[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.