Sunday, October 23, 2011

Countdown: Ray Bradbury's Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories--#4

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#4."The Jar" (collected in The October Country)

Carousels, Ferris wheels, mirror mazes: Ray Bradbury has featured them all in his dark-carnival fiction, and in "The Jar," the author draws on the freak show staple of the pickled punk.  The story's protagonist, Charlie, purchases the titular object from the boss of a carnival traveling deep through the heart of Louisiana.  Charlie has been utterly captivated by the enigmatic carcass preserved within the container.  As Bradbury writes in the incredible opening paragraph:
It was one of those things they keep in a jar in the tent of a sideshow on the outskirts of a little, drowsy town.  One of those pale things drifting in alcohol plasma, forever dreaming and circling, with its peeled, dead eyes staring out at you and never seeing you.  It went with the noiselessness of late night, and only the crickets chirping, the frogs sobbing off in the moist swampland.  One of those things in a big jar that makes your stomach jump as it does when you see a preserved arm in a laboratory vat.
The jar is placed on the mantle on Charlie's home, and the farmer's rural neighbors soon make a habit of coming to visit so that they can get a good look at the contents.  A quintessential conversation piece, the jar prompts the gathered folk to speculate about the nature of the thing floating within.  Their theories range from the ridiculous to the sublime, yet every observer seems to sense a deeper significance: "From the shine of their eyes one could see that each saw something different in the jar, something of the life and the pale life after life, and the life in death and the death in life."

Bradbury opts for an E.C.-Comics-style ending, with Charlie filling the jar with the decapitated head of his heckling, cuckolding wife.  But by closing the narrative with a repetition of the opening paragraph, the author demonstrates that his concerns lie more with profundity than shock value.  The bracketing effect created by the reiterated paragraph underscores the notion that Bradbury's story is itself a jar brimming with dark mystery.  And much like Charlie and company, readers can't help but to give this jar their rapt attention, even as their "secret fear juice" is frothed by it.

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