Re-Reading In Lockdown: Jack Finney
As a kid I spent a lot of time sick in my a kind of personal lockdown, where you could see other kids outside through the closed window, so reading became nourishment and conversation. There were certain authors who spoke to me, and I later realised that many of them wrote tales tinged with fantastical elements. Ray Bradbury was my favourite, and although I could not identify with his Illinois upbringing, many of the feelings he described were mine – I wonder what he’d have made of modern Illinois.
I was also a fan of the lesser-known Jack Finney because his prose was simple, light and pleasurable. Finney was a generous-spirited everyman who could make you believe in the most unlikely things because he always worked to win readers over. His obsessions overlapped with Mr Bradbury’s, perhaps because he was also shaped by his place of birth – in his case Wisconsin.
In his short story ‘I Love Gailsburg In The Springtime’ he carefully describes the town before bringing in a phantom trolley car that puts out a fire. Gailsburg protects itself by drawing upon its own past, and you believe because of the loving descriptions that foreground the situation. There’s a touch of post-war rural folksiness about him, though, that lacks the edge of the author of ‘The October Country’.
Jack Finney was born in 1911 in Milwaukee and led a fairly uneventful life, working for an advertising agency in New York, starting a family and moving to Los Angeles. His first story, ‘The Widow’s Walk’, was published as the result of a contest in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and his first novel brought instant fame. ‘The Body Snatchers’ hinges on such a powerful idea that it has been frequently filmed since publication in 1955, usually as ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. Alien invaders take over humans while they sleep, removing their emotions in preparation for a new world, but how can we tell who’s been turned? And is a life lived without pain and passion any worse? The central theme of identity loss has come to stand for McCarthyism, fascism, militarism and the pressures of the modern world. It would be great to see it resurface in a time of social media peer pressure.
The original poster has a helpless housewife screaming, ‘Something is happening! Send your men of science quick!’ as if she’s seen a mouse in the kitchen.
Finney was also fascinated by time travel, and in ‘Time And Again’ (1970) he utilised old photographs of New York to help explain how his hero Morley practices self-hypnosis to travel back to 1882 and prevent a disaster from happening. The book’s premise was subjected to a barely acknowledged ‘homage’ in the film ‘Somewhere In Time’, but now the original may finally resurface as a movie. Just before his death he published a sequel, ‘From Time To Time’, involving the Titanic, which left room for a third part that cannot now be written.
Time travel is a theme Finney repeatedly returns to, and ‘About Time’ gathers together his short fiction on the subject. Here the tone is sentimental and elegiac. Stories like ‘Second Chance’ say it all; the author wants to turn back the clock to a simpler, gentler era and undo the mistakes that were made. The fact that Finney always adopts an amiable first-person narrative suggests he’s projecting his own desires onto his heroes.
Some of his gently nostalgic novels overtly recall Ray Bradbury, but Finney was also drawn to tales of heists, as in the casino robbery ‘Five Against The House’ and the shipboard raid ‘Assault On A Queen’. My personal favourite is ‘The Night People’ (1977) in which a group of friends form a club that stages elaborate practical jokes on the public after dark, only to find their increasingly risky behaviour getting out of hand.
Like the excellent Jonathan Carroll, Finney’s lack of edge – which had been promised by the dark parable of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (and in Carroll’s case, ‘The Land of Laughs’) never fully materialised. Writers usually lose their sense of savagery and indignation as they age and become more family-friendly, and the loyal reader finds s/he is not getting a fulfilment of that earlier promise. But there are still pleasures to discover in Finney, especially now in these pressured times.