Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Man Upstairs”

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

 

“The Man Upstairs” (1947)

Eleven-year-old Douglas Spaulding is immediately unnerved when Mr. Koberman, a “tall strange man” with “cold gray eyes” rents a room at the boarding house run by Douglas’s grandparents. Koberman has an unfriendly demeanor, and a dark aura that seems to suck the color and warmth from the room. He also exhibits some curious behavioral quirks: the man has a strong aversion to silver (he tips in copper pennies and eats his meals with wooden utensils), is out all night and sleeps like the dead during the day. The enmity between Koberman and Douglas continues to grow, especially after the former frames Douglas for the breaking of a multicolored glass window (through which Douglas had been able to catch glimpse of Koberman’s true nature). Clever Douglas, though, gets the last laugh. Emulating the culinary efforts of his Grandma when she guts/stuffs a chicken, Douglas vivisects the resting Koberman (removing his weirdly-shaped, gelatinous organs) and fills the chest cavity of this inhuman, vampiric creature (who had been preying on local woman) with lethal silver dimes from Douglas’s piggy bank.

Like much of Bradbury’s fantastic fiction, “The Man Upstairs” is rooted in the author’s own childhood experiences (the colored glass window so integral to the plot here mirrors the one that captured a young Bradbury’s fancy). As a Douglas Spaulding story, “The Man Upstairs” (like “The Night” before it in Bradbury’s debut collection) clearly prefigures Dandelion Wine. With its mix of nostalgia and the macabre, it also links with From the Dust Returned, Bradbury’s expansion of Dark Carnival narratives such as “Homecoming” and Uncle Einar” (in which the author’s own beloved relatives are positively recast as Halloween monsters). Perhaps most intriguingly, the story (in which a young boy faces off against a sinister figure in human guise, a peripatetic predator who disruptively appears in the boy’s Midwestern hometown) anticipates Something Wicked This Way Comes. A terrifically imaginative and blackly humorous piece in its own right, “The Man Upstairs” is noteworthy as an early map of the shadowy paths Bradbury would travel down in future, classic works.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Dead Man”

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

 

“The Dead Man” (1945)

An eccentric layabout (with a tendency to stretch out in the gutter) claims decedent status for himself, insisting that he perished in the “flood that washed away my farm and all my stock and put me under water, like a chicken in a bucket.” Martin might not be deluded (as he has no detectable pulse, “can’t eat,” and gives off an “awful smell”) but is derided by the rest of the town. All except the mousy manicurist Miss Weldon, who appreciates Martin’s taciturn nature (vs. the “loud” and “mean” men inhabiting the barber shop where she works). Unwilling to buy into Martin’s morbidity, she tells him, “You’re dead for want of a good woman’s cooking, for loving, for living right.” The pair has a “quiet elopement,” but Martin’s mention of purchasing a “house out on the edge of town” turns unsettling when the townspeople belatedly realize he was talking about one of the tombs in Trinity Park Cemetery.

Much like its titular character, “The Dead Man” is an odd story, seemingly unsure of what it is exactly (a mordant tale with an E.C.-style climactic twist? an offbeat romance, in which two quirky characters find love?). As a kinder, gentler version of the walking dead, Odd Martin allows Bradbury to approach his predominant subject (and the book’s virtual leitmotif) from a not-quite-as-macabre angle. Still, the story seems an imperfect fit with the rest of Dark Carnival. To echo the decree of the young girl in the narrative who vetoes using Martin as a Halloween party prop: “Not scary enough.”

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “There Was an Old Woman”

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

 

“There Was an Old Woman” (1944)

The titular spinster, Aunt Tildy, runs an antique shop out of the front of her home, where she sits and rails against death. She refuses to “believe in it,” deeming it “ridiculous”: “it’s silly people live a couple years and are shoved like wet seeds in a hole; but nothin’ sprouts.” Despite her shunning of matters of mortality, Tildy succumbs when the Grim Reaper comes calling (in the guise of a “tall, dark” young man in a funereal suit). Most stories might climax here, but Bradbury is just getting warmed up: the feisty, lingering spirit of Tildy (with the help of her adopted daughter Emily) hurries to the mortuary to get her body back before the mortician rudely opens it up and empties it out. Like the concept of death itself, such treatment is an affront to Tildy: “I’m a maiden lady. My moles, birthmarks, scars, and other bric-a-brac, including the turn of my ankle, are my own secret.” After stubbornly persisting, and threatening to haunt the mortuary for two centuries, Tildy does regain possession of her body, which her spirit diligently rejoins: “She was two drops of matter fusing, water trying to seep into concrete. Slow to do. Hard. Like a butterfly trying to squirm back into a discarded husk of flinty chrysalis!” Thereafter, the long(er)-living Tildy has whopper of a tale to tell visitors to her home, and a body of evidence to back it up: “the long blue scar where the autopsy was neatly sewn back together.”

Here we have yet another Dark Carnival story primarily concerned with death. The raging against the dying of the light seems to be the attitude of not just the old woman but also of the author Bradbury (who, as a young boy, was formatively commanded to “Live forever!” by the magician Mr. Electrico during a carnival performance). Unlike Tildy, Bradbury never got to shuffle back into his mortal coil after passing away as a nonagenarian, but nonetheless achieved a measure of immortality through the age-defying body of fiction he left behind. “Not bad sewin’ for a man,” Tildy at tale’s end says of the autopsy-aborting mortician who closed her back up, and this same praise could be extended to Bradbury’s own fine handiwork as story crafter.