So I want to take a look at some stories that specifically freak me out in some way. This week, we’re looking at a tale by my favorite of favorites, Ray Bradbury. This spooky story is found in his collection of shorts titled The October Country. If you haven’t read this gem yet, do it…it’s filled with weird and wonderful stories that will make you think and shudder. Reading a Bradbury horror story is like missing the last stair when you’re going down a staircase – you don’t have far to fall, but that one moment is so disconcerting, so unnerving that you can’t help thinking “Oh my God!” His endings do that to me a lot…it may take a minute for all the implications to sink in, but then I have to force myself to not crawl up a wall.
One of my very favorite stories in this collection is The Next in Line. Marie and her husband Joseph are touring through Mexico, and Joseph wants to tour through the infamous catacombs where people who cannot afford rent on graves end up having to deposit the bodies of their loved ones to become mummies. Marie’s mind can’t tear itself away from the grisly site and she becomes obsessed with what it would be like to have that happen to her…what it would be like to have her body occupy the next empty space, to be wired to stand waiting in the dark for all eternity. Her fears and obsession with death also makes her wonder about her husband, who treats her paranoia more and more casually as the story goes along. As her mind goes into overdrive and her body nearly shuts down, there’s a really fabulous, desperate scene where all she wants is some comfort from her husband, but his inability to see or care about her worries drives her further and further into the dark. I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice it to say, it made me squirm.
The imagery is what really makes this piece. It plays a lot with light and shadows, and the sequence in the catacombs is so claustrophobic I find myself holding my breath when I read it. Bradbury treats his subject matter respectively, but he doesn’t pull punches describing the mummies. It’s not gory, mind you, but he goes into intricate detail and makes sure you know that these aren’t freaky props or masks…these were people once, just like you and me. Is it ever right to move people around – in life or in death – as if they don’t matter? Is it the ultimate humiliation to have your corpse become a tourist attraction?
I love the tension between Marie and Joseph, as well. It could be interpreted in so many ways – she’s clingy and he’s humoring her, he’s callous and she has to deal with the fallout, she’s slowly going mad and he has no idea…every way you try to spin this, it’s unnerving. The scene in the bedroom where they’re lying in bed and all she wants is some reassurance as her mind panics more and more and her heart beats faster and faster…and then doesn’t get it…that’s terrifying to me. To be with someone that you put your love and trust in, and then be just as alone as if no one was there with you, to the extent that they do what’s convenient and not what’s needed…that is truly frightening.