If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a thing in a jar.
Guess I have what they call a curious mind.
The ‘thing in a jar’ trope is admittedly overused in horror and science fiction, but for me, I never get tired of it. Same with mad scientists. I eat that stuff up. I’ve even written these tropes into some of my own fiction. For ‘things in a jar,’ see Automated Daydreaming. For mad scientists, see The Spiders of Honeyville, Nosebleed/Cablejuice, and If You Don’t Sleep, You Don’t Dream.
I suspect Ray Bradbury shared the same affinity for things in a jar, if his story “The Jar” is any indication, that is. He wrote “The Jar” in 1944, and it was first published in Weird Tales magazine. Bradbury also loved writing about carnivals, so much his first short story collection was entitled Dark Carnival, and it’s hardly a carnival without a thing in a jar, right?
Warning: spoilers ahead!
“The Jar” begins with a slow-witted man named Charlie, who is quickly hustled out of $12 (about $50 in today’s world) by a carnival boss who catches him entranced by one of his carnival attractions. Charlie can’t help but stare at the cold, dead eyes of the long dead creature (perhaps torn pieces of squid?) floating inside an oversized jar of formaldehyde. The boss quickly sizes him up, figures out exactly how much Charlie has in his wallet, then offers to sell the morbid object for exactly that amount.
Charlie forks over the cash, without hesitation, then heads home with what will soon become the talk of the entire town. As he sits in his living room, studying the horrid thing, almost worshipping it, folks from all over start piling into his house, coming to see the horror for themselves.
This is when Charlie realizes the thing doesn’t quite look the same to everyone else as it does to him. In fact, the thing seems to remind each of the townsfolk of some deep-rooted, traumatic memory. One resident sees a creature that puts him in mind of a litter of kittens he was forced into drowning as a child. Another sees her three year old son that she lost inside a swamp many years back. The townsfolk often argue over whether or not the creature has blue or brown eyes, black or blonde hair, etc. Even Charlie suspects the thing changes in appearance—in the blink of an eye—and sometimes he even believes he sees it move.
Then enters Charlie’s wife, Thedy, who seems to have made it her personal mission in life to make Charlie as miserable as can be. With great pleasure, she reveals to Charlie she went out with Tom Carmody, a man she’s been having an affair with for years, to the carnival and spoke to the carnival boss who was there boasting about having just conned a man out of $12, claiming the thing in a jar was completely worthless, just some old scraps of rubber wrapped in papier-mache. She tells Charlie she’s planning on telling everyone in town, effectively shooting down his newfound celebrity status just as quickly as it came.
“Wait’ll everyone hears how fake it is! Won’t they laugh! Won’t they flap their lungs!”
Charlie just sits there, taking the verbal beating, and it gets his mind stewing. Tom and Thedy have been making him look like a fool for years, and on top of that, his wife never misses an opportunity to make him feel stupid, poke at his insecurities, or to have him feeling completely worthless. This jar is all he has now. It’s the one thing that’s brought other people into his life, people he can have conversations and philosophize with. It makes him feel smart. It makes him feel a sense of purpose. A sense of community. If what his wife is saying is true—that his prized possession is nothing but shreds of old newspaper and tire scraps—then all his worth will vanish as soon as word gets out.
But perhaps there’s a way to eliminate all of his problems with a single action? What would resolve his troubling marital issues all while giving his precious thing in a jar that same sense of meaning it once had when he had first bought it?
Charlie quickly discovers a way.
In the final scene of “The Jar,” the townsfolk are once again piling into Charlie’s living room, however it occurs to one of them that they haven’t seen Thedy around in quite a while. They ask Charlie about her and he tells them she went off to see her parents in Tennessee, that she won’t be back for quite some time. They think nothing of it, as she’s always “been one for runnin’.”
Charlie notices a man standing at the front door, a man who looks pale and thin, as if he’s been sick for the last week or so. It’s Tom Carmody, his wife’s lover. He dares not enter Charlie’s home, but from where he’s standing he can clearly see that awful thing in a jar, resting there on its shrine. It seems to have taken on a new shape again, all the townsfolk notice. Curiously, they all seem to see the same features now, blue eyes, brown hair…
Tom will never see his lover again. Well, at least not in quite the same way.
“The Jar” is a pretty straight-forward, creepy little tale. It’s fun, macabre, and all the right people get it in the end. So satisfying! While it may not be as unique of a story as “Skeleton,” it’s downright perfect in its execution. Stories like this are great reads for Halloween night, which makes its placement in The October Country absolutely fitting.
For Part 3 of this post, we’ll be talking about “The Lake,” yet another perfect short in this wonderful story collection. Hopefully you all are reading along with me.
See you then!