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.

 

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