Saturday, October 29, 2011

Countdown: Ray Bradbury's Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories--#2

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

#2."The Illustrated Man" (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales)

Bradbury takes us behind the scenes of a traveling carnival in this 1950 tale.  Disgusted with his own obesity and desperate to stay employed, tent man William Philippus Phelps opts to become the Tattooed Man.  He accordingly visits "a tattoo artist far out in the rolling Wisconsin country," a blind crone (forerunner of the Gypsy Dust-Witch in Something Wicked This Way Comes) who completely inks his skin.  She transforms him into an Illustrated Man, a marvel "alive with portraiture.  He looked as if he had dropped and been crushed between the steel rollers of a print press, and come out like an incredible rotogravure.  He was clothed in a garment of trolls and scarlet dinosaurs."

The old dust-witch informs William that she makes the tattoos "fit each man himself and what is inside him."  Also, two would-be tattoos--covered by bandages on his chest and back--have been left incomplete, and will develop from William's sweat and thought.  At the Big Unveiling of William's chest tattoo, though, a dire scene is revealed--of William strangling his shrill wife Lisabeth.

"The Illustrated Man" sports a wonderfully weird premise (irremovable, seemingly supernatural tattoos that form "Pictures of the Future").  The story also features a violent climax reminiscent of Tod Browning's controversial carnival-horror film Freaks.  Lisabeth (who despises her husband's grotesquerie) drives William to attack her in the very manner depicted by his disturbing chest tattoo.  The carnival's freaks are meanwhile drawn by the sound of argument, and William discovers them "waiting in the middle of the night, in the dry grass" outside his trailer.  When Lisabeth's murdered body is spotted, the gathered freaks proceed to chase down William and pummel him with the tent stakes they brandish.  Carnival justice is mercilessly served.

Amidst this lynching, the freshly-formed tattoo on William's back is uncovered, and the sight of it makes the bloodthirsty mob recoil in horror.  The story-concluding description of the tattoo offers a grim image of infinite regress: "It showed a crowd of freaks bending over a dying fat man on a dark and lonely road, looking at a tattoo on his back which illustrated a crowd of freaks bending over a dying fat man on a..."

Interestingly, unlike his novelistic counterpart Mr. Dark, William forms a somewhat sympathetic figure as the Illustrated Man.  His tragic fate leaves the reader wondering: was William destined to kill his mean-mouthed wife even if he never got tattooed, or did the eldritch dust-witch mark him with an image that caused his eventual ruination?  But one thing is beyond question here: Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man" is a macabre masterpiece.

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