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

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


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.


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