“How swiftly a crowd comes… like the iris of an eye closing in out of nowhere.”
Note: this post contains spoilers…
Mr. Spallner, this story’s protagonist, is involved in an automobile accident. Though hurt and dazed, his injuries are not life-threatening. He is conscious enough to notice the details of his surroundings – particularly that, in a location that was deserted moments before, a crowd had gathered “out of nowhere” to surround him. He notices too that the tires of his now upside-down car are still spinning “with senseless centrifuge.”
Someone in the crowd says “Is he dead?” And another one answers, “No, he’s not dead.” And another, “He won’t die. He’s not going to die.” It sounded to this reader like the crowd was disappointed. Spallner has his suspicions too, although he realizes he may have been dazed after the accident, there is something strange about the crowd.
He discusses his fears and observations with several people, first his attending doctor when he awakens two days later in the hospital, then a cab driver, then his friend, Morgan. All of them challenge his idea that there was something sinister in the crowd, yet all of them have also witnessed the phenomenon of how quickly a crowd appears at accidents. The cabbie sums it up as “Same way with a fire or explosion. Nobody around. Boom. Lotsa people around. I dunno.” It is primarily the speed at which the crowd gathers that is eating at Spallner. He tells his doctor that they were there in thirty seconds. The doctor suggests it “was probably more or like three or four minutes” since Spallner’s senses were disordered by the accident.
Spallner knows better, though. Why? Because he remembers that, when HIS crowd was there, the tires on his car were STILL SPINNING. They wouldn’t have been spinning for three or four minutes. Friction would have slowed them down much faster than that. Sometimes the (natural) laws of physics conspire to reveal or confirm the supernatural, eh? An interesting idea…
Riding in a cab, he witnesses another accident and is certain he sees some of the faces in that accident’s crowd that he saw at his own accident. When visiting his friend Morgan in an office building, their talk is interrupted by the sound of a car crash on the street below. Again, Spallner thinks, the crowd includes some of the same faces. Not all, of course, but some.
He does some detailed research in archived newspaper clippings and photos of accidents over the years and sees the same people over and over. They are always the same age. They are always in the same clothing. They are always in the crowd. He shows his findings to his friend Morgan and says he is going to take them to the police.
“Do you think they’ll believe you?”
“Oh, they’ll believe me all right!”
Spallner begins driving very carefully to the police station. Not carefully enough, however, as he is involved in another “accident”….
How did I learn about this story? Well, back in March a local library branch had a day honoring Ray Bradbury, with a couple talks or presentations by Jonathan Eller, the director of the “Center for Ray Bradbury Studies” located here in town at IUPUI (that’s “Indiana University -Purdue University Indianapolis”). Mr. Eller, who knew Bradbury personally and is also his biographer, shared many photos and stories about the author. One memorable photo to me was of his family’s small house in Los Angeles (maybe “cottage” is the better word). It was located right next to one of the local power company’s substations, and one photo showed the window of the room where Bradbury did his writing, which looked out at this structure. One can easily imagine the author’s imagination humming right along with the audible drone from that station…
<below: Ray Bradbury memorabilia on display at the library>
Eller shared many anecdotes about Bradbury stories. The one that piqued my interest, though, was of how Bradbury – who never learned to drive – witnessed a horrible accident in 1934 Los Angeles while walking on what was moments before a seemingly abandoned street. A woman victim of the accident even died while Bradbury was tending to her. Obviously such a traumatic event would leave quite an impression on anyone, and for Bradbury his amazement at how quickly a crowd gathered led to this story.
<below: the first volume of Eller’s Biography of Ray Bradbury>
Of course this is just one of many many great short stories by this prolific writer. Which ones have you read that are your favorites? (I’m still working my way through the collection “The Illustrated Man” and have a couple of his stories on my list for my 2013 edition of my annual short story reading project.)
(below outside the Irvington Branch of the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library system. I used to live right across the street, just out of the picture to the right…)
<we even got to listen to Bradbury’s own voice – it was a “super fascinating” day!>
(Below, the power substation located next to Bradbury’s house in Los Angeles. As Jonathan Eller wrote me when forwarding this picture: “Imagine seeing this at night, with the sub station machinery lights glowing through the tinted windows. Creative energy as tangible metaphor.”)