Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Lockdown Choices - Issue #1: Dark Carnival

With the whole world in COVID-19 lockdown, and with it being the centenary year of Ray Bradbury, I toyed with the idea of starting a podcast to give Bradbury fans something to listen to. And then I started recording one, unscripted, and decided it might be too painful for human ears to listen to...

Instead, I thought, I could just get back into the habit of blogging regularly. Now, there's a novelty.

So welcome to the first in a new series of posts, my Lockdown Choices. In these posts, I will cover each of Ray Bradbury's books, say something about the contents, then pick the best stories: some will be chosen because they're damned good stories; and others will be chosen because they resulted in a damned fine adaptation.

(Note to self: there's going to be a Bradbury book which contains not a single adapted story. Deal with that issue when it arises.)


Lockdown Choice #1: Dark Carnival

First edition, Arkham House 1947.

The Book

Dark Carnival was Ray Bradbury's first book, a collection of dark fantasy tales published by the legendary Arkham House in 1947.  It collected twenty-seven stories, most of which had appeared earlier in Weird Tales magazine. There were also six previously unpublished stories. Any one of those "new" stories would have made the book worth buying.

It's worth pausing for a moment to reflect on Bradbury's success in Weird Tales. In 1943, when he was twenty-three years old, Bradbury appeared three times in that magazine. In 1944, five times. Three times in 1945 and 1946, and twice in 1947. That's a remarkable track record, in what was undoubtedly Bradbury's most prolific period.

The excited reader (of this blog) might at this point go running off to the interwebs to find where they can buy a copy of this wonderful book, which collects so much of Bradbury's early writing. But hold your horses. You'll need big money. First editions of Dark Carnival sell for upwards of $350, and the truncated UK edition published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948 isn't much cheaper.

Why should this be? Well, partly because it's an old book from a relatively minor publisher. But partly, too, because there never was a second edition. The Arkham edition, the UK edition, and that's it. Until fifty years later, when a limited edition came out - but more on that below.

It's not that Dark Carnival didn't sell enough for there to be any other editions. It's all down to Bradbury himself. He decided to re-write some of the stories; to refine the whole package; and his preferred versions of the stories came out in 1955 as The October Country. You can still get The October Country today, and it's never been out of print. But Dark Carnival was allowed by Bradbury to slip into relative obscurity.

Until 2001, that is, and the aforementioned limited edition. This came from Gauntlet Press, and came with Ray's blessing. Gauntlet also issued a CD of an interview with Ray, where he talked about some of the stories. But Ray was never interested in having any kind of mass-market reissue of Dark Carnival.


The Stories

There's no question, some of Bradbury's finest stories are found in this collection. The acclaimed "Homecoming", which established Ray's "family". The much adapted and endlessly fascinating "The Jar". The much imitated but seldom bettered "The Small Assassin", in which a paranoid mother who thinks her baby is out to get her - turns out... to be right. And "The Next in Line", one of Ray's Mexican stories, set amid the mummy-filled catacombs of Guanajuato.

My personal picks from Dark Carnival are these:

"Skeleton" - part horrifying, part humorous, this is the story of a man who one day realises that inside him is... a skeleton. As with so many of the Dark Carnival stories, this is about paranoia. And as with "The Small Assassin" (and "The Wind" and "The Crowd") the paranoid central character is vindicated: there really is something out to get them. In the case of "Skeleton", it's the mysterious figure of M.Munigant, the bone specialist whose interest in bones is not quite what you might expect.

Bradbury said that this story was inspired by something that actually happened to him:

I went to my doctor with a sore throat, and I said, “Would you look in there? It feels kind of funny all around.”

He looked at my throat, and he says, “Oh, it’s a little red. It’s normal.” He says, “You know what you’re suffering from?”

And I said, “No. What?”

He says, “You’re suffering from a bad case of discovery of the
larynx.”

And I said, “What he’s saying, in other words…he’s saying it’s all normal.” And I went out of there feeling all of my bones.

And he said, “Well, you’ve got all kinds of bones in your body you’ve never noticed. Maybe you haven’t felt the medulla, or the bone on the end of your knee, here, the knee cap, that moves around if you get it in a certain position.”


From "Sum and Substance: With Ray Bradbury and Herman Harvey", 1962.
Quoted in Steven Aggelis, Conversations with Ray Bradbury.

"The Crowd" - one of Ray's finest compositions, in my humble opinion. It hinges on a character who becomes intrigued by the crowd that gathers around a car crash. Later, he witnesses another crash - and sees the same crowd. Not just the same type of crowd, but the exact same one - and: "There was a vast wrongness to them. He couldn't put his finger on it." Investigating, he finds that this crowd has been around for a very, very long time. Eventually, our hero himself is in a car crash...

"The Crowd" is one of the stories which Bradbury revised for Dark Carnival, and the revised version is all the stronger for it. Jon Eller and Bill Touponce's book Ray Bradbury: the Life of Fiction reproduces a short passage of the revised version side-by-side with the original text, and you can see here how Ray adds a vivid metaphor of an explosion happening in reverse, coupled directly to Spallner, the centrally character. And note also how he italicises the last word of the last sentence in the passage, making so much difference to how we read both the sentence and the passage.

Excerpt from "The Crowd": original Weird Tales text (left) and revised Dark Carnival text (right). From Eller & Touponce, Ray Bradbury: the Life of Fiction (Kent State University Press, 2004, p.72).


"The Scythe" - I found this story both creepy and unnerving when I first read it in my teens, and it still packs a powerful wallop today. A family takes over a farm; the man goes out to cut the wheat; his family die. And he keeps on doing it. He is the grim reaper, if you like. Bradbury wrote this story during wartime (it was first published in July 1943), and in the view of Bradbury scholar Bill Touponce he "expands the traditional figure [the grim reaper] to include all the horrors of modern mechanised warfare".

Bradbury's friend Leigh Brackett - herself a successful writer of science fiction, fantasy and Hollywood screenplays (The Big Sleep, The Empire Strikes Back to name but two) - wrote the opening five hundred words of "The Scythe", apparently because Bradbury was struggling to provide the appropriate narrative frame for the story. But bear in mind that the story was revised by Bradbury for Dark Carnival, and so it is difficult in the currently-available version of the story to see the "join".


"The Lake" - my final pick from Dark Carnival is the story which Bradbury said really established him as a writer. In his own mind, that is. It's a really haunting story of a man who returns to a lake familiar from his childhood, where one of his closest friends lost her life. Now, after many years, her body washes ashore. It's frightening and heartbreaking, and I'll say no more about it. If you haven't read it yet: go! Read it now!


The Adaptations

For a book that is out of print, there is an astonishing amount of proven source material for media adaptation here. More than half of these stories (fourteen to be exact) were adapted by Bradbury himself for his TV series The Ray Bradbury Theater. Other adaptations appeared on TV in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And on radio, multiple stories were turned into episodes of Bradbury Thirteen and the BBC series Tales of the Bizarre.

The clear winner in terms of number of adaptations is "The Jar". This one story has been dramatised at least four times, and it works both on TV and on radio. The concept is simple: a man acquires a jar from a carnival sideshow, and inside is... Well, no one can quite tell. The waters in the jar are somewhat murky. Clearly there's something in there, and it might even be moving around, but...

The best adaptation to date has to be the 1964 Hitchcock Hour version, adapted by James Bridges and directed by Norman Lloyd. In this one, the family in possession of the jar sit around it and stare - just as we can imagine the TV viewers of the time would have been doing when it first aired.

Find Out More...

Find out more about Dark Carnival on my page about the book, here.
Learn more about "The Jar" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on my page about that show, here.

Listen...


The first of the Dark Carnival stories to be adapted to another medium was "The Crowd". Click here to listen to Suspense from 1950, with Dana Andrews in the lead role.

And if you really, really want to hear me in a podcast, you can find my guest appearances on other people's pods here!


Next Up...

The next of my Lockdown Choices will be Bradbury's second book: The Martian Chronicles.