Greetings from the Macabre Republic…

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…Home of the red, black, and blue; where there’s a darkness not just on the edge of town, but all along Main Street; and where the heartland lies deep within October Country.

This site is an outgrowth of the blog Macabre Republic (constituted in 2010), which was devoted to the celebration and appreciation of the Gothic in American literature and culture. My goal here is not merely to construct a platform for my own written work, but to build a community of fellow aficionados–all those who feel right at home on the nightside.

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Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Man Upstairs”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Man Upstairs” (1947)

Eleven-year-old Douglas Spaulding is immediately unnerved when Mr. Koberman, a “tall strange man” with “cold gray eyes” rents a room at the boarding house run by Douglas’s grandparents. Koberman has an unfriendly demeanor, and a dark aura that seems to suck the color and warmth from the room. He also exhibits some curious behavioral quirks: the man has a strong aversion to silver (he tips in copper pennies and eats his meals with wooden utensils), is out all night and sleeps like the dead during the day. The enmity between Koberman and Douglas continues to grow, especially after the former frames Douglas for the breaking of a multicolored glass window (through which Douglas had been able to catch glimpse of Koberman’s true nature). Clever Douglas, though, gets the last laugh. Emulating the culinary efforts of his Grandma when she guts/stuffs a chicken, Douglas vivisects the resting Koberman (removing his weirdly-shaped, gelatinous organs) and fills the chest cavity of this inhuman, vampiric creature (who had been preying on local woman) with lethal silver dimes from Douglas’s piggy bank.

Like much of Bradbury’s fantastic fiction, “The Man Upstairs” is rooted in the author’s own childhood experiences (the colored glass window so integral to the plot here mirrors the one that captured a young Bradbury’s fancy). As a Douglas Spaulding story, “The Man Upstairs” (like “The Night” before it in Bradbury’s debut collection) clearly prefigures Dandelion Wine. With its mix of nostalgia and the macabre, it also links with From the Dust Returned, Bradbury’s expansion of Dark Carnival narratives such as “Homecoming” and Uncle Einar” (in which the author’s own beloved relatives are positively recast as Halloween monsters). Perhaps most intriguingly, the story (in which a young boy faces off against a sinister figure in human guise, a peripatetic predator who disruptively appears in the boy’s Midwestern hometown) anticipates Something Wicked This Way Comes. A terrifically imaginative and blackly humorous piece in its own right, “The Man Upstairs” is noteworthy as an early map of the shadowy paths Bradbury would travel down in future, classic works.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Dead Man”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Dead Man” (1945)

An eccentric layabout (with a tendency to stretch out in the gutter) claims decedent status for himself, insisting that he perished in the “flood that washed away my farm and all my stock and put me under water, like a chicken in a bucket.” Martin might not be deluded (as he has no detectable pulse, “can’t eat,” and gives off an “awful smell”) but is derided by the rest of the town. All except the mousy manicurist Miss Weldon, who appreciates Martin’s taciturn nature (vs. the “loud” and “mean” men inhabiting the barber shop where she works). Unwilling to buy into Martin’s morbidity, she tells him, “You’re dead for want of a good woman’s cooking, for loving, for living right.” The pair has a “quiet elopement,” but Martin’s mention of purchasing a “house out on the edge of town” turns unsettling when the townspeople belatedly realize he was talking about one of the tombs in Trinity Park Cemetery.

Much like its titular character, “The Dead Man” is an odd story, seemingly unsure of what it is exactly (a mordant tale with an E.C.-style climactic twist? an offbeat romance, in which two quirky characters find love?). As a kinder, gentler version of the walking dead, Odd Martin allows Bradbury to approach his predominant subject (and the book’s virtual leitmotif) from a not-quite-as-macabre angle. Still, the story seems an imperfect fit with the rest of Dark Carnival. To echo the decree of the young girl in the narrative who vetoes using Martin as a Halloween party prop: “Not scary enough.”

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “There Was an Old Woman”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“There Was an Old Woman” (1944)

The titular spinster, Aunt Tildy, runs an antique shop out of the front of her home, where she sits and rails against death. She refuses to “believe in it,” deeming it “ridiculous”: “it’s silly people live a couple years and are shoved like wet seeds in a hole; but nothin’ sprouts.” Despite her shunning of matters of mortality, Tildy succumbs when the Grim Reaper comes calling (in the guise of a “tall, dark” young man in a funereal suit). Most stories might climax here, but Bradbury is just getting warmed up: the feisty, lingering spirit of Tildy (with the help of her adopted daughter Emily) hurries to the mortuary to get her body back before the mortician rudely opens it up and empties it out. Like the concept of death itself, such treatment is an affront to Tildy: “I’m a maiden lady. My moles, birthmarks, scars, and other bric-a-brac, including the turn of my ankle, are my own secret.” After stubbornly persisting, and threatening to haunt the mortuary for two centuries, Tildy does regain possession of her body, which her spirit diligently rejoins: “She was two drops of matter fusing, water trying to seep into concrete. Slow to do. Hard. Like a butterfly trying to squirm back into a discarded husk of flinty chrysalis!” Thereafter, the long(er)-living Tildy has whopper of a tale to tell visitors to her home, and a body of evidence to back it up: “the long blue scar where the autopsy was neatly sewn back together.”

Here we have yet another Dark Carnival story primarily concerned with death. The raging against the dying of the light seems to be the attitude of not just the old woman but also of the author Bradbury (who, as a young boy, was formatively commanded to “Live forever!” by the magician Mr. Electrico during a carnival performance). Unlike Tildy, Bradbury never got to shuffle back into his mortal coil after passing away as a nonagenarian, but nonetheless achieved a measure of immortality through the age-defying body of fiction he left behind. “Not bad sewin’ for a man,” Tildy at tale’s end says of the autopsy-aborting mortician who closed her back up, and this same praise could be extended to Bradbury’s own fine handiwork as story crafter.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Night”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Night” (1946)

In the year 1927, an 8-year-old boy and his mother “are all alone at home in the warm darkness of summer.” Dad is at a lodge meeting, and the boy’s older brother Skipper, 12, is out playing with his friends. Matters turn worrisome when Skipper doesn’t come home on time. The mother and the boy venture out to look for him, and their search naturally gravitates toward the town-bisecting ravine, a “pit of jungled blackness” with “a dark sewer, rotten foliage, thick green odor.” It is a region where “civilization ceases, reason ends, and a universal evil takes over.” The mother and the boy fear that Skipper might have tried to cut across the ravine and encountered “Tramps. Criminals. Darkness. Accident. Most of all-Death.” Just as the dread builds to a crescendo, though, Skipper appears with his friends, safe and sound. But the boy has been struck by “the essential impact of life’s loneliness,” and the incident has a significant effect on his outlook onto to the world.

Bradbury, somewhat unusually, writes the story in the second-person, perhaps to emphasize universality (“There are a million small towns like this all over the world,” he writes. “Each as dark, as lonely, each as removed, as full of shuddering and wonder.”). Perhaps the author was just trying to distance himself from a story rooted in autobiography (Bradbury would subsequently expand on this material in “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” and Dandelion Wine, both of which explicitly invoke the serial killer known as “The Lonely One”). The sinister ravine setting proves a prominent element of Bradbury’s Green Town milieu, and also prefigures the Barrens in Stephen King’s American Gothic opus, IT. Yes, “The Night” casts a long shadow, and none of its dark brilliance has dulled after seventy-five years.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Wind”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Wind” (1943)

Allin fixates fearfully on the wind, considering it no natural force but a sentient stalker, “the biggest damnedest prehistoric killer that ever hunted prey.” His phobia derives from a harrowing experience atop the stormy Himalayas a few years earlier. Allin claims that he glimpsed “the Valley of the Winds where it gathers and plans its destruction. […] I know its feeding grounds, I know where it is born and where parts of it expire. For that reason, it hates me; and my [travel] books that tell how to defeat it.” So now the wind follows him around the globe, and tries to infiltrate wherever he lives. But it doesn’t just want to physically annihilate him, Allin tells his friend Herb: “It wants what’s inside me. My mind, my brain. It wants my life-power, my psychic force, my ego. It wants my intellect.” As if all this weren’t haunting enough, Allin then says (after Herb hears strange noises in the background of their phone conversation): “Those are the voices of twelve thousand killed in a typhoon, seven thousand killed by a hurricane, three thousand buried by a cyclone. […] That’s what the wind is. It’s a lot of people dead. The wind killed them, took their minds to give itself intelligence.” Herb thinks Allin has finally lost his mind and plans to deliver him to a sanitorium the next morning, but revises his outlook after sensing Allin’s spectral presence in the wind that suddenly arrives at his doorstep.

The wind, with its ghostly howl and invisible capacity to inflict damage, has always made for an uncanny subject. But it took Bradbury’s “The Wind” to draw such ideas into a dread-inspiring narrative, one that changes the reader’s perspective about gusts of air forevermore. The structure of the piece, which has Allin recounting his worsening domestic situation to Herb over the phone, also gives it the quality of some weird home-invasion story. However one wants to approach it, “The Wind” is chilling; Bradbury’s tempestuous tale has lost none of its impact after three-quarters of a century.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “Uncle Einar”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“Uncle Einar” (1947)

He was one of the few in the Family whose talent was visible. All his dark cousins and nephews and brothers hid in small towns across the world, did unseen mental things or things with witch-fingers and white teeth, or blew down the sky like fire-leaves, or loped in forests like moon-silvered wolves. They lived comparatively safe from normal humans. Not so a man with great green wings.

The titular man-bat’s career of “flying Family errands” comes to a crashing halt while returning to Europe following a Homecoming celebration in Mellin Town, Illinois, one Halloween: drunk on “too much rich crimson wine,” Einar flies right into a “high tension tower.” This jolting experience robs him of his “delicate night-perception,” and effectively grounds him (since he’s loathe to take wing during daytime, for fear of being shot out of the air or turned into a zoo exhibit upon discovery). So now even though Einar has settled down with a family of his own, he is fed up with domestic life, with being reduced to a fanner of children and air-dryer of his wife’s laundry. But in the story’s climax, Einar transcends his bitter, brooding existence. Encouraged by his children to come watch their merriment at a festival, an ecstatic Einar realizes he can return to the skies and fly freely during daytime by cleverly disguising himself as a kite.

“Uncle Einar” evinces fantasy’s capacity to broaden horizons and expand the experiences of real-world-bound readers; Einar entertains his wingless offspring with “wild starlit tales of island clouds and ocean skies and textures of mist and wind and how a star tastes melting in your mouth, and how to drink cold mountain air, and how it feels to be a pebble dropped from Mt. Everest, turning to a green bloom, flowering your wings just before you strike bottom!” Lighter and decidedly less dire than Bradbury’s other Dark Carnival offerings, the tale strikes such positive themes as the acceptance of difference (Einar’s wife Brunilla sees nothing monstrous whatsoever about him) and the refusal to be limited by so-called disability. Short and sweet, sentimental yet not saccharine, this story of soaring imagination has lost none of its wonderful flavor over the past seventy-five years.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “Let’s Play ‘Poison'”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

Let’s Play ‘Poison'” (1946)

When a student is bullied to death (pushed out a window) by his eight- and nine-year-old classmates, Mr. Howard suffers a breakdown and promptly quits teaching. But circumstances call him back to duty seven years later as a substitute. Howard attempts to lay down the law, telling his new class that he believes “that children are invaders from another dimension,” or “little monsters thrust out of hell, because the devil could no longer cope with them.” The animosity between adult and pre-adolescents steadily grows, especially after Howard spoils the students’ eponymous game (by informing them that the alleged “gravestones” are “simply the names of the contractors who mixed and laid the cement sidewalk”). Howard also chases off Isabel Skelton as she sings and plays hopscotch, accusing her of being a “young witch. Pentagrams. Rhymes and incantations.” The kids, though, get the last laugh via a Halloween-style prank (the story is set in the heart of autumn). A “white skull at the window” lures Howard outside, and he falls into the pit created by the “water-main excavation” in front of his house. His unconscious body is covered with dirt and debris (yet another Bradbury variation on the theme of premature burial), and the new cement sidewalk poured the next day is inscribed “M. HOWARD–R.I.P.”–a true gravestone for subsequent games of Poison.

“Let’s Play ‘Poison'” plays out as a fairly standard tale of curmudgeon comeuppance, but its climactic prank shows the author’s willingness to dramatize a darker side of the Halloween season. While Bradbury is well known for scripting paeans to youthful existence, he reminds readers here (as he does later in his career with his story “The Playground”) that children can also be terrible, pint-sized tyrants.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Scythe”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Scythe” (1943)

Bradbury gives a Weird Tales variation here on one of his favorite books, The Grapes of Wrath, as a family of Dust-Bowl-era Okies stumble upon an isolated midwestern farm with the previous owner lying dead in bed clutching a blade of wheat. A note alongside the old man bequeaths the house and land to his discoverer, but a “task ordained” comes with the inheritance. The grain must be harvested from the field, using a scythe that bears a curious inscription: “WHO WIELDS ME–WIELDS THE WORLD.” New reaper Drew Erickson quickly notes some oddities to the occupation: the wheat “ripened only in separate clusters,” it “rotted within a few hours after he cut it down,” and the next morning it “came up again in little green sprouts with tiny roots, all born again.”

Gradually, Drew realizes a grim connection: each blade of wheat corresponds to a specific human life, and to scythe the blade down is to seal that person’s mortal fate. Happening upon the ready-to-be-reaped blades representing his own wife and children, Drew tries to shirk his responsibilities. But watching his family lie in suspended animation (after the housefire that was meant to end their lives leaves them physically unscathed) leads a reluctant Drew back to his scything duty. But pulling the plug, so to speak, on his family drives Drew insane, and in his grief and rage he proceeds to scythe the field indiscriminately, “slashing and chopping the green wheat instead of the ripe.” Drew “no longer cares what he does to the world,” and the repercussions are cataclysmic: the narrative closes with reports of world warfare and mass atrocities.

“The Scythe” is vintage Bradbury, as he gives a dark imaginative twist to the notion of the Grim Reaper, and offers an uncanny explanation for the all the mounting ills of the mid-20th Century. With its remote rural setting, dire harvesting ritual, and ominous supernaturalizing of nature, the story also forms a prototype of American folk horror. Over 75 years after its first publication, “The Scythe” has hardly dulled, and continues to slice sharply into the reader’s psyche.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “Jack-in-the-Box”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“Jack-in-the-Box” (1947)

Like the “trapped toy” of the title, thirteen-year-old Edwin is subjected to a very sheltered existence. He’s confined to the family mansion by his mentally unbalanced mother, who sounds dire warnings of “Beasts” beyond the forest, and mourns the passing of Edwin’s father (who she calls “God”), “struck down by one of those Terrors on the road.” Removed from the world at large and kept ignorant of its workings, Edwin’s perspective is understandably naive. He confuses a secret elevator in the house as a “dusty dull brown closet,” and refers to an airplane spied flying in the sky as a “chromium bird thing.” Nor does Edwin realize that his mother and Teacher (in hooded costume) are one and the same. When the latter goes missing, and the former is found sprawled drunkenly on the floor, Edwin ventures out of the house and into the “Outlands” for assistance. Overjoyed about the abundance of interesting objects and people he discovers, Edwin (having internalized his mother’s lessons about what awaited him outside the “Universe” of home), happily cries, “I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, it’s good to be dead!”

“Jack-in-the-Box” constitutes something of an oddity. Its narrative situation is marked by strangeness, yet the story feels different from the other weird tales gathered in the collection. Bradbury’s penchant for waxing metaphorical proves a bit confusing here, confounding the reader’s attempt to get a purchase on the story world presented. Yes, it does feature Bradbury’s central theme of mortality, but in its straining toward some sort of profundity of meaning, the story forms an imperfect fit with the other Bradburian acts assembled into the Dark Carnival.

 

Dark Carnival 75th anniversary Retrospective: “Interim”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“Interim” (1947)

“Shortly before dawn,” there comes a “kind of dim pulsing and whispering under the earth.” The setting is gradually revealed as a graveyard, and the noise turns out to be an afterlife telegraph “code”: buried bodies beating upon their coffin lids. That night’s stirring message concerns the deceased Mrs. Lattimore, who came to the graveyard a year ago “just before the planned birth of her child,” and now somehow is about to deliver the baby belatedly.

This two-page story (which today would be classified as flash fiction) is hard to find; it was never carried over into The October Country, and perhaps for good reason. “Interim” strains the suspension of disbelief: would the corpse of a nine-months-pregnant woman be interred with her unborn child still inside her? And why is she coming to posthumous term just now? Even the other inhabitants of the graveyard are riddled with “questioning hysteria,” wondering “How can this thing be?” The story does evince Bradbury’s tendency to wax lyrical over the morbid (he describes the coffins as “each a womb for silent, stiffened contents”), and the premise of underground gossip via coffin thumping is intriguing, but one wishes that Bradbury had constructed a better narrative around the idea.