows of fat here, resilient bulges of it there, with several round chandeliers of fat under his chin. The poor skeleton was lost; it could never fight clear of that blubber.” Here a truly dangerous medical condition – obesity – is rendered as a defence against something more clearly absurd. (Although this observation is perhaps more true in retrospect: Bradbury’s story was first published in 1945, well before our Western focus on health and diet became a kind of societal obsession.)

The final scenes in the story pass from psychological horror to body horror, a transition that is somewhat jarring and not entirely effective. Highet locates a kind of optimism in the story’s final image, suggesting that Harris is ultimately “freed from his own hateful skeleton to become as flat and fluid as a mollusc.” This seems like a stretch, although perhaps the final moments of the story act as a kind of Rorschach test for the reader: those of an optimistic bent will, with Highet, detect a welcome release from anguish, while others will side with Harris’s wife and react with abject horror and revulsion.

Regardless, it is impossible not to feel a twinge of horror at the image of Harris’s wife encountering M. Munigant on the street as she returns home, soon to make her dreadful discovery. She “would have ignored him if it were not for the fact that as she passed, he took something long, white and oddly familiar from his coat pocket and proceeded to chew on it, as on a peppermint stick.”

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