[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here]
“The Next in Line” (1947)
Hemingway meets Poe in this narrative of a bickering tourist couple who encounter the macabre. A few days after the “Death Fiesta,” El Dia de Muerte, Marie and her husband Joseph visit the catacombs of a graveyard “in a small colonial Mexican town” (according to biographer Sam Weller, Bradbury drew from his own experiences while on a trip through Guanajuato, Mexico). Propped within the underground tomb are 115 mummies, desiccated corpses dug up from the earth and stood up in this postmortem holding cell when their poor relatives could no longer afford the annual rent on their graves. The resultant tableau is an “embarrassment of horror”: silent screams pour “from terror-yawned lips and dry tongues,” one former cataleptic mimes the agony of her premature burial, and a woman who died during childbirth has her stillborn infant wired to her wrist “like a little hungry doll.” Joseph, a photographer, takes the scene in stride (he considers publishing “an ironical [picture] book,” and even offers to buy one of the figures from the cemetery caretaker), but Marie is terribly frightened by the experience. She develops a morbid fixation with the mummies, to the point where even the sight of a plate of aligned enchiladas triggers dread. Her nervous concern takes its toll, prostrating her, and leading her to beg her husband not to let her body be relegated to the catacombs if she dies. But that appears to be exactly the tact taken by the ghoulish Joseph, who is last glimpsed driving back toward the U.S. border with the passenger seat conspicuously empty alongside him.
“The Next in Line” makes for a fitting end to Dark Carnival, as the mortality concerns that run thematically through the book’s contents are writ large here. Bradbury deftly conjoins the carnivalesque and the sepulchral, describing the mummies as standing “like the naked pipes of a vast derelict calliope, their mouths cut into frantic vents.” The narrative (closer in length to a novella than a short story) takes its time unfolding, not rushing toward some simple, grimly twisting climax of the E.C. variety. Richly (if hauntingly) atmospheric and rife with psychological complexity, “The Next in Line” displays the numerous talents of a writer poised to transcend the shudder pulps.