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.


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