Retro Review: “The Monster Maker” by Ray Bradbury

Planet Stories Spring 1944“The Monster Maker” by Ray Bradbury is a science fiction short story, which appeared in the spring 1944 issue of Planet Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

I liked “Morgue Ship” so much that I decided to read one of Ray Bradbury’s two other stories published in Planet Stories in 1944. And while I did not like “The Monster Maker” quite as much as “Morgue Ship”, it’s still a good story. It’s also a very different story, showcasing Bradbury’s range.

“The Monster Maker” hurls us right in medias res, as a spaceship carrying newsreel photographer Click Hathaway (not his real name, we presume) and Interplanetary Patrolman Irish Marnagan (not his real name either – he’s actually called Steve, as we learn on the last page) is hit by a meteor and crash-lands on an asteroid. Both Click and Irish (and Click’s camera) survive the crash, but their ship is destroyed. Worse, they only have oxygen for sixty minutes.

Click suspects that the meteor strike was no accident, but the work of the man Irish is hunting, a space pirate called Gunther. It’s 1944, so of course the villain of the piece has a Germanic name. And since they have only sixty minutes of air and nothing to lose, Click and Irish decide to go in search of Gunther and his base.

During the trek across the surface of the asteroid, Click and Irish first come across an area, where the gravity is lower, suggesting that Gunther used a super-gravity trap to hasten the crash of their spaceship. But before they can figure out what all that might mean, they are attacked by monsters. And Irish’s gun doesn’t even slow them down.

Our dynamic due hides in a cave, where the monsters can’t reach them. Click argues that Gunther has built the perfect trap on the asteroid, because the meteors and the gravity well make the attacks on spaceships look like accidental crashes. And if some crewmembers happen to survive the crash, the monsters will deal with them and it will all seem like a tragic accident.

To pass the time, while they’re trapped in the cave, Click takes the film – self-developing film, his own invention – out of the his camera and inserts it into a viewer to admire the great footage he got, footage that no one will likely ever see. And he promptly gets the surprise of his life, when the film doesn’t show the monsters, but only Irish aiming his gun at empty vacuum.

Click correctly deduces that the monsters are not real, because film does not lie. But then, he does not live in our era of fake news and doctored photographs. Irish is sceptical, but still volunteers to step outside the caves, whereupon the monsters promptly vanish. Click muses that the monsters are another trick by Gunther to keep his base hidden, because anybody who happens to land on the asteroid for whatever reason (apparently, space tourism is a thing in this future) will be quickly persuaded by the monsters to take off again.

Click and Irish resume their search for Gunther’s base, but their oxygen is getting low, Click’s more than Irish’s. Click suggest following the monsters – which are just telepathic projections – to their source. However, that requires willing the monsters to return. And if Click and Irish believe that the monsters are real again, the monsters can also hurt or even kill them. And in fact, Irish almost succumbs to a monster attack, until Click tells him to snap out of it.

They finally find the base, but Irish is captured and disarmed. Click escapes, but he has no weapon, only his camera. Which he promptly points at the guards who have captured Irish and pretends it’s a weapon. Lucky for him, the guards aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer and drop their weapons. So now, both Click and Irish have real guns. They tie up the guards, procure fresh oxygen tanks and infiltrate the base.

Our dynamic duo finds the telepathic projector that creates the monsters, but they’re still outnumbered and outgunned. “If only the US Cavalry would ride over the hills”, Irish laments. “That’s it”, Click exclaims and quickly explains his plan to Irish, if not to us. But I suppose most readers will have gotten it anyway by this point.

Click now allows himself to be captured and is taken to Gunther. When Click (and we) finally see the feared pirate, he turns out to be a shrivelled, old man who relies on smoke and mirrors to maintain his reign of terror.

But Click is about to outsmoke and outmirror Gunther. He informs the pirate that the Interplanetary Patrol has landed on the asteroid with a thousand men and has Gunther surrounded. “You’re bluffing”, Gunther says, but then the Patrol attacks and Patrolmen advancing towards Gunther’s headquarters with raised guns. Gunther’s men fight back, some are killed and absolutely no one notices that the Patrolmen all look suspiciously like Irish Marnagan.

Because Click had noticed that the telepathic projector used film images to project the monsters, so he took some shots of Irish and used them to turn the projector on the pirates. Gunther is captured, Irish is a hero and Click has some first-rate footage that will make him famous.

Unlike the melancholic “Morgue Ship”, “The Monster Maker” is a fun romp, a pulpy science fiction adventure, where the focus is more on the fiction and adventure than on the science. It’s also a fairly atypical tale for Ray Bradbury. If not for his byline in the magazine, I’d never have taken this for a Bradbury story.

In my reviews of “The Lake” and “Morgue Ship”, I noted that Ray Bradbury’s stories feel more timeless than most other golden age stories, because instead of getting bogged down in technical details, which usually age badly, Bradbury focussed on memories, emotions and experiences.

“The Monster Maker”, however, is dated. This is not Ray Bradbury’s fault, for how could he have known that newsreels would vanish within a few years, as television increasingly took over the function that newsreels once had? And though newsreels go back to the silent era and lasted into the 1950s and early 1960s, I mainly associate them with the 1940s. Because when I was a young girl, there was a TV program – broadcast on Saturday evenings of all times – which consisted of World War II newsreels intercut with interviews with survivors of the events shown. My Dad liked that program a lot – just as much as I hated it, because it was basically just footage of people dying in various awful ways, followed by interviews with people describing in great graphic detail about how other people around them had died in various awful ways.

The fact that Click’s camera uses actual physical film also dates the story, though Bradbury had no more way of knowing that film would go digital than he could know that newsreels would die out. Though I was stunned how much I have gotten used to film being digital by now that the reminder that film used to be a physical medium almost threw me out of the story. That said, Bradbury does capture the mindset of a photographer well, because you really do experience events differently when you’re behind the camera (I was a member of a film group documenting local events in the 1990s) and “Did I get that?” or “Wow, what great footage…. Ahem, I’d better get away from here” really are common sentiments.

The science – what little there is – is the usual magic by another name with a slight scientific veneer that can often be found in Planet Stories. The gravity well and the meteors used as weapons are both at least plausible and not uncommon even in the harder science fiction of the era, but the telepathic projector is pure magic technology and its function is also very convenient to allow Click to use his filmic skills to turn it against Gunther and his men.

Though it’s interesting that Click saving the day with his camera and his filmic knowledge is the second example after “Morgue Ship” of a non-combatant saving the day with their specialist skills in a 1944 Bradbury story. I guess Bradbury really wanted to make the point that yes, non-combatants also serve and can be vital to the war effort. But whereas “Morgue Ship” was a tragedy, “The Monster Maker” is closer to  farce.

But even though “The Monster Hunter” is dated, it is still a fun story. The plot zips along and the reveals that the monsters are fake and that Gunther is a withered old man are nicely done. And since this is a Ray Bradbury story, the writing is well above the standards of the time and the descriptions of the crash and later of Click rushing to rescue Irish, even though he’s running out of oxygen, are suitably visceral. Even in this comparatively slight story, Bradbury proves once again what a good writer he already was at this early point in his career.

What is more, Click and Irish have a great odd couple dynamic and in fact, I’m surprised that Bradbury never revisited the characters. They reminded me a bit of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser – a big redhead who is the muscle and a short fellow who is the brains. And yes, Steve “Irish” Marnagan is our second waking Irish stereotype after Mike Donovan from Isaac Asimov’s “Catch That Rabbit”. Considering that there was still lingering discrimination against people of Irish ancestry in the 1940s (and beyond), maybe those Irish stereotypes (and the Italian stereotypes and the Brooklyn guys) were the golden age’s idea of diversity?

“The Monster Maker” is another golden age story with no female characters at all and in fact the third one in a row I have reviewed. And as it tends to happen, when you have two male characters in close contact and no women at all, there also are definite homoerotic vibes between Click and Irish. When their ship crashes, Click finds himself “cradled in Irish’s arms”. Later in the story, Click ends up on top of Irish during a fight with the fake monsters and at one point Click even sheds some tears, when Irish survives a particularly dangerous moment unscathed. Of course, you could find plenty of similar moments in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories and we have Fritz Leiber’s word for it that those two were really just good friends. But so many moments in one story are certainly notable.

Like “Morgue Ship”, “The Monster Maker” has never been reprinted until the three volume The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury: A Critical Edition in the 2010s. But while “Morgue Ship” is an unjustly forgotten gem, “The Monster Maker” really is just a fun romp that’s not particularly deep and dated besides. But a slight Bradbury story is still better than eighty percent of stories by other writers. And so “The Monster Maker”, while not a classic, is nonetheless well worth reading.

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