I’m not going to waste any time explaining why a Bradbury story would wind up getting sent through the Crucible, k? This week we’re doing The Veldt. It’s Bradbury. That’s enough.
This story looks like SF, but it’s horror, and nicely done horror, too. What makes it so successful, I think, is the way it ropes you in, filling in the rules of the world even when it’s presenting a scenario that breaks those rules.
"Walls, Lydia, remember; crystal walls, that's all they are. Oh, they look real, I must admit - Africa in your parlor - but it's all dimensional, superreactionary, supersensitive color film and mental tape film behind glass screens. It's all odorophonics and sonics, Lydia. Here's my handkerchief."
Here we establish the rules – it’s all an illusion. Note where this explanation comes, though. It’s after Lydia and George have gone into the nursery, after the readers have encountered the nursery for the first time. We went through the sensory experience of the nursery, followed along with their reactions and nervousness, without complete knowledge about how the nursery works. As experienced readers of genre fiction we’re pretty sure this is all meant to be just an illusion, but even the jaded among us are going to subconsciously note that the experts in this particular world, George and Lydia, are not reacting as they would to an illusion they believed to be mere illusion.
This is a really neat trick, because it means that we’ve been tricked into having the right emotional reaction (i.e. feeling threatened by the nursery) while we still get to ponder the intellectual mystery of what, exactly, is going on here. There’s no reason to be showing us these parents exploring their children’s nursery and this is a very boring story, except for that niggling sense that all is not right and safe. (Also, pay attention to all the detail spent in the first few sections establishing how very cared for and safe they are.) If we know the rules for how the nursery work before our first encounter, that niggling feeling might never develop and we’ll be very confused about why we’re meant to be reading this, and more confused when things really do go wrong.
He knew the principle of the room exactly. You sent out your thoughts. Whatever you thought would appear.
This is a particularly important tid bit since this is the factoid that confirms for us exactly how creepy the kids are at the end. We know the room is operating based in deliberate thoughts – you send them, they aren’t passively picked up – and the children have somehow rigged the room to hang onto these thoughts rather than responding to overriding commands from their parents. Just in case we don’t believe it from the conversation between George and Lydia, we get it confirmed pretty explicitly when the children can change the room to deny that it’s stuck on Africa. (The readers at that point could start wondering whether the psychological problems are Lydia and George’s, but the ending undermines that pretty clearly)
"What is that?" she asked. "An old wallet of mine," he said. He showed it to her. The smell of hot grass was on it and the smell of a lion. There were drops of saliva on it, it bad been chewed, and there were blood smears on both sides.
Speaking of things that do double-duty – hoo boy is this doing some heavy lifting. This detail here pretty conclusively justifies that feeling of wrongness we’ve had the whole time by showing that the rules for how the room operates definitely aren’t being followed. If the lions aren’t real and therefore can’t hurt you, then they shouldn’t be able to chew on it, or leave blood and saliva behind. Here we have proof that the room really is dangerous.
It’s also a pretty glaring hint that the children are teaching their imaginary lions their parents’ scent. It’s just a hint, here, supported when Lydia’s scarf gets found later, confirmed when the lions go right for mom and dad at the end, but here we are, using a hint about Peter and Wendy (is there a chance those names are accidental? No.) plotting quite deliberately against mom and dad to confirm what the actual rules of the world are.
In summary, for the sake of your long-term health, let your children take the rocket to New York.
Next: Where are you Going, Where Have you Been by Joyce Carol Oates.
Followed by: Clockwork Chickadee by Mary Robinette Kowal.