We can't help but wonder if, just before literary genius Ray Bradbury died Tuesday night at age 91, a strange crowd appeared before him to decide if he should live or die.
If our thought was odd, or slightly offensive, blame it on the man himself: In 1943, he published a remarkably haunting story, "The Crowd," which was later anthologized in the brilliant story collection The October Country. The story opens with a man, Spallner, being thrown from his car after a crash; as he lies on the street, he hears people running his way.
"Where the crowd came from, he didn't know," Bradbury wrote. "He struggled to remain aware and then the crowd faces hemmed in upon him, hung over him like the large glowing leaves of bent-down trees. They were a ring of shifting, compressing, changing faces over him, looking down, looking down, reading the time of his life or death by his face, making his face into a moon dial, where the moon cast a shadow from his nose out upon his cheek to tell the time of breathing or not breathing any more ever."
This being Bradbury, it wasn't a gaggle of good Samaritans. "The crowd looked at him and he looked back at them and did not like them at all. There was a vast wrongness to them. He couldn't put his finger on it. They were far worse than this machine-made thing that happened to him now."
Most people who've read "The Crowd," even if it was just once, ten, 20 years ago, they could probably describe, to a T, the way Bradbury described them: "A man's face, thin, bright pale...there was a small woman, too, with red hair and too much red on her cheeks and lips." It's that woman, with the freakshow makeup, that still gives us the willies.
Spallner survives, but he later witnesses a car accident, and in the growing crowd that forms around the injured party, he notices the woman with "too much red color on her cheeks and lips." Spallner's friend thinks he's gone a bit loopy, and Spallner doesn't help things by collecting years' worth of newspaper photos of various accidents, where he spots the same people in the crowds, years apart, looking exactly the same, right down to their clothes.
At the end, Spallner finds himself (of course) in another car accident, and he sees the crowd again.
"A familiar voice said, 'Is...is he dead?' Another voice, a memorable voice, responded, 'No. Not yet. But he will be dead before the ambulance arrives.'"
BOO-YAH! How do they know? Or are they the ones who make the decisions? Can everyone see them, or only the unfortunate victims teetering on the brink?
Bradbury surely leaves a healthy legacy, from Fahrenheit 451 to The Martian Chronicles to Something Wicked This Way Comes. But for us, it'll always be the immortal creepiness of "The Crowd." We just hope that, if Bradbury did in fact meet them last night, they were easier on him than they were on Spallner.
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