Dark Carnival Extended: “The Sea Shell”

In a recently-concluded retrospective, I explored the contents of Dark Carnival (marking the 75th anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s debut collection). And now tonight brings an addendum….The 2001 Gauntlet Press reissue of Dark Carnival offered bonus reading: a quartet of weird tales that Bradbury did not include in the 1947 edition. Over a series of four posts, I will look back at those stories, considering how they might have fit if chosen for the first publication of the book.

“The Sea Shell” (1944)

11-year-old Johnny Bishop, bedridden with an unspecified illness, “wants to get out and play, badly.” The frustration over his confinement is alleviated when the family doctor gifts him with the titular object (which seemingly sounds a call from the remote Pacific: “The ocean! The waves! The sea!”). Now, “whenever the afternoons stretched long and tiresome, he would press [the sea shell] around the lobe and rim of his year and vacation on a wind-blown peninsula far, far off.” The sea shell stirs the wanderlust of Johnny, a Midwesterner who only knows of the ocean through movies. Johnny’s mom chides him for his “impatience with everything in life. you must have things–right now–or else.” In response, Johnny reasons, “If I wait too long, I’ll be grown up, and then it won’t be any fun.” Apparently, Johnny decides not to wait until he gets over his sickness to get out of the house. Lured by “the singing chant of boatmen faintly drifting on a salt sea wind,” Johnny uses the sea shell as a magical portal to an actual seaside adventure.

“The Sea Shell” presents some distinctly carnivalesque imagery: Johnny’s bed quilt is described as “a red-blue circus banner,” and after Johnny’s bewildered mom finds him missing but hears (via the sea shell) him frolicking in the ocean, the bedroom whirls around her like “a bright swaying merry-go-round.” But the story isn’t terribly dark, playing out more as an offbeat fantasy tale (in which Johnny ends up in a happy place). For this reason, and because Bradbury did include a much darker tale (“The Emissary”) centered on an ill, bedridden child, “The Sea Shell” was perhaps wisely omitted from 1947’s Dark Carnival.

 

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