I might be biased since I’ve just published an ebook made up of twelve short stories, but I really do love me a good short story. And to me, one of the masters of this genre is Ray Bradbury.
Ray Bradbury is a standout because he’s able to put so much into such a small literary space. He knew exactly how to build that chilling sense of dread that makes the best horror tales stick in your mind, and your nightmares, for years to come. He knew how to set a story in a seemingly familiar environment, and then subtly peel back “the normal” until you realized nothing was as it seemed. And he knew how to add the poetry of language to both the science and the fiction in science fiction.
Here are 10 of my favourite Ray Bradbury short stories. Many of them have massively influenced and inspired my own writing over the years.
1. The One Who Waits
This story was included in the short-story collection The Machineries of Joy, and to me, it’s not just a quintessential Ray Bradbury story, it is THE quintessential science fiction short story. It’s ominous and unsettling right from the start:
I live in a well. I live like smoke in the well. Like vapor in a stone throat. I don’t move. I don’t do anything but wait. Overhead I see the cold stars of night and morning, and I see the sun. And sometimes I sing old songs of this world when it was young. How can I tell you what I am when I don’t know?
Beautifully written and absolutely haunting: a true masterpiece.
2. The Veldt
Bradbury is very skilled at turning something we’ve been brought up to think of as innocent – like mushrooms and babies, for example – into something sinister. In The Veldt child’s play becomes deadly, and the relationship between two children and their parents takes a rather horrifying turn. This story also includes a playroom reminiscent of Star Trek TNG’s “holodeck”. It’s a true Bradbury classic that has been adapted for TV several times (by NPR, and Canadian television for example) and has also been turned into a movie. It was included in The Illustrated Man.
3. The Small Assassin
This short story is another excellent example of how Bradbury can create a sense of ominous dread and get those shivers running up and down your spine. A pregnant woman begins to suspect that the child she is carrying is evil. A ridiculous notion, of course. Right. Except that it turns out she’s right… It was included in the anthology Dark Carnival, and can also be found in several other Bradbury collections.
4. “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!”
This is one of the first Bradbury stories that I remember reading as a child (maybe I was a young teen? not sure). It’s been stuck in my mind ever since. An alien invasion that takes place in people’s basements? Of course. This story can be found in the Best-of-Bradbury collection The Stories of Ray Bradbury.
Without a doubt one of the Bradbury stories that has made the biggest impression on me. The story is taken from Bradbury’s amazing The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories strung together to tell the story of what happens when human beings try to colonize Mars. In this particular tale, an expedition from Earth to Mars encounters a town that seems eerily, yet comfortingly, familiar to them. It’s even populated by long-lost relatives and family. Of course, it doesn’t have a happy ending.
6. The Martian
Yet another short story from The Martian Chronicles, and yet another masterful Bradbury-tale. This time, an elderly couple from Earth have settled on Mars and one night they encounter a person they think is their long-dead son. The sense of sadness and foreboding that permeates this short story is what really gets to me:
The cold wind blew and the thin rain fell upon the soil and the figure stood looking at them with distant eyes.
And no, this one doesn’t exactly have a happy ending either.
7. The Million-Year Picnic
This one is also from The Martian Chronicles, and it’s actually the final story in that particular book. This is Bradbury at his poetic, poignant best. I can remember getting goosebumps when I read the ending the first time.
“I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,” said Michael. “Where are they, Dad? You promised.”
“There they are,” said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.
The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.
8. The Crowd
How swiftly a crowd comes… like the iris of an eye closing in out of nowhere.
Again, Bradbury picks something that seems fairly innocuous and familiar: the way crowds tend to gather at the site of an accident. But they way he tells the story, we just know that there is something dark and terrifying happening beneath the surface.
“Is he dead?” “No, he’s not dead.” “He won’t die. He’s not going to die.”
This short story is included in Dark Carnival, and also The Stories of Ray Bradbury.
A rather macabre story that was included in The October Country. I’ll just quote the Wikipedia entry about it without spoiling it any further:
A man becomes convinced his skeleton is out to ruin him, and consults an unorthodox specialist.
10. Tomorrow’s Child
I can vividly remember reading this story as a child: after all, a story that features a human baby that has accidentally been turned into a blue pyramid is bound to make an impression. It’s a whimsical story, more than an ominous one, and probably the most light-hearted of the tales I’ve included in this list. It’s included in the anthology I Sing The Body Electric, and in a way, this one actually does have a happy ending.
Bradbury at Amazon:
- The Martian Chronicles
- The October Country
- Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales
- I Sing the Body Electric: And Other Stories
- Bradbury Classic Stories 1: From the Golden Apples of the Sun and R Is for Rocket (Grand Master Editions)