Though Ray Bradbury is most often associated with the gentler frights of Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Halloween Tree, his catalog of nearly 600 short stories includes a few entries that could rattle the most jaded horror fan. From a homicidal infant to a man who gleefully dismembers his own adolescent daughter, here are five Bradbury stories that are not for the faint of heart.
1. “At Midnight, in the Month of June”
One of Bradbury’s best-known suspense stories is 1950’s “The Whole Town’s Sleeping,” about a woman who is stalked by a serial killer called “the Lonely One.” (The story was reportedly inspired by a cat burglar who terrorized Bradbury’s hometown when the author was a young boy.) First appearing in McCall’s and later repurposed as a chapter of Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine, the story made such an impression on Frederic Dannay, one half of the mystery-writing duo known as Ellery Queen, that he asked Bradbury to write a follow-up for the magazine he edited. “At Midnight, in the Month of June” [PDF], which takes its title from the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Sleeper” and made its debut in a 1954 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, depicts the same unsettling episode from the killer’s point of view. Both stories are chilling, but the sequel is all the more disturbing for forcing the reader to identify with the killer—a literary precursor to the slasher films that would later place viewers firmly in the villain’s point of view.
2. “The Veldt”
Bradbury wasn’t the first science fiction writer to imagine what we’d now call virtual reality—Stanley G. Weinbaum beat him by 15 years with 1935’s “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”—but he was the first to turn it into high-octane nightmare fuel. Originally published as “The World the Children Made” in a 1950 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, “The Veldt” [PDF] got its better-known title when it appeared the following year in Bradbury’s classic collection The Illustrated Man. Bradbury’s tale of casually murderous children and a family undone by its cutting-edge house was unsettling enough to mid-century readers, but with the advent of VR and smart-home technology, this pop-culture touchstone cuts deeper than ever.
3. “The Small Assassin”
First published in the November 1946 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine, this horror-anthology staple might be read as a tragic tale of postpartum depression—until it’s revealed that Alice Leiber, a young woman who has just given birth to her first child, is right, and her baby does in fact want to murder her. The story was adapted by horror comics legend Al Feldstein and illustrator George Evans in a 1952 issue of Shock SuspenStories, and later as an episode of HBO’s The Ray Bradbury Theater. According to Entertainment Weekly, Joss Whedon drew inspiration from “The Small Assassin” when he wrote Avengers: Age of Ultron.
4. “The October Game”
If you think of Bradbury’s work as leaning more toward creepy than outright horrific, “The October Game” [PDF] might change that. It originally appeared in a 1948 issue of Weird Tales that also included work by Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Algernon Blackwood, Seabury Quinn, Manly Wade Wellman, and Clark Ashton Smith. That’s as close as you can get to a who’s-who of pulp horror in 1948, but Bradbury outdid them all; his tale of a man who plots to devastate his wife in the most sadistic way imaginable is shocking even by today’s standards. The story so impressed (and horrified) a 13-year-old F. Paul Wilson that the author of the Repairman Jack novels eventually wrote a sequel called “The November Game,” published in his 2009 collection Aftershock and Others: 19 Oddities.
5. “There Will Come Soft Rains”
The horror is a bit more subtle in this tale of what we would now call a smart house, which continues its programmed daily routine even after the family who lives in it is incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. It’s a wrenching portrait of the aftermath of nuclear war; it’s implied that the human members of the family die quickly, but fate has something crueler in store for the dog left behind. An early version of the story appeared in a 1950 issue of Collier magazine, less than a year after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon and the U.S.’s subsequent announcement that it was developing a hydrogen bomb—events seen as marking a dramatic escalation of the Cold War.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” [PDF] is popular source material for animators, and several short adaptations have been made over the years. Fittingly, the most affecting of these is a Soviet version produced in 1984.