Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Scythe”

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


“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.


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