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