Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Let's Play 'Poison'" by Ray Bradbury

Deal Me In Lite, Week 19: “Let's Play ‘Poison’” by Ray Bradbury

This week’s card draw (the seven of spades) selected a story from my Ray Bradbury collection, and finally I got a story that is the kind I expect from Bradbury: unsettling, a little creepy, something's-not-quite-right, with a twisty ending.


This very short story, which was first published in 1946 in Weird Tales, tells the tale of Mr. Howard, who hates children. He came by this hate honestly, I suppose: he was formerly a schoolteacher, and witnessed a group of students push one of their classmates out the window to his death. Ever since that event (after which he immediately took early retirement), he has regarded children as demons, or perhaps aliens sent from outer space to torment earthlings.

Ironically, some years after his retirement, he is asked to fill in as a substitute teacher for an ailing friend. He reluctantly agrees, only because he knows it will be a short-term assignment. However, all of his old fears and feelings come flooding back once he’s in the classroom, and he is quite nasty to the children all the time for no good reason.

One day he comes upon some of the children playing a game of their own invention called “poison.” It involves the children having to jump over a segment of the sidewalk in which some names are imprinted. They believe this is a gravestone, and if they step on it, they die from poison. Mr. Howard is tremendously impatient with this game, and tells the children those names are the contractors who put the sidewalk in, and that no one is buried there. This sets the stage for the later part of the story, which involves a section of the sidewalk that is torn up for repairs, and a ditch, and a dark night, and Mr. Howard chasing after some boys playing a prank on him with a skull at his window. I have no desire to spoil the story for you, but it's not too hard to see where the story goes at this point. Let's just say Mr. Howard gets what is coming to him.

One of the things I have found interesting in reading stories from this huge anthology of Bradbury’s stories is the comparison between his early and later styles. His early work seems very spare and not as lyrical as a lot of his later stuff, although it still definitely has all of the basic Bradbury style. It could be that he was writing for particular publications, and trying to fit their style so he could actually get published. Or maybe, like so many writers, he polished and refined his style over the years until it came to be what we consider as “classic Bradbury.” It's an interesting question. But definitely an interesting story as well!


  1. I have a vague recollection of reading this one some time in the way-back. This is my favorite sort of Bradbury story: just on the edge of uncanny, with a sort of dark-tinged morality tale decoration hung about.

    Nice review!

    1. Thanks! Seems like Bradbury is a very popular author around these parts.