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

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“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.

 

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