By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Electrocution’ is an early short story by the American fantasy author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), included in his 1996 short-story collection Quicker Than the Eye but first published in The Californian in 1946 under the pseudonym William Elliot.
‘The Electrocution’ is about a carnival double act, Johnny and Electra, who are, we infer, romantic partners as well as colleagues. Johnny ‘electrocutes’ Electra every night for entertainment, shocking and pleasing the crowd as he sends an electric current through her body while she is blindfolded and strapped to a chair. Johnny hands her a sword, and she touches people in the audience with it, spreading the electric current through the crowd.
For several nights, a youth with a sweating, pink face is eagerly watching in the crowd, and Johnny recognises that Electra has a new fan among the audience. She touches this youthful admirer with her sword, to much amusement, producing an ‘electrifying’ finale, we might say, to the show.
But Johnny discovers that Electra has been cheating on him with this pink-faced stranger, and beats the youth up, before enacting his terrible revenge on his female partner: changing the volts to amps and killing her live on stage. At the end of the story, Electra appears to have become a ghost, speaking from beyond her own death.
‘The Electrocution’ is a grisly tale, whose shocking ending is perhaps easy enough to see coming: a sign that this was an early and not entirely mature effort from Bradbury, who was still very much honing his craft. But it’s still an enjoyable enough seven-page shocker, and Bradbury’s description of the electrocution show is masterly.
In many ways, the ghastly twist to the story is encoded within its title. Although many people assume ‘electrocute’ is simply synonymous with ‘electrify’, the word ‘electrocution’ strictly means execution by means of electricity: it’s a portmanteau word, combining ‘electricity’ with ‘execution’. But what begins as a mock-execution ends up as a real one, with the thwarted Johnny taking justice into his own hands.
I wonder if Christopher Priest knew of this Bradbury short story when he wrote his short story ‘The Head and the Hand’, the opening tale in his collection Real-Time World, in which mutilation and, eventually, execution as entertainment form the backdrop, as well as a pair of unfaithful lovers.
It seems unlikely Priest was consciously recalling ‘The Electrocution’, since Bradbury’s short story wasn’t reprinted until 1980, five years after Real-Time World appeared and eight years after ‘The Head and the Hand’ was first published, but the two stories form a neat pairing.
According to Alison Griffiths in her book Carceral Fantasies, ‘The Electrocution’ was inspired by Bradbury’s childhood memories of a circus act named Mr Electrico, who would sit in a chair while a current was passed through his body, his face burning and the current sizzling his body.
Bradbury takes this childhood memory and creates a domestic drama out of this public performance, the love triangle between Johnny, Electra, and her lover creating the tension in the story’s final few pages.
But there’s more to it than that. As Griffiths also convincingly argues, there is something ‘orgasmic’ about Electra’s death in the chair, after ‘half of her’ has ‘poured out’ and a ‘clean light had come’ while she is shaken, ‘screaming’. But there is also something strangely empowering about her moment of death. For one, she seems to survive afterwards, albeit perhaps only as a ghost.
Indeed, this ending is what qualifies ‘The Electrocution’ as a fantasy story, although the line between life and death has already been blurred, and Electra’s fate foreshadowed, in another of the carnival acts, Skeleton Man, a kind of walking skeleton whose ‘living skull’ and ‘terrible bones’ are very much the warm-up act to the main event, Electra’s execution.
But there is also something ambiguous about Bradbury’s use of the word ‘power’ (‘The power still lived in her bones’): electric power, as in ‘power station’ and ‘power supply’, or a deeper power located within her, as she acts as the conduit for the electricity, dimming the lights all over the carnival ground?
This is what lifts ‘The Electrocution’ above the level of a shilling shocker and into more interesting, thoughtful territory. Is Electra’s death a release of sorts, which has liberated her from a dead-end relationship and from her endless performing? The ending offers us a spark of hope on that score, we might say.