Weird #30: “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury (1943)

Ray Bradbury’s weird tale “The Crowd” modernizes the weird tale by building a sense of paranoid, unreal conspiracy founded on a modern anxiety. In this respect, he is doing something that Johnson, Leiber, and Wollheim have also done, in their way. However, Bradbury enweirdens the city by basing the sense of conspiracy not on the supernatural or an exaggerated scientific phenomena but on a familiar, modern anxiety: the urban crowd.

Crowds are an interesting thing to think about these days, when many of us have not been inside one for months, or even for an entire year, owing to the social distancing restrictions designed to curb the pandemic. In the nineteenth century, when North American and European cities were rapidly industrializing and urbanizing, urban crowds were also a novelty, since rural residents were flocking to the cities for the first time to work at industrial jobs. It pays to remember that prior to those days, more people lived in the country, where crowds do not usually assemble in great size. In ancient and medieval times, even big cities would be considered small by today’s standards and vast crowds would have been very rare indeed.

The anxiety around crowds in the nineteenth century has inspired notable literary works, particularly Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” Literary theorists believe Poe’s story had an impact on the development of the detective story. Bradbury, a big fan of Poe (Poe even appears as a character in his story “The Exiles”), builds on this tradition.

Bradbury’s crowd is not a vast one. It is relatively small, consisting of a red-headed woman, a freckled boy, a old man with a wrinkled lip, and an old woman with a mole on her cheek. However, these characters are voyeurs who compulsively show up at the scenes of terrible accidents.

The story begins with a car crash. Mr. Spallner is tossed around and hurt. He feels funny and disoriented, when a crowd materializes. The people stand around gawking, asking each other about whether he is hurt–but not talking to him.

The crowd feels “wrong” (284), perhaps due to the intrusive sense of its voyeurism and its morbid curiosity. One memorable line that encompasses this feeling comes when Mr. Spallner first sees the crowd: “How swiftly a crowd comes …. like the iris of an eye compressing in out of nowhere” (284).

When they seem to think he’ll survive, he has sudden faith that he will not die. “And that was strange,” he thinks (284). Later, he reflects to his doctor that “the way they looked down at me, I knew I wouldn’t die…” (285), and though the doctor is dismissive, Mr. Spallner becomes paranoid about the people he saw in that crowd.

Gradually, he looks through newspapers at photos of accidents and finds that certain individuals have shown up at other scenes in the area. Ordinary rubber-neckers also show up in these crowds, but there is a vanguard are always “the first ones” on the scene of any catastrophic accident (287).

“They have one thing in common, they always show up together. At a fire or an explosion or on the sidelines of a war, at any public demonstration of this thing called death. Vultures, hyenas or saints. I don’t known which they are, I just don’t know.”

(287)

Bradbury expressed the central paradox of crowds in this passage: humans are never more isolated from each other than when thousands of them are packed so close together. The fact that this alienation exists is what makes such voyeurism possible.

Just as Poe’s narrator in “The Man of the Crowd” tries to investigate and trail one solitary member of the crowd, Mr. Spallner investigates a handful of his voyeurs, hoping to uncover, detective-like, a sign of their motivation. The voyeurism of Bradbury’s crowd also has clear applications to our twenty-first century, Tik-Tok and Instagram obsessed society: so often, the instinct of the bystander is not to call for help or intervene but to snap a photo for social media.

Mr. Spallner’s sense of conspiracy develops to the point where he believes the crowd determines who lives and who dies at the scene of any accident. Often, this is done by just “innocently” moving the body, which can result in damage to the neck or spine and thus death.

As fate would have it, Mr. Spallner gets into a second accident on his way to the police station. The crowd gathers around him a final time, moving him as he lies injured on the road. He is essentially assassinated to make sure their cult or conspiracy should continue to go unnoticed.

In the final moment of the story, it is hinted that the voyeurs may even be ghosts. Mr. Spallner last words are: “It –looks like I’ll be joining up with you. I — guess I’ll be a member of your — group — now” (289). But ultimately, the story remains vague about whether these figures are truly the undead. Perhaps the conspiracy was all in Spallner’s head, or perhaps not, but it is this sense of a vaguely defined conspiracy based on a modern anxiety that makes “The Crowd” such a fine example of modern weird fiction.

As a final note, I’m beginning to notice patterns in the narrative structure of the weird tales I’ve written about most recently, especially with Bradbury, Johnson, Leiber, and Wollheim. Since weird fiction is often about introducing the reader to a strange phenomenon that exists within the world they already know, most of these stories can be divided in three parts: 1) the main character’s initial encounter with the weird, in which it disrupts the normal world; 2) a period of learning and experimentation in which the main character attempts to understand the weird phenomena rationally; and 3) the ultimate unveiling of the weird phenomenon, which may result in the main character’s death. In this final stage, the mystery of the phenomenon and the limits of knowledge are revealed, leaving questions lingering afterward. In many ways, it follows the structure of the horror story as defined by John Clute in The Darkening Garden, a structure that also maps onto fantasy literature.

Weird fiction may owe something to detective fiction as well, since detective fiction is also about rationally trying to investigate and explain an unusual phenomenon. In this way, Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” and his Detective Dupin stories may have played a role, no less than his supernatural fiction, in the evolution of weird fiction.

Perhaps it is the influence of Weird Tales and the pulp markets that resulted in an effective, although formulaic narrative pattern to emerge in weird fiction. The weird tale seems to have gained a certain form that could be repeated for commercial purposes–part of the natural process for any commercial literary genre, detective fiction included, which also featured in pulps. It’s interesting to think of how a genre so closely tied to surrealism and breaking up norms could remain subversive in its content but develop a certain level of stability or even conservatism of form.

Ray Bradbury (Wikipedia)

Next week I will be turning to William Samsom’s story “The Long Sheet” (1944).

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