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.”
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.
Next week I will be turning to William Samsom’s story “The Long Sheet” (1944).
The letters, the opening of Ray Bradbury’s seminal dystopian novel, glimmered flatly on my Kobo screen as I realized the irony of what I was doing. I realized swiftly that the battle of digital media versus print is a central point that burns down in Fahranheit 451. I will present to you my reflections on this question: Do Kobo readers create a real dystopia similar to the one in Fahrenheit 451?
Guy Montag, the protagonist, is a fireman. In Bradbury’s future in which all houses and buildings have been fireproofed, that means he sets fires, instead of putting them out. In effect, the firemen are the ideological police of their world, burning books in great bonfires of literature. Only fragments of the past survive–and Montag’s inner journey will lead him to discover more about that past world than his fellow firemen will dare allow.
Written during the turbulent McCarthy era in which supposed communists were hunted like witches and artists censored for their views, Fahrenheit 451 invokes myriad other historical instances of heresy and censorship. Whether it’s the Inquisition burning books placed on the Vatican’s infamous Index or the Nazis’ burning of tomes written by Jews, socialists, and other voices of opposition, burnings have been notorious throughout history. Though those who burn defend themselves by saying they are protecting “culture,” it is plain to others that burning books is antithetical to the fostering of culture.
I believe it was Neil Gaiman who said, “Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism.” An apt point when taken in the context of Ray Bradbury. (To read Gaiman’s tribute to Ray Bradbury, which he wrote upon his death in 2012, click here. For the Guardian article, click here.)
But burning is only one example of society’s dystopianism in Bradbury’s novel: there are also Seashells—basically a 1950s conception of what would eventually become earbuds for your iPod/MP3 player—and full-wall television screens. Bradbury never imagined in his novel the numerous computers currently in existence, and certainly not the distracting potential of social media websites, or the Internet in general, but he did get the sense that Western society was being bombarded by visual/auditory stimulation that would only get more intense and distracting. Whether the book burnings or media bombardment are more effective at creating Bradbury’s dystopia is a debatable point. I say the two go hand in hand.
Bradbury saw the transition from print media to the dominance of visual and digital media. In essence, Fahrenheit 451 is about that fundamental change in culture taken to an extreme. So I suppose it must be an ironic book to read on a Kobo, a digital platform. Am I a traitor to Bradbury’s ideals if I read his novel on a Kobo? I certainly hope not. But reading it on a Kobo did influence my experience of this novel in a way that underlines its theme, revealing some subtle effects in my reading experience that may, perhaps, be troubling.
For starters, I read the novel a whole lot faster, I suspect, than if I had had a physical copy on hand. Flipping the pages was easy; I just had to touch the right-hand side of the screen with my thumb. Furthermore, I could change the font and margins to enable faster reading and page turning. Reading it on the bus and metro also made it necessary to read faster in order to finish at a good spot to leave off whenever I would make a transfer. While reading the novel on a bus may appear to be a factor external to the digital experience, it was also the situation in which I feel most natural reading a Kobo.
Secondly, it was harder to browse through Fahrenheit 451 on my Kobo. While with physical book, you can open it randomly in the middle of the book and flip through the pages, you cannot do that on a digital book–at least not until an appropriate “page flipping” interface is designed and put into future models. Though the search function enables a certain amount of ease in finding passages, navigation forces you on a more linear path while flipping through the book beginning-to-end. This makes Kobo great for airport novels that you read through once and don’t bother with again, but less good for nonfiction and novels that you want to examine closely. As a literature student and book reviewer, I have a beef with this limitation.
Lastly, you cannot make comments on a Kobo easily, or write in the margins. Yes, you can make bookmarks. But to label the bookmarks effectively, you must leave the ebook and do a lot of back-and-forthing. If you have installed Calibre on your computer, you can make comments on your computer, but I was not able do this on my Kobo, even though the highlighting function says you can supposedly do this.
While these three points can potentially be fixed by developers, at present my Kobo makes a certain type of reading of Fahrenheit 451 easier rather than other types. And that type of reading says a lot about our society and the society in Fahrenheit 451.
Kobo is good for straight-through reading, for example, while on a bus: a way to quickly read a book that does not take up too much physical space. It is a portable library—a personal “bastion of civilization” that you can bring around with you. However, Kobo makes it difficult to read a book that you dearly love with the attention it deserves. Due to this limitation, “Kobo reading” is a kind of reading that is complicit to an extent with the hasty, media-overwhelmed, lower-attention span world that Bradbury warns us about.
Kobo rushes us along a highway (often when actually travelling on a highway), rather than allowing us to stroll, to stop, and to think.
In a way, this makes Kobo reading analogous the fast cars so prevalent in Bradbury’s utopia. Traditional readers are like pedestrians—people like Clarisse, the strange teenager Montag meets who walks on sidewalks asking “why?” and “how?” about things she sees. But Clarisse is later killed by a fast car, which bear no regard to pedestrians. Whereas Kobos have you rush through a book, traditional reading can be like a stroll through the suburbs—it involves a lot of stopping, smelling of roses, observation, and above all, opinion-forming.
Fahrenheit 451 is all about how media saturation, passive consumption, and a fast-paced society makes it harder to become a dissident of society and its ideology—not just about burning literature, but by ensuring new books are never written. Since we are all kept happy by comsumption and reassured that the world will take care of itself, we find less and less reason to challenge that order. But the “pursuit of happiness” cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of human existence: sometimes it is necessary to become disturbed, in order to make social change.
Outlawing literature and pedestrianism are two ways in which Bradbury’s society silences dissidence; it destroys opinions formed in the past and makes it difficult to develop opinions in the present. It is therefore not always necessary to burn in order to silence a heretic; an Inquisition founded on pleasure instead of torture is far more effective at domination.
And reading about such a dystopia on a Kobo forces you to become aware of the fact that how you read depends on where you read it, and in what format. Our consummerist society has made it harder to read books critically by developing ebook interfaces that do not promote critical and nonlinear reading styles. Physical books represent a freer way of reading. If all books end up going digital, our society will become closer than ever before to Bradbury’s dystopia.
“War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On earth, a century ago, in the year 2020, they outlawed our books.” -Edgar Allen Poe, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”
Edgar Allan Poe fights rocket men on a Mars mission to annihilate everything fantastic or non-realistic, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles.” Bradbury’s short story stands with Fahrenheit 451 as a grim chronicle of a dystopian world where imagination is prohibited, even to the point of it being considered a mental disorder. In these worlds, fantasy—the ability to imagine realities other than the “consensus”—is outlawed, exiled, and, ultimately, considered heretical.
One fascinating question arises out of how Bradbury saw the role of fantasy literature in this future world. Is fantasy heretical? More specifically, does the literary mode or genre we refer to commonly as “fantasy” hold any innate capacity to oppose the dominant, orthodox “consensus” understanding of truth and reality? If there is such a capacity, what does it mean fantasy-as-heresy can do? And if it is not true that fantasy is heretical, why is it not?
“Fantasy itself is heretical. It denies what everyone knows to be the truth. And, if you’re lucky, the untruth shall make you free.” These words may sound counter-intuitive, even a little Nietzsche-esque, but they are part of Brian Attebery‘s argument for fantasy’s subversive potential in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” (11).
Since it accepts the non-real, fantasy can say that “reality is a social contract, easily avoided” (10). Indeed, most fantasy novels contain an element of escape from the humdrum of modern-day, middle-class North American life (or whatever is your current milieu). While fantasy can slip into “escapism,” what escape does for readers is break the jail cell bars which contain us within the accepted reality that we accede to ever day. It demonstrates that out world is “a fluke, a localized and temporary aberration” (10). I like to think of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane saying that the world we know as our own is only the icing on a much larger and much deeper cake, lying just under the surface of things.
The slightly more dangerous and “most profound political statement that fantasy can make is to let the Other become a self” (10). Fantasists write from the point of view of aliens, animals, and other fantastic creatures—and analogously, other human cultures right here on earth. In fantasy, “the past threatens to break into the present, colonies become capitals, and the natural world takes revenge on civilization” (10).
The way fantasy novels do this is clearly evident. Epic fantasy, for starters, is almost completely based on the ways in which the past interferes with the present, and novels such as Ysabelby Guy Gavriel Kay do this in a twentieth-century our-world setting. And how subversive would the Ents of Fangorn be, if they waged a crusade against Amazon rainforest deforestation? In our globally-warmed world, the whole Mayan apocalypse craze was partially a result of our fear of nature’s vendetta against our race, and that surely inspired a few fantasy stories. On the subject of decolonization, I need go no further than Kay’s other novel Tigana in order to indicate a subversive book: a tale of rebels who overthrow the yoke of foreign domination in order to restore their nation’s identity. This belongs not only to the mythic history of the USA and France, but also to Ireland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque regions in Spain, and Communist East Europe.
Choose any binary: man/woman, dark/light, subject/object, self/society, victor/victim, man/nature, past/present, self/other: fantasy gains its subversive, heretical edge by showing us the “other,” by presenting both sides of the coin, and thus challenging us, whether we choose heads or tails. Even when an author such as C.S. Lewis attempts to reinforce a worldview—Christian orthodoxy—Attebury argues that the fantastic frame “resists any kind of orthodoxy” (11). Fantasy has infinite possibilities, which makes any limitations upon those possibilities (the “rules” of the secondary world) contrast with what lies beyond those boundaries, letting us question what set those limitations in the first place.
Why is Aslan a lion, we might ask, and not, say, a dragon? Lewis’ choice reveals Aslan’s significance as a symbol for the “Lion of Judah,” Jesus Christ. At the same time as Christian orthodoxy is reinforced, the fantastic elements in Narnia—such as witches, centaurs, and giants—recall a more pagan world, the other side of the coin. Even a fascistic fantasy that reinforces a certain ideology or orthodoxy will be subverted, argues Attebery, because the possibility of asking, “What else?” remains. There will always be another side, an “other” that the fantasy implies exists.
Since fantasy brings down the orthodox, it is intrinsically heterodox, which is a fancy way of saying “heretical.” Attebery is not alone in drawing conclusions like this. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion observes a similar phenomenon. For her, fantasy (defined more as a left-wing absurdist type of literature than post-Tolkien generic fantasy, which she viewed as too conservative and conventional) is a literature of desire that can thwart dominant understandings of reality.
Which brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe in his Martian exile. The dominant orthodoxy of the rocket men eventually triumphs over Poe, when the captain burns the pages of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Land of Oz, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the last copies in the universe. Bradbury’s short story gains its power from the binary contrast between the world of the imagination and the world of science and progress that the rocket men represent. Even though the rocket men triumph and they see that “there’s no one here at all” in the now-emptiness of Mars, the fantastic remains in the unconscious. One man who sees the fall of the city of Oz must report for psychoanalysis. Although orthodoxy might presume to establish itself over all the universe, the fantastic remains in the mind, as an “other” understanding of reality, a heterodoxy.
Imagining other worlds and other heterodox realities is not, of course, a phenomenon limited to fantastic fiction. Any heretic who opposes orthodoxy must have an imagination. In fact, we can further explore how imagining other worlds can be subversive by looking at one sixteenth-century heretic: Giordano Bruno.
Bruno is best known for championing a Copernican understanding of the universe. While this was not precisely the reason for his condemnation as a heretic, it nonetheless presented an alternate understanding of the universe’s order. Humans were no longer the center of the universe after Copernicus’ theories gained acceptance. The “self” had become an “other.” Interestingly, Attebery writes that we can understand fantasy as “the meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10) The whole Copernican debate was also fueled by the very tension between empiricism and the traditional church teachings.
One of the actual reasons that Bruno was burned was that he asserted that Jesus could not have been God: since God, as he saw it, was infinite, it was impossible for infinity to become incarnate in a finite, human form. In my personal opinion, this leaves out the following possibility: in the infinite possibilities of the universe, such a thing could perhaps be possible. Nonetheless, Bruno was also one of the first to champion the idea that there might exist other worlds (such as Mars!) beyond our own, that the universe did not end, but stretched on to infinity. Implicitly, (the following is also my own thought) there are infinite possibilities to reality, no matter how fantastic they might seem to us. Whatever exists in our imagination could exist (we do hope!) somewhere out there.
Giordano Bruno’s was the core of all heresies. By asserting that the universe was infinite and that human beings were not at the center, he challenged the dominant “consensus” reality of his day. An infinite universe has no boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Implying there are worlds and things that lie outside of any explanation orthodoxy can provide necessarily undercuts that orthodoxy. Furthermore, implying that there are infinite things outside those boundaries can render those boundaries insignificant. Bruno’s beliefs not only made him a heretic for denying Christ’s divinity, but his teaching of infinity also denied the very legitimacy of the word “heretic.”
Fantasy, like Bruno’s infinite universe, has endless possibilities. It can therefore subvert any distinction made to divide the universe into binaries, whatever they might be. Furthermore, Bruno’s philosophy suggests that everything is in the universe, whether or not you believe it is real. Science, the orthodoxy of today, does not believe in dragons or the Emerald City of Oz. But Bruno’s philosophy can imply that these places do exist, if not on Mars, then somewhere in the infinite.
So the universe contains everything that can fit under one’s distinctions, as well as everything that exists outside of it. White swans and black swans in equal measure. Your best dreams, and your worst nightmares.
Going back to our original question, I can now confirm that fantasy is intrinsically heretical. However, this does not mean that all fantasy novels go “against the system” or challenge our most profoundly held beliefs. What it does mean is that the element of fantasy, when placed even in a conservative fantasy novel, implicitly subverts the worldview put forward in its story, by opening up the possibilities of the novel to infinity.
Some fantasy literature (we can all imagine the names of a few culprits) has become so codified that board games such as Dungeons and Dragons suggest formulas for crafting genre narratives using a nearly automatized technique. Elves, half-elves, barbarians, bards, and paladins run amok fighting goblins, orcs, and trolls. What particularly scandalizes me about formula dictating a work of fantasy is that—however fun playing a game might be—the story runs counter to everything fantasy stands for.
Fantasy is for imagining other things, new things, things not yet imagined, or things that break the mold of the orthodoxies to which we all implicitly hold. The elves and orcs, which began as an imaginative escape from our boring everyday twentieth- or twenty-first-century life, have become the new prison for our imagination.
Fantasy abhors a prison. It is free spirit. Formulaic genre literature undoes itself when we recognize the boundlessness of the fantastic and ask, “Why is this land populated exclusively by elves, dwarves, humans, and orcs? Why not other things we can imagine?”
In fantasy as in infinity, everything is possible. The creed of the Assassins comes to mind: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Since everything in fantasy is permitted, it implies that what we assume to be true about the genre—and what we assume to be true about the universe—is not always so. Fantasy, a free radical, undoes whatever boundary lines the orthodox assumptions of society can set in its path.
In conclusion, I can confirm that fantasy itself is heretical. If it finds itself in a novel set by boundaries (and every work of fiction must have boundaries to exist), it breaks them. We may not intend this as authors. We may not pick up on it, as readers. But as soon as the windows to infinity are opened, the boundaries of the world we construct—either in the narrative of a story, or in the world in which we live—become exposed, and they are revealed for what they often are: arbitrary limitations. Faced with infinity, it becomes our duty to react. Do we stand by our current structures, definitions, and beliefs, or do we find some way of opening our mind to what we do not understand?
The tricky part of answering this question is that no matter what our answer is, we will always, at least implicitly, be forming a new orthodoxy in our minds—perhaps one more expansive, but still with its limits. A human mind cannot completely encompass infinity. Doctor Faustus tried that and failed miserably. However, if we are careful, fantasy is still a good thing: it’s work is never done, and in this world, the ability to help us press the boundaries of our imagination is a continual need.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 1-13.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Exiles.” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales With an Introduction by the Author. New York: HaperCollins, 2003.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.