[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]
“The Watchers” (1945)
Bradbury’s narrator, Steve, works as personal secretary to William Tinsley, a captain of the kitchenware industry who wields a “flyswatter as scepter.” Tinsley is strangely obsessed with killing any and every insect in his midst. His pesticidal mania doesn’t stem from a basic phobia; he believes that insects (all living animals, in fact) are planted bugs, agents of surreptitious surveillance who report back to some mysterious governing force that Tinsley can only label “They.” Tinsley, who “refuses to talk when there’s an insect in the room,” intones to Steve: “We are being watched constantly. Is there ever a minute in our lives that passes without a fly buzzing in our room with us, or an ant crossing our path, or a flea on a dog, or a cat itself, or a beetle or a moth rushing through the dark, or a mosquito skirting around a netting?” The story offers another sinister turn of the screw when Tinsley realizes that there are more evil/infinitesimal entities to fear: microbes.
Opening a dark new window onto the everyday, “The Watchers” is quintessential Bradbury. Just as Steve is infected with Tinsley’s “apprehensive awareness,” the reader can’t help be haunted by the specter of the paranoid premise (Bug Brother is Watching Us!). The story is infested with disturbing visuals, such as the description of Tinsley’s father, who was accidentally(?) killed by his own gun in a hunting accident, and whose corpse was overrun when his young son returned with belated help: “The entire body, the arms, the legs, and the shattered contour of what was once a strong, handsome face, was clustered over and covered with scuttling, twitching insects, bugs, ants of every and all descriptions, drawn by the sweet odor of blood.” The imagery grows even more grotesque when Tinsley (and later, Steve) falls sudden victim to a “rotting fetid combination of disease.” Unsettling in idea and execution alike, “The Watchers” ranks as one of the most horrific pieces Bradbury ever composed. Perhaps the reason it wasn’t installed in the original edition of Dark Carnival (I would’ve liked to have been a fly on the wall if Bradbury ever articulated his rationale for the exclusion) is because its unremitting gruesomeness threatened to overshadow the rest of the collection’s contents.