Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ray's Vectors: "Mr. Dark's Carnival"

[For the previous vector, click here.]

In its very title, Glen Hirshberg's 2000 novella (collected in The Two Sams: Ghost Stories) signals its allegiance to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Set in a modern-day prairie town on October 31st, the tale centers on "the legendary, mystery-shrouded Carnival-to-end-all-Carnivals."  As Hirshberg's college-professor narrator relates, Mr. Dark's Carnival is "the inspiration for all our Halloween festivities, the most celebrated attraction or event in the history of Clarkston, Montana."

None of the Halloween-loving folk of Clarkston are certain that Mr. Dark's Carnival ever even existed (nor does anyone know why it is actually labeled a carnival).  The life of the historical figure Albert Aloysius Dark ("Born God-knows-where, educated God-knows-where") is likewise cloaked in shadow.  Apparently the man was a late-19th Century judge with a penchant for handing out dubious guilty verdicts and then personally presiding over the hangings of the victims.  Such ghoulish reputation turns Judge Dark into the local bogeyman for later generations of Clarkstonians; he's reputed to drift around the prairie in his black robe, seizing on livestock and scaring to death anyone unfortunate enough to glimpse him.  When it comes to sinister, Bradbury's Illustrated Man has nothing on this Mr. Dark.

The novella's eponymous amusement proves more fright-filled funhouse than traditional carnival (although there is a wonderfully ghastly game-booth stationed in the yard).  Hirshberg puts the haunt in haunted attraction, but just when the reader thinks he/she has a handle on the situation and has safely navigated the narrative, the author gives a final turn of the screw that's no less chilling than the snow-swept prairie landscape the characters traverse.

"Mr. Dark's Carnival" is a classic work of Halloween literature, and ranks among the finest of homages to Bradbury's novel ever penned.  And muck like Something Wicked This Way Comes, it is a work that invites re-reading each year as late October is gripped in autumnal chill.

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