By John Lyle Belden
We have become strangers to death. Even during the present pandemic, we look around at largely clean, safe spaces. In the future, we can take this ideal even further. Perhaps, by the year 2349, we can be rid of all morbidity, the imagining of terrible things, even the media that brings them into our imagination. Everything cleaned away, into the fire.
In legendary author Ray Bradury’s “Pillar of Fire,” one man who died in the 1940s stays in suspended animation through intense passion, spending years absorbing lost incinerated stories of the macabre, until that day in the mid-24th Century when workmen come close to excavating his coffin, and his passion realized, William Lantry rises.
“He came out of the earth, hating,” as the story puts it.
TV/movie actor and Bradbury superfan Bill Oberst Jr. performed his recitation of this short story at The District Theatre in Indianapolis on October 28-29 (a nice lead-in to Halloween). No stranger to spooky roles (including a notable “unsub” on “Criminal Minds”), he fully embodies our unliving man, moving without feeling, speaking without breathing. You can also feel in his delivery of the text his great respect for the author (Oberst last appeared in Indy portraying Bradbury himself!).
Lantry could experience nothing in his once-living senses, only rage at his country’s fulfilled future. He sees the city’s central incinerator, where he had been destined to go. He finds people who seem content, afraid of nothing as there is nothing to fear. This seems inhuman to him: “I will make night what it once was!”
Looking upon his dark deeds, Lantry is approached by a stranger, who seems only amused that he is a walking dead man. This person even offers him a ride into town…
Oberst developed this performance in Los Angeles, directed by Ezra Buzzington, who provides the voice of Lantry’s companion. The show is presented with the cooperation of the Bradbury estate and, in Indy, the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI.
The story, first published in Planet Stories magazine in 1948, helps develop some of the ideas Bradbury would later incorporate in his classic “Fahrenheit 451.” However, this tale takes a more nuanced view of the incineration of reading material. After the performance, I found myself wondering: Was Lantry the “hero” of the story? His actions to re-introduce terror to what he sees as a numbed population have devastating results. The world he sees negatively as sterile, another might call sanitary. And it seems telling that the stranger is so understanding.
Needless to say, this is an extraordinary theatrical experience, as well as a thought-provoking glimpse into the mind of one of the masters of science fiction.