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.


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