Do you remember when you were a child and you encountered, for the first time, a piece of art or writing that left you shaken? Not just moved, but a little disturbed. For me, that feeling was always coupled with secrecy, a belief that if my parents knew something had gotten under my skin it would cause them undue worry. The first time I remember feeling this was with (as any astute member of the literati might guess) A Goofy Movie. In the 1994 animated film, there’s scene where father and son face their own mortality as their raft veers toward a waterfall, and in the moments before their presumed death, they are left only with their love for one another and a bald and desire to survive. (Pretty goofy if you ask me!) I insisted on returning to see it in the cinema again and again, until something of that semi-shameful fixation had released its grip on me, and I probably got really into Polly Pocket or something.
The next time I felt that morbid fascination was after reading ‘The Veldt’. We’d been made to read Dandelion Wine in my middle school English class and it was so goddamn boring it became a bit of a family joke among us. My dad – a sci-fi obsessive – made it his mission to give us different, better Bradbury. Before I knew it there was a copy of The Illustrated Man in my hands, and in the collection’s opening story, ‘The Veldt’, children grow increasingly immersed in their home VR unit, which places them in a rendering of the African plains. The simulation becomes more and more real, until the story-perspective shifts – to the childrens’ parents – and, uh…yeah it gets pretty grim.
What felt stirring and secret to me wasn’t ‘The Veldt’s implied violence, but rather that an unhappy ending could enrich a story. And in early adulthood, when traumatising oneself with disturbing prose is sort of the name of the game (the time Less Than Zero ruined Christmas is a story for another time) I’m grateful for ‘The Veldt’ and Bradbury’s gentle ushering into the world of weird fiction.
First published as ‘The World the Children Made’ in The Saturday Evening Post, September 1950. Collected in The Illustrated Man, Doubleday, 1951 and widely anthologised, including in Collected Stories Volume 1, Harper Voyager, 2008, and The Stories of Ray Bradbury, Everyman, 2010