I have decided to pick up a project I put down some time ago because, well, life, stuff, the usual reasons, mostly life and stuff. So it’s back to reading The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.
Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Crowd’ is the last of a group of stories in The Weird (the others were Wollheim’s ‘Mimic’ and Fritz Leiber’s ‘The Smoke Ghost’) which seemed to focus very specifically on the intrusion of weirdness into the mundane. In many respects, Bradbury’s story is the most mundane of the three. While Leiber transforms the oppressive smoky atmosphere of the city into something tangible, and Wollheim speculates about the nature of the people who hide in, and on, its anonymous buildings, Bradbury turns instead to a common-or-garden phenomenon: the crowd that gathers when an accident occurs.
We’re probably all seen it. Something happens. A crowd very quickly forms. In this instance, Mr Spallner has crashed his car, and for a moment there is silence. And then ‘The crowd came running’ (284). As Bradbury says, ‘They had all come from – where? Houses, cars, alleys, from the immediate and the accident-shocked world. Out of alleys and out of hotels and out of streetcars and seemingly out of nothing they came’ (284).
On the one hand, we might see this as simple curiosity. People want to know what’s happening. And yet Bradbury has already imbued the scene with a subtle menace: ‘they came running’ somehow sounds more threatening than it ought to, given Mr Spallner has had an accident, and that menace is enhanced by the reference to ‘the sound of their numerous feet’. It makes them sound more like charging animals than human beings, and perhaps this hints at the nature of Mr Spallner’s anxiety. The crowd isn’t people so much as a thing in itself: urban living has been characterised for a couple of centuries at least by that fear of the crowd, the mob, the capacity for violence. One can get lost in a crowd, true, but simultaneously, the crowd can turn on someone. There is a moment when you might think of the crowd as being like one of those big flocks of birds on their way to winter roosting, twisting and turning in the sky, an entity made of individuals. It’s a very curious thing indeed.
Mr Spallner is alarmed by the crowd. They pronounce upon his survival as he is lifted into the ambulance, like a gathering of street sibyls, but while he is reassured by this, knows that they are right, something isn’t right.
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. (284)
Perhaps it is that Mr Spallner doesn’t like to be the centre of attention:
The ambulance doors slammed. Through the windows he saw the crowd looking in, looking in. That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity. (249)
This seems to me to be about more than a man surrounded by people after an accident. Instead, it touches perhaps on a deeper dislike of living too close to other people, of having too much of your business known.
Except that, unlike the crowd, Bradbury has the delicacy to turn away from the story at this point. Instead, there is something else bothering Mr Spallner: the spinning wheels on the car. There’s a nicely filmic quality to this detail. You can imagine a hallucinatory montage – the wheels spinning, the ring of faces, the wheels spinning, the ring of faces …
And finally, Spallner works it out. Or at any rate, it’s played so long on his mind, he thinks he’s worked it all out. The wheels on the car are still spinning. How did the crowd get there so quickly? Spallner’s doctor suggests that his sense of time has been affected: what seemed like a short time was probably much longer. And that may be true, though the only time I was ever in a road accident, my experience was that while it might have seemed to go on for a while, I know the whole incident was over in seconds because the same news item was being broadcast on the radio. So time dilates rather than contracts. (For that matter, people arrived on the scene very quickly indeed, which suggests again that Spallner’s concerns might have a psychological origin.)
Much of the middle portion of the story is predicated on the idea that once you notice something, you can’t stop noticing. And thus Spallner, having become obsessed with the speed at which the crowd arrives, can’t stop looking at the crowd when it does arrive, and making patterns. If it weren’t for the confirmation offered by a taxi driver about how odd it is, perhaps he would let the matter drop. But he doesn’t, and there is the moment when he witnesses the aftermath of another accident, notes the speed at which people come running, and hears someone in the crowd saying that the victim shouldn’t have been moved. And the moment when he feels the faces, or many of them, are familiar.
Spallner starts looking at old photos of crowds at road accidents for some sort of confirmation of his new idea that it is the same people reappearing. ‘Old photos of crowds at road accidents’– it’s all too easy to forget how this sort of thing was once news to the extent that you might record the presence of the living as well as the vehicles themselves. (And this is not a thing that Bradbury has made up specifically for this story – there are historical photos all over the internet.)
So, we have moved from Spallner’s sense of wrongness, which we might interpret as a personal dislike of proximity, to an external confirmation of the presence of the same people at accidents, over and over, though Spallner has not, so far, connected the two. But I find myself wondering, given the fuzziness of newspaper photographs, how he can be so sure. Or does he want to be sure. Has he constructed an explanation that makes even less sense?
Quite late in the story it’s hinted that Spallner himself has started finding his way to accidents, looking for these people, these members of the crowd, but somehow is always thwarted in his attempts to actually speak to them. And we might begin to wonder then what Spallner himself has turned into. Do these people even exist? How is it that they always ‘slip into the crowd and vanish’ (287).
And you’ve probably already guessed how this is going to turn out, more because it is inevitable than because it is heavily signalled, although it’s fairly clear what is to happen once Spallner realises that the same people keep appearing.
But what we never know is why they are doing it. Or what it is they are doing. According to Spallner, they arrive ‘to make certain the right ones live and the right ones die’ (288), which makes them sound like some sort of urban Fates, though he quickly enough turns this into murder, so it’s not a passive exercise. And yet, it is as though Spallner himself doesn’t know what they are. They are ‘the faces, the construction, the cast’ (289), somehow always there. Or at any rate, since the city grew up. What was it before car accidents, I wonder? Riding accidents? Carts overturning? Or did they emerge into being specifically because of the car smashes?
We never know. In fact, we never can know. That’s the beauty of the story. And yet, ever afterwards, you can never look at a street accident in quite the same way.