December 17, 2012
Where to Find It: The October Country, The Stories of Ray Bradbury
First Published: Dark Carnival
Plot Synopsis: A young American married couple travelling deep into Mexico is forced to stay overnight in the colonial town of Guanajuato. After visiting the catacombs that house the infamous “Mummies of Guanajuato,” the wife grows increasingly distrustful of her spouse and begins a decent into paranoia, fearing that she might become the next body put on display.
Backstory: In the autumn of 1945, Bradbury travelled with his friend Grant Beach by automobile through the jungles and small towns of Mexico. The friends visited the real life underground tomb that houses the bodies of the exhumed whose families failed to pay their cemetery dues. Bradbury was forever scarred by the images of the deceased, strung up and put on display. Strangely, because of soil conditions in the region, the bodies had been naturally preserved.
I asked Ray Bradbury once what was, in his mind, the scariest story he ever wrote. His answer was “The Next in Line.” Bradbury’s approach to the psychology of fear adhered to the “less is more” philosophy. That is, what is not seen is often far more frightening that what is. One of my students recently referred to this as “the zipper effect”—when a movie monster comes on screen and the audience can readily see the zipper in the suit. Bradbury always believed that Hitchcock had it right. “Fear is far more effective when it is like Chinese water torture,” he told me, “employed slowly, one drop at a time.”
“The Next in Line” was the last story Bradbury wrote for his first collection, 1947’s Dark Carnival. It is also the longest tale in the book and the most nuanced psychological study he’d published at this point in his career. The story addresses themes of marital discord and trust, fear of death, isolation and loneliness. The decent into madness Marie experiences reflects the madness inherent in so many works by Edgar Allen Poe, one of Bradbury’s most cherished literary influences. The story is awash in imagery of death, from coffins to catacombs to candy “Day of the Dead” skulls. And considering so much of Bradbury’s work is culled from real-life experiences, I am certain that the married couple is a reflection of Ray’s relationship with his friend Grant Beach. (Bradbury dedicated Dark Carnival to Beach.) As the friends travelled through Mexico, they bickered continuously and their relationship unraveled to the point where, on their return home, Beach tossed Ray’s typewriter into a river.