As much as I love the short story form, there have only been two short stories that I’ve ever immediately fallen in love with. My February story, “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, was one such story. And I’m proud to announce that the other story is my pick for That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for April 2009: “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury. (I have included a link to a full-text, book-preview version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
“The Crowd” begins with the protagonist, Mr. Spallner, getting into a horrible car accident. Although no one is around at the time of the accident, within thirty seconds an entire crowd has gathered around Spallner. He takes inventory of some of them: a woman with too much red lipstick, a boy with freckles, an old man with a wrinkled lip, and an old woman with a mole on her chin. And when they say to each other that everything will be fine–that he won’t die–he inexplicably believes them.
After recuperating in the hospital, Spallner returns to work and becomes obsessed with car accidents. Everywhere he goes, they seem to happen. He conducts some research and realizes, thanks to newspaper photographs, that the same people keep appearing at each accident, no matter where the accidents occur across town. And, not to Spallner’s surprise, they are the same people that were at his accident. And they seem to have some power over the crash victims. If the crowd touches a body, then the victim dies. If they leave the body alone–like they did to Spallner–then the victim lives. And Spallner is on to them. Now that the truth has been uncovered, the race is on to see if he can get to the police with his supernatural news…alive.
Before I can even talk about how “The Crowd” is written, it’s worth mentioning how much Bradbury’s material differs from each other. Many people are most familiar with his infamous novel Fahrenheit 451, which is a startling social commentary on literacy, laziness, and censorship. Many more are familiar with his novel-in-stories The Martian Chronicles, another social commentary, but regarding humanity’s destructive nature. But he didn’t always write with such social consciousness. His earliest work, including “The Crowd,” tended to read like Twilight Zone episodes: dark and haunting, with a supernatural kicker of an ending. Then he started to write more literary short stories, often integrating a bit of fantasy or science fiction. Then came those masterpieces: The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451.
So as much as people write off Bradbury as a sci-fi writer, he has proven himself way more versatile. While I prefer his more literary short stories, something about the haunting Twilight Zone-esque tale of “The Crowd” always gets me. Even though the story is written in third person, Bradbury’s writing is so infused with mystery and unease that we feel Spallner’s curiosity and paranoia. We don’t doubt that he’s uncovered some secret of the ages. We don’t think that he’s delusional, still recovering from a head injury resulting from his car accident. We are just as creeped out by these crowd members as Spallner is, and we’re rooting for him to get to the police station to expose them. Though we never quite take on all the thoughts and feelings of our protagonist, Bradbury sure gets us to rally behind him.
After all, over the course of the story, we see enough death and destruction. Our own social consciousness kicks in and we want justice. But, more than anything, we really just want to get creeped out.
To read a full-text version of “The Crowd,” please click here. (Thanks to Google Book Search for allowing access to this story.)