[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]
“Bang! You’re Dead!” (1944)
Fair-haired Johnny Choir plays at war, running and laughing, ducking and dodging, pointing and yelling “Missed me!” and “Gotcha!” He’s unquestionably young at heart but maybe not quite right in the head: Bradbury’s twist is that Johnny is an actual U.S. soldier fighting in Italy during World War II. As his army buddy Private Smith says, “As far as I can figure, he thinks this is all a game. He never grew up. He’s got a big body with a kid’s mind in it. He doesn’t take war serious. He thinks we’re all playing at this.” Johnny’s strange outlook seems to work like a good luck charm, protecting him from enemy fire as he moves recklessly. This amazes the fear-gripped Smith, and bemuses another soldier named Melter, who eventually takes a shot at Johnny himself, then tries to tear through his mental armor by revealing that they are in fact fighting a war. Hurt by the news, Johnny stumbles off, and is soon wounded by a German artillery shell. He survives the head injury (which likely will wipe away the memory of Melter’s spoiler), and at tale’s end he (along with Smith) is scheduled to be discharged and sent home to America. The rotten Melter fares much worse, though, after desperately trying to mimic Johnny’s tactic: he ends up strafed with machine-gun fire while running down a hill “screaming about being a kid again.”
“Bang! You’re Dead!” proves quintessentially Bradburian in theme, contrasting the “innocent wonder” of youth and adult experience, vivid imagination and harsh reality. Johnny’s psychological defense mechanism–regressing himself to the playful days of his Midwestern youth–hints at the terrible, traumatic nature of war. Nevertheless, the story features an emphatically happy ending, which frees Johnny from military service and paves the way for him to “go on believing the world is a good place.” Perhaps this ultimate light-heartedness (contra the other stories in the table of contents) is exactly what dissuaded Bradbury from including the piece in the first edition of Dark Carnival.