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

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

 

“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.

 

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