Weird #38: “‘It’s a ‘Good’ Life'” by Jerome Bixby (1953)

A child with haunting eyes sits of a flickering television screen before a crowd of adults and you don’t know what he’ll do next. If this image is even vaguely familiar to you, you’ve likely come across a reference to Jerome Bixby’s “’It’s a Good Life.’”

Anthony is a child with godlike telekinetic powers, but the reader only becomes aware of the extent of them gradually. At first they seem harmless, like how he catches a rat by making “it think that it had smelled cheese.” He doesn’t create a cheese-like smell to lure out the rat—he simply wills it, and the rat thinks it smells cheese.

Later, when he bores of playing with it, he makes it eat itself.

His parents and the rest of the townsfolk walk on eggshells around him. The boy must never be exposed to anything he finds unpleasant, or terrible things will happen to those who express even the slightest negativity. Everyone in the village has learned to say, “It’s a good day” even though it is a terrible, unpredictable day that is always at the mercy of Anthony and his slightest whim.

Bixby shows Anthony’s power subtly, never revealing more than the characters already take for granted about him. It is once mentioned that a wheat surplus had to be thrown over the edge of town or “nobody could have breathed, when it started to spoil.” By hints such as this, it is revealed the town exists in a kind of snowglobe cut off from the rest of the world because, at the moment of his birth, Anthony made the rest of the world outside the town disappear.

The truth is that, in his own mind, Anthony is just misunderstood. He only wants things to be pleasant and to feel good helping people and animals. He has a special place in a cornfield where he plays, satisfying the cravings and desires of any critter who comes to visit with but a thought: a little bit of water, some shade–anything the animals need, he provides like a benevolent god.

What is perhaps most unsettling about this story is the way the townspeople must create a sense of normalcy through their “It’s a good day” mantra. Telepathic Anthony observes how this produces a “jumble” of “mixed up and confusing” thoughts. To survive, the townspeople must maintain a sunny outlook, while suppressing their horror at their inescapable situation.

This aspect of the story reminded me of nothing so much as the “This is Fine,” the meme (shown below) in which a cartoon dog sits at a table with a coffee while his house burns down around him. This meme is often used to comment on how we normalize doom, especially around issues like forest fires, rising sea levels, civil unrest, the pandemic, the threat of nuclear war, and the number of the current year. For the townspeople, “It’s a good day” is not simply denialism or burying one’s head in the sand but a matter of survival. One must literally pretend things are normal, even splendid, to survive Anthony. The story portrays how the townspeople suppress their emotions and their anxiety at being cut off from the world (as many of us were during the pandemic!). It also shows how they police each other’s outbursts of angst, only to fail, when someone slips and Anthony does something “terrible” to them.

Wikipedia commons

Adapted for The Twilight Zone and apparently referenced in a multitude of cartoons, this story is a classic of weird fiction and, for any writers out there, it is a master class in studying how to slowly reveal the full horror of a situation to the reader.

Next week, I will be reading “Mister Taylor” by Augusto Monterroso (1952), a Guatemalan writer who, like Gabriel García Márquez, was part of the Latin American Boom.

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