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