Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Emissary”

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


“The Emissary” (1947)

Ten-year-old Martin Smith is confined to his bedroom with an undefined illness, so he has his beloved pet Dog “collect and deliver the time and texture of worlds in town, country, by creek, river, lake, down-cellar, up-attic, in closet or coal bin.” Dog not only brings back various samplings of his adventures (stuck to his fur), but also human visitors, such as Martin’s schoolteacher Miss Haight. The lonely child cherishes the time spent with the young woman, which proves all too short when Miss Haight is killed in a car accident. After that Dog begins behaving strangely, staring and whimpering, and then disappearing on the night before Halloween. When he returns a few days later, Dog carries a telltale “stench–the ripe and awful cemetery earth.” Dog has been bad, digging where he shouldn’t, but he also has been true to his training and brings someone home to Martin, who hears ghoulish footsteps scaling the staircase and shambling toward his bedroom. The story ends on a shivery, yet also slightly ambiguous, note. Just what sort of “company” will this grave-vacating corpse provide? Will the posthumous Miss Haight now be hateful?

“The Emissary” represents one of Bradbury’s deeper forays into the October Country. Its autumn setting is established in the opening sentence, and “the great season of spices and rare incenses” and the “cereal crispness” of fallen leaves is brought to life throughout the narrative by Bradbury’s descriptive prose. Halloween also proves central to the tale, although the experience of the holiday is colored by Martin’s bedridden condition, the recent death of Miss Haight, and the seeming loss of the runaway Dog:

To Martin, Halloween had been nothing more than one evening when tin horns cried off in the cold autumn stars, children blew like goblin leaves along the flinty walks, flinging their heads, or cabbages, at porches, soap-writing names or similar magic symbols on icy windows. all of it distant, unfathomable, and nightmarish as a puppet show seen from so many miles away that there is no sound or meaning.

Such downbeat turn, though, is reversed by the concluding plot twist, in which Martin receives a belated Halloween thrill that he will likely remember for the rest of his life (should it extend beyond that night). “The Emissary”–whose first publication was in Dark Carnival–remains one of the book’s most effective and richly atmospheric pieces. Like Dog’s own doings within the narrative, the story faithfully delivers a strong sense of the autumnal (as it was experienced in the early-20th-Century Midwest) to the modern reader.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Smiling People”

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


“The Smiling People” (1946)

Mr. Greppin is obsessed with noise, to the point that it has become a phobia with him: “Every sound was a fear. so each sound had to be muffled, gotten to and eliminated.” He rigs his house to maximize the “sensation of silence,” from double carpeting to a stilled grandfather clock that is described as a “glass-fronted coffin.” This quiet-as-the-grave-approach extends to Greppin’s relatives (Aunt Rose, Uncle Dimity, cousins Lila and Sam) who share his home. They form a strange tableau around the dinner table, static as mannequins in their placement there. It soon grows quite apparent that Greppin is mentally unbalanced, and that the others’ pronounced silence is not merely the result of diligent training. Greppin (whose thoughts recur to a fateful day two weeks earlier) was determined not only to quiet his nagging relatives, but also to transform “their solemn, puritanical masks” into smiles. The tale concludes in savage fashion: the multiple murderer Greppin has slit his family’s throats “in a half moon from ear to ear,” giving “the horrid illusion of a smile under their chins.”

For all its jaw-dropping violence, “The Smiling People” disappoints because it might have been crafted to be even more shocking. Bradbury gives away the game too early, leaving little doubt that Greppin is a knife-wielding maniac (given Greppin’s criminal insanity, the tale could have misdirected the reader by presenting imagined dialogue from the dead relatives). But what is even more plainly evident in this tale of deadly obsession is Bradbury’s literary debt to Edgar Allan Poe (the climactic break-in by policeman and discovery of the viewpoint character’s crimes parallels the endings of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”). As the deranged Greppin also anticipates Psycho‘s Norman Bates, “The Smiling People” falls squarely within a tradition of American Gothic horror and thus stands as a historically significant work within the Bradbury oeuvre.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Tombstone”

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


“The Tombstone” (1945)

Bradbury offers a wonderfully offbeat premise: a carved headstone found sitting in the middle of a rented room in an apartment house. Turns out, the previous occupant, Mr. Whetmore was an “apprentice marble-cutter” who botched his first commission, mistakenly spelling the decedent’s name as “White” instead of “Whyte.” A perfectionist with an inferiority complex, Whetmore became so upset by his erroneous etching that he ran off that morning and left the tombstone behind (now the landlord is in the process of arranging its removal).

Despite this perfectly rational explanation for the object’s presence in the room, Leota seizes the opportunity to act superstitious and deliberately “frustrate” her husband Walter (whom she resents for his air of superiority and penchant for “spoiling her fun”). Leota treats Mr. White’s marker as an actual gravesite (placing cut flowers in front of the tombstone) and carries on that the late figure is haunting the room (in vain, Walter tries to explain to his wife that the muffled voice heard through the floorboards is that of the man in the room directly below them). At story’s end, Whetmore comes knocking and happily retrieves his abandoned handiwork. By “the most astonishing stroke of luck,” he has found someone who can make use of the “White” tombstone. He promptly ventures one floor down, presenting the marker to Mrs. White (whose pneumonic husband has passed away in the room below). To Leota and Walter’s shock, they have been living above a dead man this night after all.

The climax of “The Tombstone” is too coincidental to satisfy in dramatic terms, and the “shivering” (of Leota and Walter) in the closing paragraph doesn’t elicit the same fearful reaction from the reader. But the piece is noteworthy for the marked antagonism between wife and husband. Already in our revisiting of Dark Carnival, we have seen Bradbury depict unhappily married couples (“The Jar”; “The Lake”), and we will witness such character types again in the collection. In retrospect, “The Tombstone” highlights Bradbury’s strong influence on the horror genre, as the Constant Reader of Stephen King (and his many tales where the road trip of a bickering husband and wife takes a turn for the weird) would doubtless recognize.


Lore Report: “Cutting Ties” (Episode 199)

When that boiling point arrived, though, it would unfold in a way that no one could have expected. Their lives would be shattered, a community would be horrified, and a nation would never forget. And at the center of it all was one young woman, a woman named Lizzie Borden.

The latest episode of the Lore podcast revisits one of the most notorious crimes (and greatest unsolved mysteries) in American history: the brutal murder of Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby, possibly at the hatchet-wielding hands of Andrew’s daughter Lizzie. Host Aaron Mahnke deftly sketches the family background, the prominent details of the gruesome crime, and the leading theories about who actually committed the murders and why. But this being Lore and not just another true-crime podcast, the listener expects to hear more, and this is where Mahnke’s narrative falls disappointingly short. In a matter of seconds, Mahnke glosses over the supernatural encounters that have been reported by modern visitors to the Fall River murder house (now a bed and breakfast/dark tourism site). His turn toward the metaphorical–citing the famous folk rhyme about Borden’s alleged deeds as “a ghost haunting Lizzie for decades to come”–feels forced. Ultimately, “Cutting Ties” is a cut below the usual Lore offering.


But the episode is aptly titled, since I have decided to retire the “Lore Report” blog feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic (several weeks ago, I marked Episode 199 as an appropriate cut-off point). It’s not that I don’t enjoy the podcast anymore; I simply feel that I am risking redundancy by waxing ecstatic (typically) about it every two weeks. Although I still plan to remain a loyal listener, I will not post future reports (instead devoting my attention to other blog features, old and new).


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Maiden”

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


“The Maiden” (1947)

She was wondrous fair. She filled his eyes and he looked at her continually and was in love with her. Tall she was, and beautiful, with the morning sun on her. Tall she was, and stately of limb, and she worked for him. He knew her every whim, he did. And he stroked and made love to her, but stayed out of her reach. He knew what she could do to men she loved to well.

An anonymous POV character fixates on a “maiden fatale.” In his eyes, the wanton object of his affection clearly has a mean streak: “Sadist that she was,” he thinks, “she loved anyone she could get hold of.” Halfway through this brief piece (which today would be classified as flash fiction), Bradbury reveals that the man is an executioner and the title “character” is actually a guillotine. At narrative’s end, the weary executioner lets the maiden’s terror reign down on him, offering himself up to a graphic decapitation.

The sexual explicitness–a quality that Bradbury isn’t exactly known for–of “The Maiden” is striking (in the final line, Bradbury writes: “a sexual spout of red blood jutted from his sundered neck; and the two of them, he and she of the blade, lay together in that scarlet orgasm even as the first star appeared…”). But while the story does warrant a quick reread to note the clever hints that the author sprinkled in (e.g. “the long line of her face”), “The Maiden” provides diminishing returns once the reader knows its semi-shocking secret. So it’s hardly surprising that this slight effort was never collected again by Bradbury after first appearing in Dark Carnival, and remained out of print for more than four and a half decades before Marvin Kaye included it in his theme anthology Lovers and Other Monsters.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Lake”

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


“The Lake” (1944)

The title conjures images of summertime amusement, but this is a story that determinedly defies expectations. Bradbury sets the piece in late September, when the lakeshore is depopulated and a sense of “the lonely autumn” has begun to take hold. Boarded-over hot-dog stands suggest “a series of coffins,” and the merry-go-round has been “hidden with canvas, all of the horses frozen in mid-air on their brass poles, showing teeth, galloping on. With only the wind for music, slipping through canvas.” Such ominous autumn atmosphere forecasts Something Wicked This Way Comes, indicating that the dark-carnival train was tracking through Bradbury’s imagination from an early age.

In “The Lake,” Bradbury plays with the conventions of the ghost story. His adolescent narrator mourns the loss of childhood friend/crush Tally, who used to build sandcastles with him but drowned in the lake the previous summer. A decade later, the narrator (now a married man) returns from California to visit the Illinois town where he was born, but as he walks the streets of Lake Bluff, he appears to have mortality on his mind (he’s “filled up inside with all those memories, like leaves stacked for autumn burning”). The hitherto-unrecovered corpse of Tally washes up, seemingly only after performing a ritual act: the narrator discovers a half-built sandcastle on the shore, as well as “small prints of feet coming in from the lake.” But the tonality of the narrative marks this as a more solemn than thrilling turn of events–hardly evidence of some dreadful revenant at large. Ultimately, “The Lake” is concerned less with Tally’s life after death than with the narrator’s death-in-life. He did not perish alongside Tally on that fateful day years earlier, but has drowned himself in nostalgia ever since. Viewing the girl’s strangely preserved corpse, the narrator thinks: “She is still small. She is still young. Death does not permit growth or change. She still has golden hair. She will be forever young and I will love her forever, oh God, I will love her forever.”

A poignant and haunting Weird Tale, “The Lake” (like the collection-opening “Homecoming”) furnishes early proof that Bradbury was much more than a pulp fiction writer. The author himself recognized it as his first great story; by striking upon the approach of mining childhood memories and then refining the ore by mixing elements of fantasy with autobiography, Bradbury mapped out his future as a wordsmith. As biographer Sam Weller notes, “the themes of the story would one day become classic Bradbury motifs–nostalgia, loneliness, lost love, and death.” Bradbury’s narrator might avow (as he turns away at tale’s end so as not to watch the waves take the sandcastle) that “all things crumble,” but this instant-classic of a literary construction has certainly stood the test of time.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Jar”

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


“The Jar” (1944)

It was one of those things they keep in a jar in the tent of a sideshow on the outskirts of a little, drowsy town. One of those pale things drifting in alcohol plasma, forever dreaming and circling, with its peeled, dead eyes staring out at you and never seeing you. It went with the noiselessness of late night, and only the crickets chirping, the frogs sobbing off in the moist swampland. One of those things in a big jar that makes your stomach jump as it does when you see a preserved arm in a laboratory vat.

Fascinated by the titular object (observed at a summertime carnival in the Louisiana bayou), the protagonist Charlie purchases the jar and gives it pride of place in his home. A thing of “wonder, awe, and strangeness,” the jar quickly becomes a conversation piece: a contingent of visiting neighbors form “a rude church gathering,” reverently viewing the relic and speculating on its origins. The uncanny nature of the jar’s contents stirs up the “secret fear juice” in those who behold it and see “something of the life and the pale life after life, and the life in death and the death in life.”

Charlie’s mean-spirited bride Thedy, meanwhile, only seethes. Jealous of all of the attention Charlie is receiving because of his purchase, she sets out to set the record straight about the jar. She tracks down the carny-boss and gets his story of having sold a cheap fake (“Rubber, papier-mache, silk, cotton, boric-acid!”) to some dumb hick. Her taunting revelation to Charlie, though, direly backfires, leading to an ironic, E.C. Comics-style comeuppance. Furious at his hellcat wife’s determination to spoil his happiness (the “rich evenings of friends and talk”), Charlie attacks Thedy and (Bradbury’s narrative implies) places her head in the jar after murdering her. A tale that appeared poised to take a leap into the supernatural instead immerses itself in the reality of dark crime. Profundity gives way to funnin’ (in Charlie’s parlance), as the persistent inscrutability concerning the jarred figure is replaced by a knowing wink from the author to his audience.

While Bradbury’s debut fiction collection is titled Dark Carnival, it surprisingly (especially for later readers whose first exposure to the author’s work was the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes) does not venture very far at all into the fairground shadows for its subject matter. But this classic and oft-adapted story (which, with its mystery dynamic and climactic twist, still holds up quite well 75 years later) singularly justifies the collection’s heading.


Firestarter (2022): Rapid-Fire Reaction

Some immediate thoughts on the Firestarter remake (now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock):

*In contrast to the frenetically paced 1984 original (which, like the Stephen King novel, begins in medias res, with Andy and Charlie already on the run), the remake operates at a slow burn. The film takes the time in its opening scenes to delve into the domestic life of all three McGees: Charlie, Andy, and Vicky (who are all living without cell phones or wifi, for fear of being traced and tracked down). The parents’ struggle to raise their special child–the debate over whether to suppress Charlie’s pyrokinesis or train her how to use her abilities–makes for compelling drama.

*From the outset, the upgrade in acting (vs. the original) is evident. Zac Efron brings emotional depth and range to the role of Andy McGee, whereas David Keith in the original was a one-note character who presented as little more than a washed-out oaf. Similarly, Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Charlie proves herself to be a much more skilled performer than Drew Barrymore (whose talent at that age basically consisted of being cute). Anyone who watched Armstrong’s killer turn in the most recent season of American Horror Story won’t be surprised to find that the young actress has the chops to play a gifted/cursed child such as Charlie.

*Because of the film’s tight focus on McGee family dynamics, the Shop does get a bit shortchanged here. The story of the shadowy agency and its questionable experiments is mostly confined to an opening-credits-scene montage. A strong sense of the Shop as a sinister U.S. government operation is lacking in the remake.

*The new Firestarter does correct one of the most dubious aspects of the original, by casting an actual Native American (Michael Greyeyes) to play John Rainbird. At the same time, the remake alters the character drastically. SPOILER ALERT: This version of Rainbird was also subjected to the Lot 6 drug experiment, and developed psionic powers of his own. An unnecessary and not very rewarding development of the character, one that threatened to push the plot towards an X-Men-type showdown. But the bigger issue is that the film doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with Rainbird, and muddles matters by attempting to turn him into a quasi-sympathetic figure. Rainbird’s devious manipulation of Charlie (so central to King’s novel and George C. Scott’s portrayal in the 1984 film) is completely lost here.

*Contra the original, the climax of the remake is not terribly pyrotechnic (although the images of Charlie projecting her rage like a blowtorch are effective throughout the film). All this is in keeping with the more restrained and intimate approach of the 2022 Firestarter, and thus does not seem like a letdown or failure to live up to the fiery spectacle of the 1984 version.

*The final scene–all I will note here is that it involves Charlie and Rainbird–is one likely to polarize viewers (perhaps like none other since Hannibal). I wasn’t very satisfied by it (it’s hard to supply my reasons why without getting into spoilers), but will reserve the right to change my mind should a sequel film ever follow from it.

*1984’s Firestarter drew closely from the Stephen King novel; it played all the requisite notes, yet ultimately failed to capture the “music” of King’s narrative. The more greatly deviating remake features a stronger script, more convincing acting, and better FX than the original. By no means can it be viewed as a classic adaptation of King’s work, but the 2022 Firestarter does make for an entertaining update of its cinematic predecessor.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “Skeleton”

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


“Skeleton” (1945)

This quintessential Bradbury story provides an early demonstration of the author’s uncanny knack for making the commonplace appear weird and unusual. Bradbury takes a traditional Gothic prop (“Skeletons are horrors; they clink and tinkle and rattle in old castles, hung from oaken beams, making long, indolently rustling pendulums on the wind…”) and turns it into a sinister, seemingly sentient force. When the hypochondriac Mr. Harris, fretting about the perceived aches in his bones, seeks out the specialist M. Munigant, the latter warns that Harris “must be on guard. Skeletons were strange, unwieldy things.” Clued in by the peculiar Munigant, Harris obsesses over his own infrastructure: “His spine felt horribly–unfamiliar. Like the brittle shards of a fish, freshly eaten, its bones left strewn on a cold china platter.” Harris marvels to himself: “All these years I’ve gone around with a–SKELETON–inside me! How is it we take ourselves for granted? How is it we never question our bodies and our being?” The nervous Harris’s fixation steadily grows to a Poe-protagonist level of monomania; he imagines(?) his skeleton is in active, if stealthy, revolt against his flesh and blood self. Harris’s deep concern with being wasted away from within allows Bradbury to wax poetic throughout the narrative (e.g. “His heart cringed from the fanning motion of ribs like pale spiders crouched and fiddling with their prey”).

Bradbury deftly connects the bones of his story, building toward an ironic twist: Harris is so preoccupied with being taken over by his skeleton, he doesn’t realize that his skeleton is going to be taken out of him (the “invader,” the “alien” Thing isn’t his skeletal system but the bone-munching Munigant). There’s also a darkly carnivalesque element to the story; Harris undergoes a Rabelaisian transformation into an “improvised instrument” as Munigant makes a flute of one of his bones. But Bradbury offers more than twisted humor in this piece. The story’s central conceit taps into a serious human concern–the persistent dread that our bodies might betray us, unexpectedly sickening and failing. A tale ahead of its time, one that has hardly grown brittle with age, “Skeleton” shows that body horror can be marked by unsettling concepts and stunning imagery, not just pulpy grotesquerie.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “Homecoming”

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dark Carnival (Arkham House, 1947), Dispatches from the Macabre Republic is taking a look back at Ray Bradbury’s debut fiction collection. Adding a new post to this recurring feature every few days, I will work my way through the book’s table of contents, considering the significance of each story and also its present relevance. (Disclaimer: the stories “Reunion” and “The Night Sets” will not be included in this retrospective, as they only appear in super-pricey collectible volumes [the Arkham House original or the 2001 Gauntlet Press special edition] of Dark Carnival, a copy of which I do not own. For the remaining stories, the text is drawn from other Bradbury books in which they have been published subsequently, such as The October Country.)


“Homecoming” (1946)

Batting leadoff is a tale full of dark bats and resplendent with Gothic atmosphere. “Homecoming” treats the gathering of monsters (e.g., vampires, werewolves, mummies) from across the world at a Victorian mansion in the American Midwest; they have come to celebrate a family reunion on Allhallows Eve. The narrative is steeped in nostalgia, as Bradbury (who admits to basing many of the supernatural figures on his own relatives) recalls the cherished Halloween festivities of his own childhood home in Waukegan, Illinois. This inaugural literary foray into the October Country testifies to the seminal influence of the autumn holiday on Bradbury, a writer whose name has since become synonymous with the Halloween season.

There’s nothing saccharine about “Homecoming,” though, as a strong sense of alienation also runs through the story (which, according to Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, “sprang from Ray’s own experience as a sensitive, imaginative, oft-misunderstood boy”). The condition of fourteen-year-old protagonist Timothy–reflection-casting, darkness-fearing, coffin-eschewing–is deemed an “illness” by his more traditionally vampiric family members. His siblings and cousins tease him about his obvious difference and constantly remind him of his outcast status. Timothy keenly senses that he is out of place at the monster bash (“The party happened around him but not to him”) and longs to show that he belongs at the celebration. While the carnivalesque inversion of normalcy would later be mined for plentiful gags on The Munsters (i.e. the relative “ugliness” of the humanly beautiful Marilyn), Bradbury strikes a more poignant note. The homecoming–and “Homecoming”–concludes with Timothy “crying to himself,” sadly aware of his own eventual extinction and his lone fate in a family of the undead and undying. Mortality arguably is the grand concern of Bradbury’s fiction; it’s a theme that never ages, because we all inevitably do. The treatment of such theme here, more than the colorful, outré cast and festive Halloween setting, is what makes the tale a timeless classic.

Bradbury’s personal regard for the piece is evident in its selection for the opening slot in Dark Carnival, but the placement is also somewhat ironic. The Arkham House collection intended to showcase the author’s weird-fiction efforts (indeed, many of the stories were first published in Weird Tales). But “Homecoming” was actually rejected by Weird Tales as too far afield of the magazine’s eldritch sensibilities; the story instead saw initial print in a special October issue of the mainstream publication Mademoiselle. So from the very outset, Dark Carnival forecasts Bradbury’s destiny to transcend the pulp fiction ghetto and ultimately form a genre unto himself: imaginer extraordinaire, a storyteller of human truths, who uses the trappings of fantasy to capture 20th Century reality for his legions of readers.