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.

 

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