Re-Reading In Lockdown: Jack Finney

Reading & Writing

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.

17 comments on “Re-Reading In Lockdown: Jack Finney”

  1. Ian Smith says:

    There’s also Finney’s short story ‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’, which turned up in the very first volume of the Pan Book of Horror Stories. I’m sure Stephen King would quite happily admit to pinching the idea for his own short story ‘The Ledge’!

  2. Brooke says:

    I met an elderly physicist who, in his graduate student days at MIT (Cambridge, MA), was a member of a night people club—other MIT roaring boys, all of the “best sort.” Their particular source of fun included public pranks, such as causing a huge electrical burn-out which shut down the city’s transport system during morning rush. Were they inspired by or did they inspire Finney’s Night People?

  3. Ian Luck says:

    Not an author I’m familiar with – are there any collected editions of his work, or, failing that, what would you suggest as my journey’s ‘first step’?
    I do love the first two filmed versions of ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’ – the great Donald Sutherland from the second, pointing and screaming, has become a popular meme, I notice. I was also amused, that in the movie ‘Airplane II’, when Ted Striker emerges from the truck that has unwittingly run him into town after he escapes from the asylum, several unopened ‘Bodysnatcher’ pods can be seen in the back of the truck.

  4. admin says:

    Brooke, I suspect he was heavily inspired by them, because they pull a very similar stunt at night.
    Ian, there’s no single collection of his short stories but the novels are better, especially Time After Time.

  5. Roger says:

    My own favourite time-travel stories are Robert Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—'”. – no time for his opinions in a short story and it goes together beautifully – and Alfred Bester’s The Men Who Murdered Mohammed..

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    I’d recommend him as well. In an interview when asked what the pod people was a metaphor for? He said he’d just tried to think of the scariest thing he could think of, and this was it. The ending of the book is very different from the films, it creates a whole world of what next stories and the link between plant and pods. It also shows that the plants are intelligent.

    There is a third film version by Abel Ferrara, Body Snatchers, set on a military base. I like it but it’s not as good as the first two. I’ve not seen The Invasion with Nicole Kidman & Daniel Craig which is a 4th version.

    Roger – Predestination is a film version of ‘-All You Zombies-‘, I quite enjoyed it but I’d have to see it again properly as the viewing was late night and interrupted.


  7. Ian Luck says:

    Thank you, Chris. I’ll start looking.

  8. Mark McPherson says:

    I’ve wanted to write/hear from you for an atge. Your mentioning Ray B. touched a chord–he was my spiritual father and I dedicated my novel to him and he gave me a blurb: “Poe is fine, but McPherson is superb.” What else? I have the dubiuos distinction of earning permission from Dame Jean Conan Doyle to porrtray her father in my one man play in ’88–and like William Gillette, have the honour of being an American chosen by the Doyles to portray Holmes and ACD respecttvely. Last things, we are in quarantine as well and I chose “Victoria Vanishes” for a perk up today. I’m rereading all of your B & M’s and love them and have alluded to them in my pending work.
    Do you suppose there’s a way for us to communicate, short of this little box? (am thinking of Rob Bryden’s “little man in the box here.” But like Holmes in Wilder’s Sherlockian homage, “my mind is like fly paper and stuck there is a mass of data, mostly useless.” So what do you say, are you up for a 72 year old fan and a bit of discussion?

  9. Mark McPherson says:

    “Don’t know if the messsge I just wrote got through? I’m the 72 year old fan of B&M who is here in Michiganian quarantine and today opted to re-read “Victoria Vanishes.”: Coincidentally, I just re-read Finney’s first “time” classic for the 5th time since its publication. Also, Ray Bradbury was my spirituasl father, and at my des, I have a photo of him in George Pal’s Time Machine inscribed: To Mark, my special son.” Imagine! Ray also gave me a blurb for my Poe novel, which said “Poe is fine, but McPherson is superb.”: What would you think about an occasional back and forth vis e-mail apart from this restrictive rectangle? I;d love to ask and answer, and perhaps tell you of how in 1988 I was dtgiven permission by Dame Jean Conan Doyle to write a one man drama in which I portrayed ACD. Or, how two years ago, I re-met Blanche Blackwell, having leased her Jamaican retreast “Goldeneye” on three occaions 30 odd years ago. I originally said I wanted to write about Fleming and finally did!

  10. admin says:

    Dear Mr McPherson,
    If you look in the comments section of my recent post ‘What Did You Do In The Great Lockdown’, one of my black-boxed replies contains my e-mail address in red. It will be posted there during the Lockdown only. Please feel fret drop me a line.

  11. chazza says:

    In one of the original St. Trinian films, there is a quick shot of a stack of “racy” books (in the teachers’ board room?) and right on top is the first edition of the Body Snatchers; I always wonder what happened to that copy…

  12. admin says:

    I consider myself an expert in the canonical St Trinian’s films (plus ‘The Happiest Days of your Life’ – prequel, obvs!) and never noticed this.

  13. snowy says:

    ‘Invasion’ [2007] was a very dull adaptation, best avoided.

    “Having established an effectively creepy mood in the first half, the film eventually degenerates into a muddled mess, with Nicole and Daniel Craig dodging zombies while popping amphetamines in a desperate effort to stay awake. We know how they feel. ”

    Paul Arendt

    “Novelist Jack Finney’s body snatchers have appeared in some fine movies, but the only disturbing-looking thing here is what they’ve done to Nicole Kidman’s lips.”

    Tim Robey

    “Treat yourself to the Donald Sutherland version, his perm is more frightening than anything that happens in Invasion. ”

    Jeff Bayer

  14. Roger says:

    Thanks, Wayne Monk.
    I managed to completely miss it when it came out. I’ll start looking.

  15. snowy says:

    ‘Predestination’ is a good stab at making what is a unfilmable story, [it is more like ‘Memento’, ‘Scanner Darkly’ than ‘Source Code’ or ‘Looper’].

    [The Spierig Bros. have also made a couple of other low budget films, ‘Undead’, a zom-com, which is a tiny bit light on the com, the actors just don’t quite hit the lines. ‘Daybreakers’ has an interesting idea hidden under a vampire cloak, the lab scene with Sam Neill is probably the highlight, the Production/FX budget seems to run out shortly thereafter.]

  16. Jan says:

    One thing about the Invasion of the Body Snatchers is each time they come up with a remake and there have been a few (probably one of two I have missed completely) the remakes sort of say what’s become our main worry /fear about life at the time.

    The original and best was about US being invaded by the USSR.

    I never really got what the 1970s Donald Sutherland was about. Social control maybe? But maybe it was about D.Sutherland’s weird perm. Snowy I came up with that then read your comment via another fella

    The Kidman Craig version kicked off being about surveillance and control before it got turned into a zombie picture.

    What the hell would the 2020 Bodysnatchers be like?

    Now we actually have a virus that’s taken over the world?

  17. Normandy says:

    I loved Time and Again, long ago, but never got to any of his other work. I shall rectify that.

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