Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Night”

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“The Night” (1946)

In the year 1927, an 8-year-old boy and his mother “are all alone at home in the warm darkness of summer.” Dad is at a lodge meeting, and the boy’s older brother Skipper, 12, is out playing with his friends. Matters turn worrisome when Skipper doesn’t come home on time. The mother and the boy venture out to look for him, and their search naturally gravitates toward the town-bisecting ravine, a “pit of jungled blackness” with “a dark sewer, rotten foliage, thick green odor.” It is a region where “civilization ceases, reason ends, and a universal evil takes over.” The mother and the boy fear that Skipper might have tried to cut across the ravine and encountered “Tramps. Criminals. Darkness. Accident. Most of all-Death.” Just as the dread builds to a crescendo, though, Skipper appears with his friends, safe and sound. But the boy has been struck by “the essential impact of life’s loneliness,” and the incident has a significant effect on his outlook onto to the world.

Bradbury, somewhat unusually, writes the story in the second-person, perhaps to emphasize universality (“There are a million small towns like this all over the world,” he writes. “Each as dark, as lonely, each as removed, as full of shuddering and wonder.”). Perhaps the author was just trying to distance himself from a story rooted in autobiography (Bradbury would subsequently expand on this material in “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” and Dandelion Wine, both of which explicitly invoke the serial killer known as “The Lonely One”). The sinister ravine setting proves a prominent element of Bradbury’s Green Town milieu, and also prefigures the Barrens in Stephen King’s American Gothic opus, IT. Yes, “The Night” casts a long shadow, and none of its dark brilliance has dulled after seventy-five years.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Wind”

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“The Wind” (1943)

Allin fixates fearfully on the wind, considering it no natural force but a sentient stalker, “the biggest damnedest prehistoric killer that ever hunted prey.” His phobia derives from a harrowing experience atop the stormy Himalayas a few years earlier. Allin claims that he glimpsed “the Valley of the Winds where it gathers and plans its destruction. […] I know its feeding grounds, I know where it is born and where parts of it expire. For that reason, it hates me; and my [travel] books that tell how to defeat it.” So now the wind follows him around the globe, and tries to infiltrate wherever he lives. But it doesn’t just want to physically annihilate him, Allin tells his friend Herb: “It wants what’s inside me. My mind, my brain. It wants my life-power, my psychic force, my ego. It wants my intellect.” As if all this weren’t haunting enough, Allin then says (after Herb hears strange noises in the background of their phone conversation): “Those are the voices of twelve thousand killed in a typhoon, seven thousand killed by a hurricane, three thousand buried by a cyclone. […] That’s what the wind is. It’s a lot of people dead. The wind killed them, took their minds to give itself intelligence.” Herb thinks Allin has finally lost his mind and plans to deliver him to a sanitorium the next morning, but revises his outlook after sensing Allin’s spectral presence in the wind that suddenly arrives at his doorstep.

The wind, with its ghostly howl and invisible capacity to inflict damage, has always made for an uncanny subject. But it took Bradbury’s “The Wind” to draw such ideas into a dread-inspiring narrative, one that changes the reader’s perspective about gusts of air forevermore. The structure of the piece, which has Allin recounting his worsening domestic situation to Herb over the phone, also gives it the quality of some weird home-invasion story. However one wants to approach it, “The Wind” is chilling; Bradbury’s tempestuous tale has lost none of its impact after three-quarters of a century.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “Uncle Einar”

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“Uncle Einar” (1947)

He was one of the few in the Family whose talent was visible. All his dark cousins and nephews and brothers hid in small towns across the world, did unseen mental things or things with witch-fingers and white teeth, or blew down the sky like fire-leaves, or loped in forests like moon-silvered wolves. They lived comparatively safe from normal humans. Not so a man with great green wings.

The titular man-bat’s career of “flying Family errands” comes to a crashing halt while returning to Europe following a Homecoming celebration in Mellin Town, Illinois, one Halloween: drunk on “too much rich crimson wine,” Einar flies right into a “high tension tower.” This jolting experience robs him of his “delicate night-perception,” and effectively grounds him (since he’s loathe to take wing during daytime, for fear of being shot out of the air or turned into a zoo exhibit upon discovery). So now even though Einar has settled down with a family of his own, he is fed up with domestic life, with being reduced to a fanner of children and air-dryer of his wife’s laundry. But in the story’s climax, Einar transcends his bitter, brooding existence. Encouraged by his children to come watch their merriment at a festival, an ecstatic Einar realizes he can return to the skies and fly freely during daytime by cleverly disguising himself as a kite.

“Uncle Einar” evinces fantasy’s capacity to broaden horizons and expand the experiences of real-world-bound readers; Einar entertains his wingless offspring with “wild starlit tales of island clouds and ocean skies and textures of mist and wind and how a star tastes melting in your mouth, and how to drink cold mountain air, and how it feels to be a pebble dropped from Mt. Everest, turning to a green bloom, flowering your wings just before you strike bottom!” Lighter and decidedly less dire than Bradbury’s other Dark Carnival offerings, the tale strikes such positive themes as the acceptance of difference (Einar’s wife Brunilla sees nothing monstrous whatsoever about him) and the refusal to be limited by so-called disability. Short and sweet, sentimental yet not saccharine, this story of soaring imagination has lost none of its wonderful flavor over the past seventy-five years.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “Let’s Play ‘Poison'”

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Let’s Play ‘Poison'” (1946)

When a student is bullied to death (pushed out a window) by his eight- and nine-year-old classmates, Mr. Howard suffers a breakdown and promptly quits teaching. But circumstances call him back to duty seven years later as a substitute. Howard attempts to lay down the law, telling his new class that he believes “that children are invaders from another dimension,” or “little monsters thrust out of hell, because the devil could no longer cope with them.” The animosity between adult and pre-adolescents steadily grows, especially after Howard spoils the students’ eponymous game (by informing them that the alleged “gravestones” are “simply the names of the contractors who mixed and laid the cement sidewalk”). Howard also chases off Isabel Skelton as she sings and plays hopscotch, accusing her of being a “young witch. Pentagrams. Rhymes and incantations.” The kids, though, get the last laugh via a Halloween-style prank (the story is set in the heart of autumn). A “white skull at the window” lures Howard outside, and he falls into the pit created by the “water-main excavation” in front of his house. His unconscious body is covered with dirt and debris (yet another Bradbury variation on the theme of premature burial), and the new cement sidewalk poured the next day is inscribed “M. HOWARD–R.I.P.”–a true gravestone for subsequent games of Poison.

“Let’s Play ‘Poison'” plays out as a fairly standard tale of curmudgeon comeuppance, but its climactic prank shows the author’s willingness to dramatize a darker side of the Halloween season. While Bradbury is well known for scripting paeans to youthful existence, he reminds readers here (as he does later in his career with his story “The Playground”) that children can also be terrible, pint-sized tyrants.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Scythe”

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“The Scythe” (1943)

Bradbury gives a Weird Tales variation here on one of his favorite books, The Grapes of Wrath, as a family of Dust-Bowl-era Okies stumble upon an isolated midwestern farm with the previous owner lying dead in bed clutching a blade of wheat. A note alongside the old man bequeaths the house and land to his discoverer, but a “task ordained” comes with the inheritance. The grain must be harvested from the field, using a scythe that bears a curious inscription: “WHO WIELDS ME–WIELDS THE WORLD.” New reaper Drew Erickson quickly notes some oddities to the occupation: the wheat “ripened only in separate clusters,” it “rotted within a few hours after he cut it down,” and the next morning it “came up again in little green sprouts with tiny roots, all born again.”

Gradually, Drew realizes a grim connection: each blade of wheat corresponds to a specific human life, and to scythe the blade down is to seal that person’s mortal fate. Happening upon the ready-to-be-reaped blades representing his own wife and children, Drew tries to shirk his responsibilities. But watching his family lie in suspended animation (after the housefire that was meant to end their lives leaves them physically unscathed) leads a reluctant Drew back to his scything duty. But pulling the plug, so to speak, on his family drives Drew insane, and in his grief and rage he proceeds to scythe the field indiscriminately, “slashing and chopping the green wheat instead of the ripe.” Drew “no longer cares what he does to the world,” and the repercussions are cataclysmic: the narrative closes with reports of world warfare and mass atrocities.

“The Scythe” is vintage Bradbury, as he gives a dark imaginative twist to the notion of the Grim Reaper, and offers an uncanny explanation for the all the mounting ills of the mid-20th Century. With its remote rural setting, dire harvesting ritual, and ominous supernaturalizing of nature, the story also forms a prototype of American folk horror. Over 75 years after its first publication, “The Scythe” has hardly dulled, and continues to slice sharply into the reader’s psyche.