Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Cistern”

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

 

“The Cistern” (1947)

On a rainy afternoon, Anna stares dreamily out the front window and waxes fanciful about the titular receptacle: “A dead city, right here, right under our feet,” she tells her fellow-spinster sister Juliet. Anna imagines an experience of secrecy and childlike fun, “liv[ing] in the cistern and peek[ing] up at people through the slots and see[ing] them not see you.” She also envisions a pair of dead lovers residing in such underground abode, desiccate mummies reanimated each rainy season (“She told how the water rose and took the woman with it, unfolding her out and loosening her and standing her full upright in the cistern”) and sent floating out to sea in circumnavigation of the globe. Matters take a darker turn, though, when Anna suddenly insists that the dead man in the cistern is her old beau Frank (who’s “been gone for years, and certainly not down there,” Juliet tells her sister). Distraught, Anna weeps silently. Juliet dozes off, but wakes to the sounds of Anna fleeing outdoors and the cistern lid lifting and slamming down again.

“The Cistern” warrants multiple readings if only for its crafted ambiguity. Does Bradbury’s tale put more emphasis on uncanny rebirth (the lovers’ amazing resuscitation by the rainwaters) or tragic death (as the lonely, loveless, and mentally anguished Anna presumably drowns herself)? In its consideration of a fantastic underworld, the story anticipates the work of Tim Burton (e.g. Corpse Bride). But the macabre implications of the story also point to a certain Stephen King opus where the sewer system (not to mention the idea of floating corpses) proves much more sinister.

 

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