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.

 

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