Saturday, May 28, 2011

SF Masterworks #82: Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers

I warn you that what you're starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions.  It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained.  Not by me it won't, anyway.  Because I can't say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I've been right in the thick of it.  Now if you don't like that kind of story, I'm sorry, and you'd better not read it.  All I can do is tell what I know. (p. 1)

Jack Finney's 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, is one of those rare stories that are better known in their cinematic version.  The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released a year later, often is cited as an exemplar of 1950s cinema and its focus on paranoiac horror of the sudden invasion or inversion of American cultural values.  Not being an avid film watcher, perhaps it is just as well that I have not seen either the original film or its remake, so I did not have those apparently iconic images of the aliens in mind when I read the 1955 version of Finney's story (he revised it in the 1970s, but for this edition, Gollancz elected to go with the first edition).

The story begins in a small town in northern California, Santa Mira, in 1953 (coincidental with the first hydrogen bomb tests).  Dr. Miles Bennell receives a frantic visit from Becky Driscoll, who informs him that her cousin Wilma is convinced that her Uncle Ira isn't who he claims to be.  From here, a chain of events rapidly unfolds in which Miles and Becky uncover similar stories of displaced personalities, leading ultimately to the realization that townspeople have been replaced by aliens who have claimed the bodies and minds of their friends and neighbors.  It is a story that can be either suspenseful or hokey, depending upon the narrative execution and for the most part, Finney manages to maintain a high level of intrigue for the duration of this short novel.

One key to the story is the juxtaposition of the normal with the non-normal.  Neighbors, friends, family - each familiar in their looks, their choice of words, and most of their mannerisms - have something peculiar about them, some sort of "offness" that puzzles before it frightens the inquisitive.  Throughout The Body Snatchers, Miles and Becky experience this, including an episode in the town library when leafing through the newspaper archives for information on mysterious pods rumored to have appeared outside town:

We turned to the May 7 issue and began with page one.  There was nothing in the paper about Budlong or the pods.  On the bottom half of the May 6 Tribune's first page was a hole seven or eight inches long and three columns wide.  On the bottom half of the May 5 issue was another hole, just about as long, but only two columns wide.

It wasn't a guess, but a sudden stab of direct, intuitive knowledge - I knew, that's all - and I swung in my chair to stare across the room at Miss Wyandotte.  She stood motionless behind the big desk, her eyes fastened on us, and in the instant I swung to look at her, her face was wooden, devoid of any expression, and the eyes were bright, achingly intent, and as inhumanly cold as the eyes of a shark.  The moment was less than a moment - the flick of an eyelash - because instantly she smiled, pleasantly, inquiringly, her brows lifting in polite question.  'Anything I can do?' she said with the calm, interest eagerness typical of her in all the years I had known her. (p. 132)

Scenes like this, replete in the novel, provide it with a faint psychological horror.  Who is "real" and who have been taken over?  What is happening here?  Who's next?  These questions, asked and acted out for roughly 100 pages out of this 226 page novel, ratchet up the tension until Miles and Becky finally manage to make their way to the alien pods.  It is at this point that the narrative tension collapses and things rush to a sudden and odd conclusion.

Despite enjoying The Body Snatchers on the whole (and now being curious to see the cinematic versions at some point, despite my aversion to most cinema), the concluding chapters left much to be desired.  There is not a suitable payoff for the psychological drama that had just unfolded with terrifying revelation after terrifying revelation.  A simple, desperate action serves to end the story, leaving the reader wondering about the importance of the events before.  This does not ruin the story as much as it deadens its effect, with such a simple, direct remedy for the terrifying takeovers.  Finney's ending just feels out of sorts with the main body of the novel, as if at the end some other author had taken over his story and wrote something that felt incongruent with the rest of the novel.

Some readers might be tempted to read The Body Snatchers as a commentary on the Red Scare of the mid-1950s and certainly there are elements within the story that would support this.  However, the psychological aspect to the story removes it from the realm of direct political allegory and places it in a more nebulous conflict, one where the reader can imagine herself surrounded by familiar, menacing enemies.  This aspect of The Body Snatchers makes it an enduring classic that has a relevance beyond its original 1950s milieu with much to offer to readers of the early 21st century.

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