Monday, 30 September 2013

‘It’s a Good Life’ – Jerome Bixby

I’m going back to the ‘Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One (1929-1964)’ one more time and then off to whatever the next book is that catches my eye. I came across ‘It’s a Good Life’ (first published in 1953) when I mislaid my bookmark and was trying to find ‘Born of Man and Woman’ for another quick re-read (I could read that one again and still not get bored). The title intrigued me, especially with that emphasis and its suggestion of an undertone, so I thought I’d give it a try and find the Matheson story later.
Not only am I really glad that I did but I’m starting to think that ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ will be worth getting into a whole lot more (if the stories I’ve read are any indicator of the overall quality).

The people of Peaksville live in fear of little Anthony with his ability to read minds and make people’s wishes come true. If everything is good then maybe, just maybe, Anthony won’t do anything else. What Anthony has already done to Peaksville is horrifying enough, what he can to people that he doesn’t like is even worse… Just don’t ever let him hear you sing.

With ‘It’s a Good Life’ Bixby initially adopts a narrow focus and concentrates our attention on Anthony; a three year old boy with a ‘bright, wet purple gaze’ who casts an ‘odd shadow’. Just enough detail to unsettle but not too much, Bixby clearly likes his readers to do the legwork and that’s the best way. After all, the readers can frighten themselves a lot more effectively if they are left to fill in the gaps. Anthony is clearly a person with great power (and maybe not entirely human) but is also a three-year-old child who is dangerously impulsive with that power. See what happens to Bill Soames, a person that Anthony actually likes. You can see then why everyone must act like everything is ok and ‘good’; no-body knows just what Anthony will do to solve things that are bad, only that it won’t end well…

‘Like the time Mrs Kent’s husband, Sam, had come walking back from the graveyard, because Anthony liked Mrs Kent and had heard her mourning.’

Bixby lets you get used to this idea and then slowly widens that narrow focus so that you get the full horror of what Anthony has done to the people of Peaksville and the town itself. Without going too much into that, it really puts everyone’s plight into perspective when you realise that there is no way out at all (we’re told in no uncertain terms) and that the townsfolk are totally at the mercy of Anthony and his whims. It’s a really abrupt way to end the story and this sense of blunt power is underlined by what Anthony has done to Dan Hollis for singing.

‘Bad man’, Anthony said, and thought Dan Hollis into something like nothing anyone would have believed possible, and then he thought the thing into a grave deep, deep in the cornfield.’

There’s a real sense of hopelessness and despair hiding behind the fake smiles of the characters and it’s this which makes ‘It’s a Good Life’ such a harrowing tale. Even the very last sentence lets you know that the people of Peaksville will still be suffering long after you finish reading,

‘Next day it snowed, and killed off half the crops – but it was a good day.’

If you haven’t read this story then I really think you should; either that or watch the ‘Twilight Zone’ episode. Definitely worth it.

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