Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Coffin”

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“The Coffin” (1947)

Mr. Charles Braling is a “badly dying” man of 70, feverishly engages in “a carnival of labor”: constructing an unusual version of a burial casket. His lazy, grasping, scheming younger brother Richard, meanwhile, scoffs at Charles’s bizarre efforts. When Charles drops dead upon completion of the coffin, Richard vindictively orders for his brother to be buried in a meager pine coffin instead of the “Braling Economy Casket.” But this is exactly what Charles had expected of his wretched sibling. When Richard gets into Charles’s creation (believing that Charles has hidden his riches somewhere inside it), he discovers that the coffin has been designed to entrap him. Charles has married robotics with mortuary science: the Braling Economy Casket begins to replace Richard’s blood with formaldehyde. It conveniently conducts (via organ music and Charles’s voice recording) a funeral sermon. Eschewing pallbearers, the coffin transports itself out into the yard, and then completes the proceedings by digging a grave and burying itself underground.

Drawing upon Poe’s favorite theme of premature burial, Bradbury offers a clever variation on the tale of comeuppance. This Dark Carnival story (which combines elements of horror, crime, and even science fiction, with its futuristic coffin) also furnishes early proof of the versatility of Bradbury, a writer destined to transcend the shudder pulps.

 

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Handler”

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“The Handler” (1947)

Bradbury’s title character, Mr. Benedict, is a “funeral man,” owner of a combined mortuary, church, and churchyard: “He handled you in and out of buildings with a minimum of confusion and a maximum of synthetic benediction.” Benedict suffers from an inferiority complex (“Anything that lived or moved made him feel apologetic and melancholy”), and because of his profession is subjected to “all the little slurs and intonations and insults” from the townspeople. But Benedict hardly forms a sympathetic figure; he is a “puppet-master” of “his own little theater of the cold,” venting “his repressions on his hapless guests. Some he locked in their boxes upside down, some face down, or making obscene gestures.” One haughty woman who in life prided herself on her intellect and was addicted to junk food has her brains removed and her empty skull filled with whipped cream. And the cadaver of a virulent racist turns pitch black after Benedict substitutes ink for embalming fluid. Benedict’s secret depravity is discovered when old Merriwell Blythe, a man “afflicted with spells and comas,” is mistaken for dead and awakens on the slab. As Blythe is murdered by Benedict, he calls upon the desecrated dead interred in the churchyard to arise and take vengeance on the funeral man. Apparently, his words are heard: evidence the next day suggests that an angry mob of postmortem townspeople attacked Benedict, dismembered him, and buried his body parts under several headstones.

Benedict is a now-common character type (the monstrously perverse mortician), and the beats of the story (in which a reprehensible character receives macabre comeuppance) will be quite familiar to anyone who has ever read an E.C. comic or watched Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow. At the time of its original publication, though, “The Handler” must have been quite (ahem) groundbreaking in its gruesomeness. Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, cites the piece as one of Bradbury’s 1940s efforts that were “so horrible” (in their subject matter, not their craftsmanship), the author “now repudiates them.”  With the possible exception of “The October Game,” “The Handler” stands as the darkest and grimmest story Bradbury ever composed.

 

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Crowd”

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“The Crowd” (1943)

Bradbury’s protagonist, Mr. Spallner, manages to walk away from a car accident, but is shaken by the thought of those who gathered at the scene: “That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity.” There’s “a vast wrongness” to such prompt gatherings, as Spallner confirms when he studies news photos from over a several years’ period and discovers the same group of faces mixed in among the crowds. This uncanny clique unfailingly appears: “At a fire or an explosion or on the sidelines of a war, at any public demonstration of this thing called death. Vultures, hyenas, or saints,” Spallner speculates, but the answer definitely shades toward the sinister. Not only do these looming onlookers suck up the gasping victim’s air, they also deliberately, murderously jostle those with spinal injuries (such as Spallner, when he is involved in a second car accident before he can deliver his evidence about the group to the authorities). And as if all this weren’t horrific enough, Spallner realizes at tale’s end that there’s no escaping the crowd even in death. His dying words indicate that the members of the crowd aren’t human busybodies, but posthumous entities: “It–looks like I’ll–be joining up with you. I–guess I’ll be a member of–your–group–now.”

This chilling narrative underscores the gross disadvantage of the individual against the societal masses–a theme that never loses its relevancy. “The Crowd” is hauntingly memorable: the reader is unlikely to look at accident scenes (and those who flock to them) the same way ever again. I know this particular story (one of my all-time favorite Bradbury pieces) has left a deep imprint on my imagination; it inspired my own story riff “Theater Crowd,” which was published in the 2021 anthology Terrifying Ghosts.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Small Assassin”

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“The Small Assassin” (1946)

Sometimes Bradbury’s common “The ___” story title structures can be a bit prosaic, but “The Small Assassin” is a terrific attention-grabber (the opening sentence of the piece also serves as a killer hook: “Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.”). After a difficult Caesarian birth, Alice Leiber considers her newborn boy an alien horror to be dreaded. At first her fears are dismissed as a psychological aberration, but mounting evidence (e.g., wakeful staring, sounds of out-of-crib scurrying, toys dangerously positioned on the staircase) points to the child actually possessing sinister sentience. Bradbury takes one of the happiest experiences known to humanity–the birth of a baby–and turns it into a source of the uncanny. After witnessing the grim fates of Alice and her husband, the reader’s perception of infants (these “strange, red little creatures” whose presumed helplessness/innocence provides a “perfect alibi” for their hateful crimes) might be darkened forevermore.

The deadly baby/child has since become a pop cultural trope, but Bradbury’s seminal narrative (the scalpel-wielding, baby-hunting Dr. Jeffers at story’s end anticipates the showdown between Louis and Gage Creed in the climax of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary) furnishes arguably the most effective example all-time of a pint-sized fright figure.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Traveler”

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“The Traveler” (1945)

The second story in Dark Carnival featuring the positively monstrous Elliot Family of Mellin Town is set a few months after “Homecoming” and centers on the character of Cecy (based on Bradbury’s beloved Aunt Neva). Cecy’s extraordinary gift–the ability to project herself into another creature–is expanded upon: “It was more than telepathy, up one flue and down another. This was complete separation from one body environment into another. It was entrance into tree-nozzling dogs, men, old maids, birds, children at hopscotch, lovers on their morning beds, into workers asweat with shoveling, into unborn babies’ pink, dream-small brains.”

As the mentally-adventuring Cecy lies comatose in her bedroom, she is burst in on by her shady Uncle John. Being driven crazy by the peal of “holy church bells” in his head, John is desperate for Cecy to enter into him and clean out his cranium. Cecy’s Mother explains that Cecy is presently unavailable, and unlikely to help, considering the traitorous and treacherous uncle’s past betrayals of the Family (certain members ended up staked through the heart after being exposed to the authorities by John, who was paid a $100 fee for every relative ratted out). Determined to be cured of the noise inside his head, John threatens to go the local sheriff and expose the Elliots as “a wicked family, living under false pretenses.” But he is foiled at every turn, and after he finally commits suicide (his only perceived escape from the bells), Cecy reveals that she was the one creating that holy racket in John’s head all along.

The fantasy elements of the story allow Bradbury to engage in some amazing permutations (e.g., Cecy experiencing the world from a crayfish’s viewpoint, or speaking through a dead man’s lips). Cecy’s extensive mental traveling (“She loved riding the monster [train] engines as far as as could stretch the contact [with the conductor]”) also speaks to Bradbury’s own wanderlust as he grew up amongst his family in Waukegan. A tale about identity and assimilation and persecution and the dangers of difference, “The Traveler” remains as timely today as it was upon its first publication (in Weird Tales) and 1947 collection in Dark Carnival.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Emissary”

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“The Emissary” (1947)

Ten-year-old Martin Smith is confined to his bedroom with an undefined illness, so he has his beloved pet Dog “collect and deliver the time and texture of worlds in town, country, by creek, river, lake, down-cellar, up-attic, in closet or coal bin.” Dog not only brings back various samplings of his adventures (stuck to his fur), but also human visitors, such as Martin’s schoolteacher Miss Haight. The lonely child cherishes the time spent with the young woman, which proves all too short when Miss Haight is killed in a car accident. After that Dog begins behaving strangely, staring and whimpering, and then disappearing on the night before Halloween. When he returns a few days later, Dog carries a telltale “stench–the ripe and awful cemetery earth.” Dog has been bad, digging where he shouldn’t, but he also has been true to his training and brings someone home to Martin, who hears ghoulish footsteps scaling the staircase and shambling toward his bedroom. The story ends on a shivery, yet also slightly ambiguous, note. Just what sort of “company” will this grave-vacating corpse provide? Will the posthumous Miss Haight now be hateful?

“The Emissary” represents one of Bradbury’s deeper forays into the October Country. Its autumn setting is established in the opening sentence, and “the great season of spices and rare incenses” and the “cereal crispness” of fallen leaves is brought to life throughout the narrative by Bradbury’s descriptive prose. Halloween also proves central to the tale, although the experience of the holiday is colored by Martin’s bedridden condition, the recent death of Miss Haight, and the seeming loss of the runaway Dog:

To Martin, Halloween had been nothing more than one evening when tin horns cried off in the cold autumn stars, children blew like goblin leaves along the flinty walks, flinging their heads, or cabbages, at porches, soap-writing names or similar magic symbols on icy windows. all of it distant, unfathomable, and nightmarish as a puppet show seen from so many miles away that there is no sound or meaning.

Such downbeat turn, though, is reversed by the concluding plot twist, in which Martin receives a belated Halloween thrill that he will likely remember for the rest of his life (should it extend beyond that night). “The Emissary”–whose first publication was in Dark Carnival–remains one of the book’s most effective and richly atmospheric pieces. Like Dog’s own doings within the narrative, the story faithfully delivers a strong sense of the autumnal (as it was experienced in the early-20th-Century Midwest) to the modern reader.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Smiling People”

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“The Smiling People” (1946)

Mr. Greppin is obsessed with noise, to the point that it has become a phobia with him: “Every sound was a fear. so each sound had to be muffled, gotten to and eliminated.” He rigs his house to maximize the “sensation of silence,” from double carpeting to a stilled grandfather clock that is described as a “glass-fronted coffin.” This quiet-as-the-grave-approach extends to Greppin’s relatives (Aunt Rose, Uncle Dimity, cousins Lila and Sam) who share his home. They form a strange tableau around the dinner table, static as mannequins in their placement there. It soon grows quite apparent that Greppin is mentally unbalanced, and that the others’ pronounced silence is not merely the result of diligent training. Greppin (whose thoughts recur to a fateful day two weeks earlier) was determined not only to quiet his nagging relatives, but also to transform “their solemn, puritanical masks” into smiles. The tale concludes in savage fashion: the multiple murderer Greppin has slit his family’s throats “in a half moon from ear to ear,” giving “the horrid illusion of a smile under their chins.”

For all its jaw-dropping violence, “The Smiling People” disappoints because it might have been crafted to be even more shocking. Bradbury gives away the game too early, leaving little doubt that Greppin is a knife-wielding maniac (given Greppin’s criminal insanity, the tale could have misdirected the reader by presenting imagined dialogue from the dead relatives). But what is even more plainly evident in this tale of deadly obsession is Bradbury’s literary debt to Edgar Allan Poe (the climactic break-in by policeman and discovery of the viewpoint character’s crimes parallels the endings of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”). As the deranged Greppin also anticipates Psycho‘s Norman Bates, “The Smiling People” falls squarely within a tradition of American Gothic horror and thus stands as a historically significant work within the Bradbury oeuvre.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Tombstone”

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“The Tombstone” (1945)

Bradbury offers a wonderfully offbeat premise: a carved headstone found sitting in the middle of a rented room in an apartment house. Turns out, the previous occupant, Mr. Whetmore was an “apprentice marble-cutter” who botched his first commission, mistakenly spelling the decedent’s name as “White” instead of “Whyte.” A perfectionist with an inferiority complex, Whetmore became so upset by his erroneous etching that he ran off that morning and left the tombstone behind (now the landlord is in the process of arranging its removal).

Despite this perfectly rational explanation for the object’s presence in the room, Leota seizes the opportunity to act superstitious and deliberately “frustrate” her husband Walter (whom she resents for his air of superiority and penchant for “spoiling her fun”). Leota treats Mr. White’s marker as an actual gravesite (placing cut flowers in front of the tombstone) and carries on that the late figure is haunting the room (in vain, Walter tries to explain to his wife that the muffled voice heard through the floorboards is that of the man in the room directly below them). At story’s end, Whetmore comes knocking and happily retrieves his abandoned handiwork. By “the most astonishing stroke of luck,” he has found someone who can make use of the “White” tombstone. He promptly ventures one floor down, presenting the marker to Mrs. White (whose pneumonic husband has passed away in the room below). To Leota and Walter’s shock, they have been living above a dead man this night after all.

The climax of “The Tombstone” is too coincidental to satisfy in dramatic terms, and the “shivering” (of Leota and Walter) in the closing paragraph doesn’t elicit the same fearful reaction from the reader. But the piece is noteworthy for the marked antagonism between wife and husband. Already in our revisiting of Dark Carnival, we have seen Bradbury depict unhappily married couples (“The Jar”; “The Lake”), and we will witness such character types again in the collection. In retrospect, “The Tombstone” highlights Bradbury’s strong influence on the horror genre, as the Constant Reader of Stephen King (and his many tales where the road trip of a bickering husband and wife takes a turn for the weird) would doubtless recognize.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Maiden”

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“The Maiden” (1947)

She was wondrous fair. She filled his eyes and he looked at her continually and was in love with her. Tall she was, and beautiful, with the morning sun on her. Tall she was, and stately of limb, and she worked for him. He knew her every whim, he did. And he stroked and made love to her, but stayed out of her reach. He knew what she could do to men she loved to well.

An anonymous POV character fixates on a “maiden fatale.” In his eyes, the wanton object of his affection clearly has a mean streak: “Sadist that she was,” he thinks, “she loved anyone she could get hold of.” Halfway through this brief piece (which today would be classified as flash fiction), Bradbury reveals that the man is an executioner and the title “character” is actually a guillotine. At narrative’s end, the weary executioner lets the maiden’s terror reign down on him, offering himself up to a graphic decapitation.

The sexual explicitness–a quality that Bradbury isn’t exactly known for–of “The Maiden” is striking (in the final line, Bradbury writes: “a sexual spout of red blood jutted from his sundered neck; and the two of them, he and she of the blade, lay together in that scarlet orgasm even as the first star appeared…”). But while the story does warrant a quick reread to note the clever hints that the author sprinkled in (e.g. “the long line of her face”), “The Maiden” provides diminishing returns once the reader knows its semi-shocking secret. So it’s hardly surprising that this slight effort was never collected again by Bradbury after first appearing in Dark Carnival, and remained out of print for more than four and a half decades before Marvin Kaye included it in his theme anthology Lovers and Other Monsters.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Lake”

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“The Lake” (1944)

The title conjures images of summertime amusement, but this is a story that determinedly defies expectations. Bradbury sets the piece in late September, when the lakeshore is depopulated and a sense of “the lonely autumn” has begun to take hold. Boarded-over hot-dog stands suggest “a series of coffins,” and the merry-go-round has been “hidden with canvas, all of the horses frozen in mid-air on their brass poles, showing teeth, galloping on. With only the wind for music, slipping through canvas.” Such ominous autumn atmosphere forecasts Something Wicked This Way Comes, indicating that the dark-carnival train was tracking through Bradbury’s imagination from an early age.

In “The Lake,” Bradbury plays with the conventions of the ghost story. His adolescent narrator mourns the loss of childhood friend/crush Tally, who used to build sandcastles with him but drowned in the lake the previous summer. A decade later, the narrator (now a married man) returns from California to visit the Illinois town where he was born, but as he walks the streets of Lake Bluff, he appears to have mortality on his mind (he’s “filled up inside with all those memories, like leaves stacked for autumn burning”). The hitherto-unrecovered corpse of Tally washes up, seemingly only after performing a ritual act: the narrator discovers a half-built sandcastle on the shore, as well as “small prints of feet coming in from the lake.” But the tonality of the narrative marks this as a more solemn than thrilling turn of events–hardly evidence of some dreadful revenant at large. Ultimately, “The Lake” is concerned less with Tally’s life after death than with the narrator’s death-in-life. He did not perish alongside Tally on that fateful day years earlier, but has drowned himself in nostalgia ever since. Viewing the girl’s strangely preserved corpse, the narrator thinks: “She is still small. She is still young. Death does not permit growth or change. She still has golden hair. She will be forever young and I will love her forever, oh God, I will love her forever.”

A poignant and haunting Weird Tale, “The Lake” (like the collection-opening “Homecoming”) furnishes early proof that Bradbury was much more than a pulp fiction writer. The author himself recognized it as his first great story; by striking upon the approach of mining childhood memories and then refining the ore by mixing elements of fantasy with autobiography, Bradbury mapped out his future as a wordsmith. As biographer Sam Weller notes, “the themes of the story would one day become classic Bradbury motifs–nostalgia, loneliness, lost love, and death.” Bradbury’s narrator might avow (as he turns away at tale’s end so as not to watch the waves take the sandcastle) that “all things crumble,” but this instant-classic of a literary construction has certainly stood the test of time.