The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes

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The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes is a short story by American writer Margaret St. Clair (1911–1995). It was first published in 1950, and has been anthologized in both print[1] and television.[2] It is an example of horror fiction.

Plot summary[edit]

The principal protagonist of The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes is a fifteen-year-old boy, Herbert Bittman. Herbie has a youthful fascination with astronomy but is otherwise presented as being a normal child. Shortly before the opening scenes of the story, however, he has begun to enjoy psychic skills in the area of precognition. Armed with this ability, producers have put together a reality TV show in which Herbie is photographed speaking directly to the camera and making predictions about random events, such as earthquakes, that Herbie asserts will happen in the near future. As these predictions have invariably come true, Herbie and the television show have become wildly successful.

Despite this acclaim, one day Herbie refuses to allow himself to be photographed or broadcast. Without giving any reason, he flatly refuses to perform his usual role. After intense and cruel psychological pressure, he is forced to give in; the force placed on Herbie to perform on camera serves its purpose in increasing the atmosphere of fear and horror surrounding this story. Despite this pressure and his own refusal, when Herbie is broadcast making his weekly predictions of the near future, he astonishes his audience by predicting an immediate, and dramatic, paradigm shift of humanity from the familiar, ugly conditions of everyday life into worldwide utopia. Greed and hatred will disappear; and the resources wasted on competition, and worldwide preparations for war, will instead be spent for the plentiful enjoyment of all.

Herbie's broadcast generates a sensational global response, as his predictions are rebroadcast around the world and millions of viewers have become convinced that he can accurately read the future. The boy and an unnamed narrator, pursued by ecstatic fans, are forced to take refuge in a skyscraper hotel located near the broadcasting studio. The rejoicing crowds cheer Herbie from far below; close to the top of the building, all he and the narrator can see are sun and sky.

In the story's climactic scene, the narrator asks Herbie why he had been extremely reluctant to issue his prediction for that week. The boy responds with a confession that, although up until this point his precognitions had been accurate, this one would not be; he had deliberately lied to his television audience. With mounting dread, the narrator realizes that Herbie had, in fact, looked into the future of the coming days and seen something else, which he had not wanted to describe or share. In pressure similar to that placed on Herbie by the television producers, the narrator demands to know what it is.

Herbie reports that he has seen a scene enacted in the near future which he could not understand until his childhood research in astronomy has explained it to him: he has learned about something called a "nova." What he has really seen, and had not wanted to tell his audience, was that "tomorrow – the sun is going to explode."

Critical response[edit]

The scenes of mass popular rejoicing that mark the conclusion of The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes, juxtaposed with the story's dire reality, parallel scenes actually enacted in 1945 when crowds welcomed the end of World War II, only to find that they had been thrust into the atomic age and the Cold War.[citation needed]

The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes was originally published, in 1950, in Maclean's magazine. It was picked up by Rod Serling's NBC anthology series, Night Gallery; a teleplay based on the story was broadcast on September 15, 1971, as part of Night Gallery's second season premiere. The teleplay was directed by John Badham, and Herbie's role was performed by Clint Howard.[2]


Author St. Clair appears to have confused a nova event with a supernova event; the two events were not clearly distinguished from each other by astronomers until 1931. Research subsequent to 1950 indicates that the Sun, a type G2 star, is not likely to turn into either a nova or a supernova.


  1. ^ Hitchcock, Alfred (1965). Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories Not for the Nervous. New York City: Random House. 
  2. ^ a b "Rod Serling's Night Gallery: The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes". IMDb. Retrieved 2012-07-26.