Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “Jack-in-the-Box”

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“Jack-in-the-Box” (1947)

Like the “trapped toy” of the title, thirteen-year-old Edwin is subjected to a very sheltered existence. He’s confined to the family mansion by his mentally unbalanced mother, who sounds dire warnings of “Beasts” beyond the forest, and mourns the passing of Edwin’s father (who she calls “God”), “struck down by one of those Terrors on the road.” Removed from the world at large and kept ignorant of its workings, Edwin’s perspective is understandably naive. He confuses a secret elevator in the house as a “dusty dull brown closet,” and refers to an airplane spied flying in the sky as a “chromium bird thing.” Nor does Edwin realize that his mother and Teacher (in hooded costume) are one and the same. When the latter goes missing, and the former is found sprawled drunkenly on the floor, Edwin ventures out of the house and into the “Outlands” for assistance. Overjoyed about the abundance of interesting objects and people he discovers, Edwin (having internalized his mother’s lessons about what awaited him outside the “Universe” of home), happily cries, “I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, it’s good to be dead!”

“Jack-in-the-Box” constitutes something of an oddity. Its narrative situation is marked by strangeness, yet the story feels different from the other weird tales gathered in the collection. Bradbury’s penchant for waxing metaphorical proves a bit confusing here, confounding the reader’s attempt to get a purchase on the story world presented. Yes, it does feature Bradbury’s central theme of mortality, but in its straining toward some sort of profundity of meaning, the story forms an imperfect fit with the other Bradburian acts assembled into the Dark Carnival.


Dark Carnival 75th anniversary Retrospective: “Interim”

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“Interim” (1947)

“Shortly before dawn,” there comes a “kind of dim pulsing and whispering under the earth.” The setting is gradually revealed as a graveyard, and the noise turns out to be an afterlife telegraph “code”: buried bodies beating upon their coffin lids. That night’s stirring message concerns the deceased Mrs. Lattimore, who came to the graveyard a year ago “just before the planned birth of her child,” and now somehow is about to deliver the baby belatedly.

This two-page story (which today would be classified as flash fiction) is hard to find; it was never carried over into The October Country, and perhaps for good reason. “Interim” strains the suspension of disbelief: would the corpse of a nine-months-pregnant woman be interred with her unborn child still inside her? And why is she coming to posthumous term just now? Even the other inhabitants of the graveyard are riddled with “questioning hysteria,” wondering “How can this thing be?” The story does evince Bradbury’s tendency to wax lyrical over the morbid (he describes the coffins as “each a womb for silent, stiffened contents”), and the premise of underground gossip via coffin thumping is intriguing, but one wishes that Bradbury had constructed a better narrative around the idea.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Coffin”

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“The Coffin” (1947)

Mr. Charles Braling is a “badly dying” man of 70, feverishly engages in “a carnival of labor”: constructing an unusual version of a burial casket. His lazy, grasping, scheming younger brother Richard, meanwhile, scoffs at Charles’s bizarre efforts. When Charles drops dead upon completion of the coffin, Richard vindictively orders for his brother to be buried in a meager pine coffin instead of the “Braling Economy Casket.” But this is exactly what Charles had expected of his wretched sibling. When Richard gets into Charles’s creation (believing that Charles has hidden his riches somewhere inside it), he discovers that the coffin has been designed to entrap him. Charles has married robotics with mortuary science: the Braling Economy Casket begins to replace Richard’s blood with formaldehyde. It conveniently conducts (via organ music and Charles’s voice recording) a funeral sermon. Eschewing pallbearers, the coffin transports itself out into the yard, and then completes the proceedings by digging a grave and burying itself underground.

Drawing upon Poe’s favorite theme of premature burial, Bradbury offers a clever variation on the tale of comeuppance. This Dark Carnival story (which combines elements of horror, crime, and even science fiction, with its futuristic coffin) also furnishes early proof of the versatility of Bradbury, a writer destined to transcend the shudder pulps.



Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Handler”

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“The Handler” (1947)

Bradbury’s title character, Mr. Benedict, is a “funeral man,” owner of a combined mortuary, church, and churchyard: “He handled you in and out of buildings with a minimum of confusion and a maximum of synthetic benediction.” Benedict suffers from an inferiority complex (“Anything that lived or moved made him feel apologetic and melancholy”), and because of his profession is subjected to “all the little slurs and intonations and insults” from the townspeople. But Benedict hardly forms a sympathetic figure; he is a “puppet-master” of “his own little theater of the cold,” venting “his repressions on his hapless guests. Some he locked in their boxes upside down, some face down, or making obscene gestures.” One haughty woman who in life prided herself on her intellect and was addicted to junk food has her brains removed and her empty skull filled with whipped cream. And the cadaver of a virulent racist turns pitch black after Benedict substitutes ink for embalming fluid. Benedict’s secret depravity is discovered when old Merriwell Blythe, a man “afflicted with spells and comas,” is mistaken for dead and awakens on the slab. As Blythe is murdered by Benedict, he calls upon the desecrated dead interred in the churchyard to arise and take vengeance on the funeral man. Apparently, his words are heard: evidence the next day suggests that an angry mob of postmortem townspeople attacked Benedict, dismembered him, and buried his body parts under several headstones.

Benedict is a now-common character type (the monstrously perverse mortician), and the beats of the story (in which a reprehensible character receives macabre comeuppance) will be quite familiar to anyone who has ever read an E.C. comic or watched Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow. At the time of its original publication, though, “The Handler” must have been quite (ahem) groundbreaking in its gruesomeness. Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, cites the piece as one of Bradbury’s 1940s efforts that were “so horrible” (in their subject matter, not their craftsmanship), the author “now repudiates them.”  With the possible exception of “The October Game,” “The Handler” stands as the darkest and grimmest story Bradbury ever composed.



Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Crowd”

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“The Crowd” (1943)

Bradbury’s protagonist, Mr. Spallner, manages to walk away from a car accident, but is shaken by the thought of those who gathered at the scene: “That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity.” There’s “a vast wrongness” to such prompt gatherings, as Spallner confirms when he studies news photos from over a several years’ period and discovers the same group of faces mixed in among the crowds. This uncanny clique unfailingly appears: “At a fire or an explosion or on the sidelines of a war, at any public demonstration of this thing called death. Vultures, hyenas, or saints,” Spallner speculates, but the answer definitely shades toward the sinister. Not only do these looming onlookers suck up the gasping victim’s air, they also deliberately, murderously jostle those with spinal injuries (such as Spallner, when he is involved in a second car accident before he can deliver his evidence about the group to the authorities). And as if all this weren’t horrific enough, Spallner realizes at tale’s end that there’s no escaping the crowd even in death. His dying words indicate that the members of the crowd aren’t human busybodies, but posthumous entities: “It–looks like I’ll–be joining up with you. I–guess I’ll be a member of–your–group–now.”

This chilling narrative underscores the gross disadvantage of the individual against the societal masses–a theme that never loses its relevancy. “The Crowd” is hauntingly memorable: the reader is unlikely to look at accident scenes (and those who flock to them) the same way ever again. I know this particular story (one of my all-time favorite Bradbury pieces) has left a deep imprint on my imagination; it inspired my own story riff “Theater Crowd,” which was published in the 2021 anthology Terrifying Ghosts.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Small Assassin”

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“The Small Assassin” (1946)

Sometimes Bradbury’s common “The ___” story title structures can be a bit prosaic, but “The Small Assassin” is a terrific attention-grabber (the opening sentence of the piece also serves as a killer hook: “Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.”). After a difficult Caesarian birth, Alice Leiber considers her newborn boy an alien horror to be dreaded. At first her fears are dismissed as a psychological aberration, but mounting evidence (e.g., wakeful staring, sounds of out-of-crib scurrying, toys dangerously positioned on the staircase) points to the child actually possessing sinister sentience. Bradbury takes one of the happiest experiences known to humanity–the birth of a baby–and turns it into a source of the uncanny. After witnessing the grim fates of Alice and her husband, the reader’s perception of infants (these “strange, red little creatures” whose presumed helplessness/innocence provides a “perfect alibi” for their hateful crimes) might be darkened forevermore.

The deadly baby/child has since become a pop cultural trope, but Bradbury’s seminal narrative (the scalpel-wielding, baby-hunting Dr. Jeffers at story’s end anticipates the showdown between Louis and Gage Creed in the climax of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary) furnishes arguably the most effective example all-time of a pint-sized fright figure.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Traveler”

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“The Traveler” (1945)

The second story in Dark Carnival featuring the positively monstrous Elliot Family of Mellin Town is set a few months after “Homecoming” and centers on the character of Cecy (based on Bradbury’s beloved Aunt Neva). Cecy’s extraordinary gift–the ability to project herself into another creature–is expanded upon: “It was more than telepathy, up one flue and down another. This was complete separation from one body environment into another. It was entrance into tree-nozzling dogs, men, old maids, birds, children at hopscotch, lovers on their morning beds, into workers asweat with shoveling, into unborn babies’ pink, dream-small brains.”

As the mentally-adventuring Cecy lies comatose in her bedroom, she is burst in on by her shady Uncle John. Being driven crazy by the peal of “holy church bells” in his head, John is desperate for Cecy to enter into him and clean out his cranium. Cecy’s Mother explains that Cecy is presently unavailable, and unlikely to help, considering the traitorous and treacherous uncle’s past betrayals of the Family (certain members ended up staked through the heart after being exposed to the authorities by John, who was paid a $100 fee for every relative ratted out). Determined to be cured of the noise inside his head, John threatens to go the local sheriff and expose the Elliots as “a wicked family, living under false pretenses.” But he is foiled at every turn, and after he finally commits suicide (his only perceived escape from the bells), Cecy reveals that she was the one creating that holy racket in John’s head all along.

The fantasy elements of the story allow Bradbury to engage in some amazing permutations (e.g., Cecy experiencing the world from a crayfish’s viewpoint, or speaking through a dead man’s lips). Cecy’s extensive mental traveling (“She loved riding the monster [train] engines as far as as could stretch the contact [with the conductor]”) also speaks to Bradbury’s own wanderlust as he grew up amongst his family in Waukegan. A tale about identity and assimilation and persecution and the dangers of difference, “The Traveler” remains as timely today as it was upon its first publication (in Weird Tales) and 1947 collection in Dark Carnival.