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It's a good life
May 1, 2012 8:46 PM   Subscribe

"It's a Good Life" is a 1953 story by Jerome Bixby, who also wrote It! The Terror From Beyond Space, said to be the inspiration for Alien, and the Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror" (the one with evil bearded Spock.) It was made into a famous Twilight Zone episode, and is generally considered among the greatest SF stories ever written. Is "It's a Good Life" about God? Communism? 1950s suburban conformity? Or just about the horror of the self-contained world it creates in its few pages and the terrible realization that it would be possible to survive inside it, for a while?
posted by escabeche (106 comments total) 155 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh god, I finally read that story a while ago and gave it the fucking chills, way more than the twilight zone episode-the part where he's reading the insects' thoughts and it's all mixed up in the horrible selfishness and single mindedness of a young child with his omnipotence oh god oh god.
posted by The Whelk at 8:49 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hope a one-link post to a 50-year-old story is not too weird. But I was so happy to find this on the web, and so happy to find that it surpassed my old memory of how good and how scary it is.
posted by escabeche at 8:52 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Warning for the weak stomached or the eater of breakfast: there is some grisly stuff.

(I've only read part but I offer the warning now)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:54 PM on May 1, 2012


I hope a one-link post to a 50-year-old story is not too weird.

Oh, don't say that, escabeche ... it's fine, just fine. A real good FPP!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:59 PM on May 1, 2012 [137 favorites]


I loved it as a young reader, too. Thanks for this -- I was thinking of it not long ago.

Myself, I read it as a story of family. Anyone who has lived with a narcissistic, violent, or mentally ill person as a sort of orbital center for their whole family knows what it is like to try to just think good thoughts about Anthony.

(I checked out the 1980s-era Twilight Zone episode about Anthony as a grown man with a little daughter. It wasn't all that good, although it could have been worse. Still, the absolute unbridled horror of the idea of a boy like Anthony at puberty -- ! The only thing that mitigates this is the fact that the story doesn't exactly describe Anthony as a human child; it's just become fanon.)
posted by Countess Elena at 9:00 PM on May 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


(forgot to add that link -- there you are)
posted by Countess Elena at 9:02 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Horrid child rating: OMEGA JOFFERY
posted by Artw at 9:04 PM on May 1, 2012 [26 favorites]


So glad I wasn't planning to sleep tonight! It's a GOOD night!
posted by unSane at 9:04 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hope one day to use "thinking someone into the graveyard" properly in a sentence.

creepiest story ever I MEAN GOOD STORY
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:09 PM on May 1, 2012


I grew up in a small subdivision of a medium sized town. We were within bike distance of a small branch of the local library, a building of about 700 square feet, and that library was about our only connection with the world beyond our back yards. I started going to the library at least once a week when I was about 10 years old, 1958. There was one shelf, one lonely, small, shelf of science fiction/fantasy/horror/space stories. Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury...that was about it.

It was those books, with stories much like this one, that led me to spend most of the summer sitting up in the tree in the back yard, reading, and imagining. Compared to the rest of the literature available to us, this new genre of SciFi was like a narcotic.

Good stuff... thanks for the FPP... I'll bookmark this and read it tomorrow with a small glass of dandelion wine.
posted by HuronBob at 9:11 PM on May 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


Oh good, the curtains are on fire!
posted by Nomyte at 9:12 PM on May 1, 2012 [7 favorites]


One weird thing about wathcing a lot of Twilight Zone and Outer Limits growing up and also reading a any and all paperback sciencefiction and horror anthologies I could scavenge - every so often you'd stumble onto a story and realise half way in that it's a twilight zone episode you've seen, or very occasionly you'll see a Twilight Zone epsiode you've never seen before and realise it's a story you've read. Recently I was reading some Richard Matheson collections and got the double experience of beginning a story and relising it's both something I'd read and something I'd seen, long long ago.

And then, I guess, there's realising that Poltergeist is basically Little Lost Girl, though probably more the show version than the short story version.

Anyway, reading this story in it's pure undiluted form is a treat. IT IS A GOOD STORY.
posted by Artw at 9:12 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of the things this story does well is the gory details. Or rather, they are notable in their absence.

'He might try to help you, in his way.'

'He'd done something to them for that--and now everybody came to television.'

'he felt that what had happened to the whole Terrance family and Joe Kinney was his fault ... since then, no one had tried to get Anthony to do anything.'

'done something that made everybody afraid of singing from then on.'

etc. The reader is allowed to fill in the details. The most we get on Anthony's punishments is, basically, he puts the remains in the cornfield. We see how he treats insects, spiders, birds and small mammals - how much more terrifying would a similar treatment of a person be? Nothing the author could come up with is as scary to as many people as the details and images that will appear, summoned, from the depths of their imaginations.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:20 PM on May 1, 2012 [12 favorites]


"the whole Terrance family and Joe Kinney"

Yeah, the sudden specificity here (so much better than if he'd just said "the Terrance family," even though we don't know who either they or Joe Kinney are) is very deftly done.
posted by escabeche at 9:27 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, this story uses 'purple' as an adjective, describing Anthony's 'purple gaze.' It was a meaning I had not encountered before. It could, obviously, mean the color of his face, but that seems too simple for such an unruffled, in-control character. I looked up the meaning.

'9. imperial, regal, or princely.
10. brilliant or showy
...
12. profane or shocking, as language.'

Nice.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:37 PM on May 1, 2012 [7 favorites]


I just wanted to add that this is a perfect late night metafilter post. nice timing!
posted by HuronBob at 9:43 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's about parents.
posted by emmet at 9:43 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


He also wrote "The Man From Earth," a comfortable piece showing on netflix instant watch.
posted by merelyglib at 9:46 PM on May 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


Now, there's a kid whose foul ball you wouldn't want to steal.
posted by Stoatfarm at 9:47 PM on May 1, 2012


Amazon has it too, but you have to pay for it.
posted by merelyglib at 9:48 PM on May 1, 2012


I bow and scrape as low as any man before this ageless tale.

but

...said to be the inspiration for Alien, and the Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror" (the one with evil bearded Spock.)

I also do not shirk the seeking of citations. Links, please? I don't see the heritage.
posted by mwhybark at 10:07 PM on May 1, 2012


mwhybark, I'll see if I can re-parse that sentence.

Jerome Bixby, who also wrote It! The Terror From Beyond Space (said to be the inspiration for Alien), and also wrote the Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror" (the one with evil bearded Spock.)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:11 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


How on earth had I not read this before? Great story, great post.
posted by LarryC at 10:12 PM on May 1, 2012


Totalitarianism distilled down to it's essence: omniscient, omnipotent, immortal and utterly contemptible. Mustapha Mond and O'Brian may be evil, but they're intelligent and urbane, worthy opponents of human freedom. At least it's an ethos. Plato's ideal tyrant is like a spoiled child, a creature of arbitrary desire, unrestrained by conscience, advice or external constraint.

As for the victims, "...they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system," and hate themselves for it.

North Korea comes to mind, but this story is so stark that nothing really compares.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:12 PM on May 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


May I be so bold as to suggest: original sin?
posted by willF at 10:14 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


mwhybark you shouldn't ask that question!
That's a bad question!

Incidentally, I had no idea they (being the Twilight Zone people made a sequel with Billy Mumy, It's Still A Good Life:
40 years later, god-like Anthony Fremont is still holding Peaksville, Ohio under a reign of terror. However, things are about to change when his daughter turns out to have similar powers.

I was aware there was a '03 Twilight Zone. Reading that synopsis I ... I think I know why I haven't hunted it down.
posted by Mezentian at 10:15 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


1953? Joe McCarthy springs to mind.
posted by telstar at 10:24 PM on May 1, 2012


Yikes.
posted by chinston at 10:25 PM on May 1, 2012


GASP

thank you! I had no idea!
posted by mwhybark at 10:26 PM on May 1, 2012


At risk of dismemberment and cornfielding, I think I'd ask Anthony to do something about "It's still a good life."
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:28 PM on May 1, 2012


Plato's ideal tyrant is like a spoiled child, a creature of arbitrary desire, unrestrained by conscience, advice or external constraint.

Plato's philosopher king is restrained by being in touch with the true world of the forms, which intellectual connection allows him or her to see what's best for the city. The philosopher king trains for that job for most of his or her life and as part of the training learns to suppress the appetitive and spirited parts of his or her soul. It's not accurate to characterize that as someone who's a "creature of arbitrary desire" or "unrestrained by... external constraint" because the forms are supposed to provide an external constraint.

It is accurate to say Plato did not think that individuals in the city have rights, and that the philosopher kings would have power that wasn't checked in a democratic way at all.

I agree that Plato is wrong about human nature and the city would not work the way he expects. But it's not accurate to say that he intended to have a spoiled unreflective child as king - he intended to have a highly educated restrained paragon of intellectual virtue as king.

Leaving that aside, I wonder how much this story needs to be an allegory; it is plenty chilling as just the very economical paying out of the premise, "godlike powers, child-level understanding and emotions".

Although I suppose Anthony is really not like a child, in that we don't see any comfort-seeking or happy feelings from him...
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:33 PM on May 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


cornfielding

terrifying
posted by klausman at 10:33 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for this. I only just discovered Bixby after watching The Man from Earth last night on Netflix, which I thought was, by and large, outstanding. I'm excited to check out more of his stuff, even if, as it appears, I'll be scarred for doing so :)
posted by hank_14 at 10:45 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


re: Plato

If I remember correctly the philosophers are also disinterested, reluctant rulers, they would rather be off doing philosophy. They only play the role of kings because they realize that no one else could do as good a job. Not only are they not petty, they are sacrificing a significant amount of their own happiness for the benefit of the state.

And, as exemplars of wisdom, they are certainly restrained by conscience, indeed they are more restrained by conscience than anyone else.
posted by oddman at 10:47 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Huh. The same guy who wrote that outstanding short story was responsible for that talky, sophomoric movie?
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:56 PM on May 1, 2012


Yep. Sorry you didn't like it.
posted by hank_14 at 10:59 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


No, no sarcasm. Excellent post.
posted by Ardiril at 11:01 PM on May 1, 2012


escabeche: "Is "It's a Good Life" about God? Communism? 1950s suburban conformity? Or just about the horror of the self-contained world it creates in its few pages and the terrible realization that it would be possible to survive inside it, for a while?"
It reads to me very much like the horror of the self-contained world created in many marriages I've seen, and the terrible realization that it would be possible to survive inside them, for a while....

I read this young, at a time when I was reading a lot of Ray Bradbury, I'd have bet fifty bucks that this was a Bradbury story until reading here tonight that it wasn't/isn't. It would have fit in most any of Bradburys collections of shorts, the US small town feel is pitch-perfect for Bradbury.

Thanx for posting it, fun to read it again.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:03 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is "It's a Good Life" about God? Communism? 1950s suburban conformity?

Someone asked David Lynch what Wild at Heart was about; he said “It’s about an hour and forty-five minutes.”
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:06 PM on May 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


It needn't be a metaphor for any one thing. It is simply a horror story for anyone who has ever had to swallow their pride and tread carefully for fear of offending a crazy person with more power than them. Countess Elena's interpretation rings true for me; it is about being trapped in a relationship with someone who is capricious, unpredictable, and conscienceless. That relationship can be as intimate as an abusive lover or as abstract as an abusive God.

The reason it rings so true (aside from the very good writing) is that in one way or another we have all experienced that condition – the helplessness, the fear – and indeed to some greater or lesser degree we all experience it every day of our lives. The world is small, the universe is big and full of nothingness, and the next person we encounter could always, just maybe, be an Anthony.
posted by Scientist at 11:06 PM on May 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


Can anyone summarise the sequel? I'm unlikely to ever get a chance to see it.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:07 PM on May 1, 2012


I first encountered this in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1 where it's a standout story (right up there with "Surface Tension" and "Microcosmic God" for me). Every once in a while I'll remember the phrase "wishing him into the cornfield" with a bit of a shudder.

Taps right into the children-as-other feeling that powers The Midwich Cuckoos / Children of the Damned, and way bleaker of a survival tale than "A Bucket of Air" (which blows up the entire Earth, if memory serves).
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:08 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think I saw some remake version of the twilight zone episode on some TV show. It was a "modern" show, not the old 1950s version. This woman drives into town and meets the kid, and discovers his powers. It was creepy, but the ending was sappy and beyond stupid.
posted by delmoi at 11:16 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Such a perfectly constructed little horror show -- one not really done justice by any of its remakes. Anthony is just so preternaturally, cosmically, existentially creepy, his childish whims -- especially his misguided attempts to help -- so terrifying, his prison world so familiar yet so remote (the North Korea comparison was very apt). And I love how much is left to the imagination. Peaksville's fate as Anthony "matures" is such a tantalizing nightmare.

Ardiril: "No, no sarcasm. Excellent post"

I'm still not quite sure if you're being sarcastic, but in case you're sincere, I'll just point out that your framing of that MeTa in the style of the story was a poor choice, considering the "that's swell!"/"such a nice day!"/"it's GOOD that X!" tone in the story was a euphemism intended to refer to stuff that was explicitly bad. (And for people unfamiliar with the story, it just comes off as plain old dickish sarcasm.)
posted by Rhaomi at 11:21 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


"As we say when anything terrible and unexpected happens, 'It's a good thing Bart did that!'"
posted by pwnguin at 11:22 PM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Now that I think about it, the "children are not human" trope has been around in sci-fi for a long time. The classic "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" (Google Books) from 1943 has some young children growing increasingly alien, although it's far less overtly horrific. That one, as I remember it, had an undercurrent of "modern parenting practices are invalid and bankrupt."
posted by Nomyte at 11:26 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


delmoi, I think that was the Twilight Zone movie with the sappy ending. (The movie with Vic Morrow in the bigot sequence.)
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:26 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I too cut my teeth on slightly dusty copies of Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. This story knocked the wind out of me at age 12. Driving home the horror was something about how it just gets grey past the edges of town so there's no way out. (I may have that a little wrong, I have refused to re-read that story in the twenty-mumble years since my first encounter with it.) I have also baffled many friends in years since by murmuring "It's a GOOD thing" when avoiding belligerently drunk or otherwise irrational people who seem unduly dangerous. It still ranks up there in my top five sci-fi nightmares, though Flowers for Algernon will forever take the #1 spot.
posted by synapse at 11:40 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Needless to say, it's a fantastic story.
posted by synapse at 11:42 PM on May 1, 2012


"in case you're sincere" - Absolutely, this is an excellent example of framing archival-type content as opposed to, say, a single-link youtube post with no more context than the name of the work and the artist. The OP includes balanced information that sheds both positive and negative lights on both the author's and the work's impact on more notorious, subsequent works, as well as grist for discussion. This post deserves its spotlight, and although discussing its merits in the abstract is now closed, we can still discuss its substance concretely.

Perhaps the tale's rat should be named Ouroboros.
posted by Ardiril at 12:13 AM on May 2, 2012


One reason this story hit me so hard when I read it at age 12 is that, like most kids, I longed for "three wishes" when I was younger, chafing at my lack of control over my world. By the time I got old enough to read "It's A Good Life," the childish desire for "wishes" had mostly passed, but only recently. Right around that time I was starting to understand other people in the world as souls like myself, with their own inner lives and emotions. My first thought after getting past the story's immediate horror was: Holy moly, it would have been horrible for everyone else if I had gotten what I wanted.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:19 AM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


"it's a fantastic story" - While the overall style is somewhat clunky, with major points resolved ambiguously and some unwieldy questions left unanswered ("something like nothing anyone would have believed possible"), it works quite well overall despite the implications of some arbitrary subtext.
posted by Ardiril at 1:47 AM on May 2, 2012


God, that Anthony's a dick!

There, I said it hard as it was ...I kept waiting, hoping, for his comeuppance. This reminded me a little of "The Veldt" by Bradbury, which I am now going to hunt down and read again.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:03 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


... the "that's swell!"/"such a nice day!"/"it's GOOD that X!" tone in the story was a euphemism intended to refer to stuff that was explicitly bad.

It's good that you said that! But wouldn't it be even better to say that it isn't so much that people in the story use "good" as a euphemism for "bad" as they are deprived of theor freedom to distinguish good from bad? That is: it's only our position outside the story that lets us see that "good" is used ironically. The people in the story have to say it and mean it.

That's what makes the story truly terrifying.
posted by No-sword at 2:11 AM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Lobstermitten, Plato's tyrant ~= Plato's philosopher king. They are polar opposites.

A philosopher king is what happens when a person who is ruled by the best part of him/herself (reason) becomes ruler of the city. A tyrant is what happens when a person who is ruled by the worst part of themselves (their most unbalanced, twisted desires) becomes ruler of the city. "A creature of arbitrary desire, unrestrained by conscience, advice or external constraint" is the worst person you'll ever meet, and rule by such a person is the worst possible form of government, thinks Plato.

(this is from the bit about the five types of government, Republic 8-9)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:33 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Apparently this was remade in the TZ movie (how did I forget? I think the '59 version was so good it obscured it) with a lighter ending written by Richard Matheson!
Because the guy who write I Am Legend is such a jolly fellow.

And now I am home I can sit back and enjoy the original.
posted by Mezentian at 3:22 AM on May 2, 2012


major points resolved ambiguously and some unwieldy questions left unanswered ("something like nothing anyone would have believed possible")

I would see that ambiguity as a point in its favour. The reader supplies his own personal horrific vision. What one person finds horrifying someone else may find laughable. If Bixby had cited specifics, some readers would have said, "Oh, that's all? It could have been much worse." I believe the 1959 Twilight Zone episode put Hollis' still-living head on the spring of a jack-in-the-box. Bit of Eisenhower-era body horror there...
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:56 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had an extensive short story collection, and I must have read all of the ones written in the 50's and 60's, depressingly bleak in their post war/cold war season. This was one that was memorable for its undertstated horror.

There was a similar story about a kid who was given three wishes because the genie/alien thought him worthy for his innocence. He was intellectually disabled, and his third wish was that everyone in the world to be just like him.

Another one was about a woman who read one of those "you can do anything if you believe hard enough" and for her, it actually worked. Which was a good thing.
posted by arzakh at 4:05 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I had only seen the original Twilight Zone episode and didn't realize that Anthony was only three in the story,
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:41 AM on May 2, 2012


What frustrated me most with the Twilight Zone episode was that that one woman didn't take her chance to bash in the kid's head.

Because, as justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow says, that is Totalitarianism distilled down to it's essence: omniscient, omnipotent, immortal and utterly contemptible.

Except totalitarianism is only omnipotent so long as those caught up in the system refuse to act. Of course acting brings the risk of torture and death, but only in acting is there the chance for freedom as well. In addition to Havel, the idea that political structures require the complicity of the ruled is discussed in the work of Gene Sharp on nonviolent resistance and in Etienne de la Boetie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-Dictator.
posted by audi alteram partem at 4:46 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks so much for this! I read this story somewhere around age 10, in Tomorrow's Children, an amazing anthology, which is now out of print. Look at the reviews on that Amazon link - one reviewer still remembers the plot of this story accurately, 15 years after reading it.

arzakh - are you maybe remembering A Little Peace and Quiet? That piece of cold-war grimness scared the life out of me as a pre-teen...
posted by Wylla at 4:59 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


See also: Bart's Nightmare
posted by blue_beetle at 5:23 AM on May 2, 2012


I agree completely about the unspecified terrible things. See also "something nasty in the woodshed" from Cold Comfort Farm. She uses its power in the same way -- which is to say hinting until she has a "spell," and oh, we can't let that happen!
posted by Madamina at 6:08 AM on May 2, 2012


Needs more Bill Mumy.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:27 AM on May 2, 2012


Who's bad?
posted by flabdablet at 7:17 AM on May 2, 2012


One of the best stories ever. I read it as a child and have re-read a few times since. Still the creepiest thing around.
To me, the disturbing aspect is that the most charitable, sanest explanation and the one that allows me to sleep at night, is that Anthony is a seriously screwed up kid, which is pretty horrifying in and of itself.
Anytime I read something like this, I ask myself, "What has the author SEEN?"
posted by pentagoet at 7:18 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


the man of twists and turns: "Also, this story uses 'purple' as an adjective"

I noticed that too, and I thought it was a delightful little turn of phrase. Then it occurred to me, maybe his gaze really was purple, somehow, and that twisted my brain into fun little shapes.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:23 AM on May 2, 2012


Yes, the Twilight Zone movie's version of this was sanitized (and SANE-itized), but how could it not be? This story is a masterpiece, but it was way, way crazier and way way WAY more wicked than you could make into any sort of mainstream film in 1983. There are still some good things about that version. Dante, et al, managed to produce some specific and indelible evil. Remember this or this? Maybe you had to be 11 years old, watching it on cable while your folks are out for the night but that stuff knocked my socks off.

Plus, the movie ending: it is only superficially happy/saccharine. If you think for even a moment about what happens next there are only two possibilities. 1) most likely Anthony focuses his wrath on the schoolteacher, there in the foggy wherever, and her being the only thing there to draw his ire it ain't gonna be pretty. Or, 2) she DOES manage to train/discipline him, and she tries to use his powers for good, but I think it is obvious that that sort of power simply cannot be used for good. See: the original text of the story and the Monkey's Paw.

Oh, and the film has Dick Miller, which is always a mark of quality.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:27 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


If anyone ever had a plagiarism claim against Harlan Ellison...this guy's it.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:32 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


maybe his gaze really was purple, somehow

I think you're meant to infer from the obstetrician's reaction that he's visibly not a normal child.
posted by escabeche at 7:33 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought this story was terrifying in an awesome way. I definitely see the parallels to abuse and manipulation, as well as to the kind of conformity that is bred of totalitarianism, and I wonder, in a way that I didn't until just now, whether those two things aren't more related to one another than I would have thought.
posted by gauche at 7:41 AM on May 2, 2012


"Now that I think about it, the "children are not human" trope has been around in sci-fi for a long time. The classic "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" (Google Books) from 1943 has some young children growing increasingly alien, although it's far less overtly horrific. That one, as I remember it, had an undercurrent of "modern parenting practices are invalid and bankrupt."
posted by Nomyte

The fun thing is, in many ways young children *aren't* human. Anthony may be deformed in some way - that doctor certainly thought so - but there's nothing in his behavior inconsistent with that of ordinary 3-year-olds. They're all utter, absolute sociopaths - they can't help it, the bits of their brain responsible for empathy simply haven't grown in yet. The only difference between an ordinary toddler and Anthony is that Anthony is capable of doing whatever he wants, whereas real toddlers don't have any power to speak of.

Kids are terrifying.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 7:43 AM on May 2, 2012 [9 favorites]


I thought I'd read this story, but when I read it right now, I know I couldn't have. Because this was ten times more chilling than the story I had in my head, and that was bad enough. Off now to watch Spongebob to recover. I don't think cats on the internet will quite do it this time.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:45 AM on May 2, 2012


Dante, et al, managed to produce some specific and indelible evil. Remember this or this? Maybe you had to be 11 years old, watching it on cable while your folks are out for the night but that stuff knocked my socks off.

I watched it in the middle of the day, on VHS at about the same age.
That mouthless girl and the twins haunted me for months after.
Three years later I was older, babysitting my sister, and the new Twilight Zone was on, 10-ish after 21 Jump Street.

What with the creaking house and all I would often scare myself senseless, weekly.

Bloody GRRM.
posted by Mezentian at 7:49 AM on May 2, 2012


I saw this when it first aired on the original Twilight Zone (Yes, I'm really that old.) Creeped me out then and I never forgot it.

Having read the story, it appears that little Anthony may have been a bit more unusual than the television program could depict.

In the story it seems to hint that Anthony has been around for only 3 years and that at birth the doctor could tell there was something amiss by his appearance. He is also referred to as a goblin. He also seems to have the ability to climb up on the piano, and I'm envisioning an old upright here, an indicator of pretty good physical prowess for a 3 year old.

Regarding the social commentary aspects, 1953 was at the height of the red scare. We had "lost" China and the Soviet Union was testing nukes right and left. Unlike North Korea, they actually worked. I'm thinking the social conformity of the '50s and the need to stifle dissent were a couple of the progenitors of this story.
posted by mygoditsbob at 7:50 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Idi Amin: You dare try to poison me? After everything I gave you? I am Idi Amin! President-for-life and ruler of Uganda. I am the father of Africa.

Nicholas Garrigan: You're a child. You have the mind and ego of an angry, spoiled, uneducated child. And that's what makes you so fucking scary!
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:06 AM on May 2, 2012


Lovely story, I'd never read it. I remember the Twilight Zone episode, it's interesting how much better the story works in writing.

I'm curious about the Mirror, Mirror reference: what's the connection? To me it's clearly inspiration for Charlie X. But where "It's a Good Life" is about the horror of pretending everything is lovely in suburbia, Charlie X is more about adolescent sexuality.

We had a AskMe question about creepy children movies last year; lots of good films there. My favorite from the era is Village of the Damned. It goes nicely with the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers for a Cold War film festival.
posted by Nelson at 8:19 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great post, wonderful discussion.

This story hit me pretty hard when I was a kid, and I guess it must still have some power over me, because despite recognizing its brilliance immediately, and recommending it a bunch of times to the jaded (I wouldn't let my partner read it (like I could stop her!)), I have absolutely no desire to reread it now.

The children who hold the world in their hands like a snow globe at the close of Childhood's End seem to me to have a family resemblance to Anthony, as does the Starchild at the end of 2001.

I remember being somewhat afraid of babies and toddlers when I was an adolescent, I don't really know why, actually, but not because of this story, though I wonder if this story doesn't tap into that somehow.
posted by jamjam at 8:33 AM on May 2, 2012


The Deep Space 9 episode Emperors New Cloak was dedicated to Bixby. Incidentally, that was also a mirror universe episode.
posted by dr_dank at 8:42 AM on May 2, 2012


Before I finished re-reading this, why was I thinking the kid's name was "Jeffy" or "Jeffrey"? What other story with a powerful child am I thinking of?
posted by mrbill at 9:00 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Jeffty is Five," surely.
posted by escabeche at 9:04 AM on May 2, 2012


I remember reading this story somewhere between ten and fourteen, when my friend's family across the street had a garage sale and I bought a collection of Twilight Zone stories from them for fifty cents. Read it in a motel somewhere when we where on vacation.

To me, it's always seemed like a stripped down, concentrated metaphor for life itself. We're born into this world whether we want to be here or not, and afterwards we're completely at the mercy of whatever happens to us. Maybe there's a God, maybe not. It really doesn't matter, because the universe itself can be as capricious and mean as Anthony. Because no matter how you live your life, no matter what you do or what you leave behind, you're still going to end up in the cornfield some day, just like the citizens of Peaksville.
posted by Kevin Street at 9:06 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's it. Thanks.
posted by mrbill at 9:06 AM on May 2, 2012


Wylla: "are you maybe remembering A Little Peace and Quiet? That piece of cold-war grimness scared the life out of me as a pre-teen..."

YES. That episode deeply impacted me at the time.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:21 AM on May 2, 2012


If Bixby had cited specifics, some readers would have said, "Oh, that's all? It could have been much worse." I believe the 1959 Twilight Zone episode put Hollis' still-living head on the spring of a jack-in-the-box.

The episode also had a ton of implied stuff that was just vague as hell, too. Wasn't there a bit where the kid does *something* to a rat in a shoebox, and then he shows his mom, and you can tell just from her face that he's done something awful, but we never see the rat? I loved that Twilight Zone episode as a kid.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:22 AM on May 2, 2012


Kevin Street: "because the universe itself can be as capricious and mean as Anthony."

Yea, but only God can punish you for thinking the wrong thoughts. Even totalitarian regimes only wish they could read your mind. One could argue it's a tale of what they'd do with that power though.
posted by pwnguin at 9:28 AM on May 2, 2012


Wylla, I read Tomorrow's Children too at about that age, and I have never forgotten it after nearly 50 years. It is an excellent introduction to sf for young readers.
posted by caryatid at 9:52 AM on May 2, 2012


That mouthless girl and the twins haunted me for months after.

When I was three, Poltergeist came out and I saw it with my (teenaged) uncles. It was my favourite movie for a long time. My aunt and uncle were peripherally involved with the production of the movie "The Hand", so I loved it as well. I also saw "The Thing" at a young age and thought the inside out dogs were the BEST THING EVER.

Point is, I was a kid who loved horror films.

The Twilight Zone movie came out when I was eight. I watched it with my parents, eating popcorn on the couch. This segment (the mouthless girl, specifically) terrified me and for the first time ever I went to bed afraid of the dark.

So while I can't remember if I've read this story before or not (I've definitely seen the original Twilight Zone version, I sought it out about ten years ago), the saccharine remake in the 80s remains the first "horror" film that managed to penetrate my previously flexible little psyche and actually scare the pants off me.

(And I'm thrilled to read the story again, it was great. Totally chilling.)
posted by annathea at 10:24 AM on May 2, 2012


What frustrated me most with the Twilight Zone episode was that that one woman didn't take her chance to bash in the kid's head.

Me too, but assuming the too-long-for-half-hour-show background is the same as the story we now know that it had been tried at least once and maybe twice. And the first time -- the doctor -- had such horrific consequences for everyone in the town that it would take a sociopath to try again.

After all, it isn't curfew or even killing one out of ten citizens we're talking about. Literally anything could happen.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:45 AM on May 2, 2012


Um, you just dug up a childhood memory I had successfully repressed for about 50 years. Hated that story but I generally hate dystopic SF as a rule. Thanks, I guess?
posted by Lynsey at 10:51 AM on May 2, 2012


there's nothing in his behavior inconsistent with that of ordinary 3-year-olds. They're all utter, absolute sociopaths - they can't help it, the bits of their brain responsible for empathy simply haven't grown in yet. The only difference between an ordinary toddler and Anthony is that Anthony is capable of doing whatever he wants, whereas real toddlers don't have any power to speak of.

Kids are terrifying.


This is such a bizzare comment to me. Wait, I mean, it's a GOOD thing that you said that.

As someone currently living with a 5 year old, 3 three year old, and 1 year old, this is not my experience at all. The older two are very quick to offer sympathy and encouragement to each other and to me, and do everything they can to be helpful. Far from being sociopaths, they are genuinely affectionate and eager to please. Studies show that altruistic impulses in children are evident as young as 18 months. What you are describing could not be more opposite than anything I've experienced with little kids. It reminds me of horrible and badly off-base Calvinistic sermons I've heard about original sin and total depravity and not sparing the rod. I wish I could be surrounded by adults as genuine, as delightful, and as caring as my three-year-old son.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:18 AM on May 2, 2012 [13 favorites]


Not my experience, either. (12, 9 and 3 year olds here). Three year olds are inexperienced and impulsive, but not sociopaths. As Pater says, they are naturally loving and eager to be helpful and loved. Sure, they can be selfish and because of their lack of experience they lack insight into how what they do may hurt other people, but I don't think that's the same thing at all.

I would say my 3 year old's biggest concern (after being fed) is 'do you love me?'.

When you do actually run into a sociopathic 3 year old, you sure as hell know about it. For example, the kid I met who poured his own shit into his parents' mouths while they slept, and on another occasion sliced the soles of their feet with a razor blade while they were sleeping.
posted by unSane at 11:45 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't interpret Anthony as sociopathic, because he's not an adult. Like many a three-year old, he has an extremely limited understanding of the impact of his actions, and very little emotional control. In an adult, that same combination might *be* sociopathic. In a child, it's a normal stage of development. And Anthony does indeed have altruistic impulses -- arguably *most* of his impulses in the story are altruistic. It's just that the results of the actions of an altruistic child with a limited understanding of the results of his actions, poor emotional control, and omnipotence are ... terrifying.

So, I don't think there's much conflict between thinking that children are (in some sense) terrifying, especially if you imagine them with greater power of the world than they have, and that actual children are empathic people.
posted by feckless at 12:07 PM on May 2, 2012


In the story it seems to hint that Anthony has been around for only 3 years and that at birth the doctor could tell there was something amiss by his appearance. He is also referred to as a goblin. He also seems to have the ability to climb up on the piano, and I'm envisioning an old upright here, an indicator of pretty good physical prowess for a 3 year old.

Understatement! There was something *so* disturbing about him that it made a small town doctor scream and try to kill a newborn baby. That alone is one of the most harrowing details from the story.

Good catch on the piano thing, too.

there's nothing in his behavior inconsistent with that of ordinary 3-year-olds. They're all utter, absolute sociopaths - they can't help it, the bits of their brain responsible for empathy simply haven't grown in yet.

I wouldn't say that. There's a long passage in the story all about how Anthony has spent a lot of time cultivating a beautiful glade simply for the pleasure of helping various animals. And he tries to do the same for the townspeople, too -- but badly. He's not an unfeeling sociopath -- he's just a spoiled toddler with a toddler's understanding of the world and of adult norms, whose powers turn what would be adorable faux pas and temper tantrums into horrific nightmares.

Consider what happened to the widow in the story -- Anthony heard her grieving and wanted to make her feel better. A normal child might tell her he prayed to Jesus for him to come back, or make her a doll and tell her that can be his replacement, and we'd all be sort of heartwarmed by it. But he's not limited by reality, so instead he reanimated her husband's corpse and sent him traipsing back to her door. Nightmare fuel for us, but he's simply to young to understand why that might be a frightening or upsetting thing.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:09 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


My kid has Asperger's syndrome, and he is truly wonderful in most ways, but just now at the age of 9 is he starting to get the idea that people other than himself have feelings. He would think me into the cornfield twenty times a day if he could.
posted by Daily Alice at 12:12 PM on May 2, 2012


He also seems to have the ability to climb up on the piano, and I'm envisioning an old upright here, an indicator of pretty good physical prowess for a 3 year old.

My brother-in-law found his 2 year old on top of the fridge once. And it was a full size fridge.

My (just) 3-year old will happily move chairs and tables and arrange them into terrifying configurations so that he can reach the cupboard with the candy in it.
posted by unSane at 12:16 PM on May 2, 2012


Off now to watch Spongebob to recover.

My antidote: a person who apparently has the with the power to rewrite reality as he pleases discovers how disturbing that power could be. He grows as a human being and chooses to change nothing. It's A Wonderful Life.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:21 PM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


I would say my 3 year old's biggest concern (after being fed) is 'do you love me?'.

There's a great line in "Habitat of the Blessed" where one of the narrators describes kids as Monsters that devour love and can never be satisfied.

What makes Anthony so damn scary is that he isn't evil. It's that his abilities outpaced his understanding. To me, he's a much more convincing metaphor for the progress of technology and the possible disasters that it could lead to than he is for anything else.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:23 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Excuse me: "The Habitation of the Blessed" I blame four year old with god like powers sitting next to me and looking at a book about dinosaurs.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:35 PM on May 2, 2012


Lobstermitten, Plato's tyrant ~= Plato's philosopher king

Ah, quite right. You said "ideal" tyrant and I was thinking you were referring to the ruler he describes as ideal and adding a little editorializing that the philosopher king would be a tyrant.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:15 PM on May 2, 2012


The thing I was surprised by in this story is that Bixby gives several reasons to picture Anthony as a literal monster, and almost none to picture him as anything that even resembles a human boy. It makes me feel like the "children are monsters" interpretation must come more from the Twilight Zone and later adaptations. Rather than meditating on how kids really are, or what an otherwise normal kid would do with terrific power, Bixby's focus is more on the adults and how they deal with the situation; Anthony, other than having particular preferences or predilections, is almost more of an impersonal force than a character.
posted by anazgnos at 1:36 PM on May 2, 2012


I read about a paragraph in and realized I had read this story before. I have absolutely no memory of when I read it (and I know I didn't see the TV episode), and didn't know when I clicked that I would be doing anything but discovering something new. Amazing how a really haunting story can stay with you even after you manage to completely forget it.
posted by Mchelly at 2:17 PM on May 2, 2012


Not the same thing as this then. (SLYT)

Still genius in it's own way though.
posted by das1969 at 2:20 PM on May 2, 2012


I just watched the follow up episode to the original Twilight Zone episode with Billy Mumy playing Anthony Fremont that was done in the Twilight Zone revival of the early 2000's with the actual Bill Mumy as an adult and Bill Mumy's real life daughter playing his daughter in this sequel episode. Cloris Leachman reprises her role as his mother. Not the best follow-up in the world, but still chilling fun.
posted by CarsonDyle at 3:04 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


arzakh - are you maybe remembering A Little Peace and Quiet? That piece of cold-war grimness scared the life out of me as a pre-teen...
No, from memory it started with a reporter driving a lead-plated car, because they believed the town had been hit by a bomb.
posted by arzakh at 6:29 PM on May 2, 2012


Last night my partner started reading me this story in bed. I recognized it from the Twilight Zone episode, and after a few minutes I asked him why he thought it would a good bed time story. "It's a good story." Yeah, and the thing of nightmares. Now I know why he was thinking of it.
posted by kendrak at 7:13 AM on May 3, 2012


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