Finney’s time travelers oppose the deadening, conformist Present that flattens and stifles the grace and beauty of the Past. Like Miles, they are disaffected and vulnerable, finding themselves at the nexus between Past and Present. The seams momentarily buckle and tear. The boundary between “here and then wavers” (“The Love Letter” 219). A persistent memory, the stimulus of a photograph or letter, an emotional longing are enough to trigger the Past-ness that has never entirely vanished. “Every man remembers the thing that struck him like the thunderbolt of an instant,” writes G.K. Chesterton, “though it had stood there waiting for him as the memorial of an aeon."
In his story collections The Third Level and I Love Galesburg in the Springtime, and his novels Time and Again and its sequel, From Time to Time, Finney has found ways to take his characters (and us) back in time. On the one hand, there are simple talismanic props—a letter, an old rolltop desk, and a stamp from1869 that enables two lovers to communicate across time; and a “Woodrow Wilson” dime that serves as a passport to an alternate world and an alternate time. On the other hand, there are all manner of Time Machines, as it were, that effect the transition: The train from the platform of Grand Central’s Third Level steams toward 1894; the Wright Brothers aeroplane in “Quit Zoomin’ Those Hands in the Air” takes an inventor back to the Civil War with an offer to help General Grant with aerial surveillance (the offer is refused); and a restored Jordan Playboy automobile in “Second Chance” drives its happy occupant backward from 1950 to 1923.
The Past itself becomes a character that is reluctant to yield to the incursions of the Present. In the title story in I Love Galesburg in the Springtime, another favorite, the entire Illinois town’s past history conducts guerilla raids on present-day changes. Turn-of-the-century streetcars clang through the modern-day streets and ancient fire trucks leap to the alarm bell to rescue an old house from destruction. "'It's resisting us," says a local citizen, "for the past isn't so easily destroyed.”
For the first time in man's history man is desperate to escape the present. Yes, there is a craving in the world like a thirst, a terrible mass pressure that you can almost feel, of millions of minds struggling against the barriers of time. I am utterly convinced that this terrible mass pressure of millions of minds is already, slight but definitely, affecting time itself.The ease and availability of new time travel technologies are hemorrhaging the future. Disaffected people escape to the Past—and do not return. “’Man is disturbing the clock of time, and I am afraid it will break. When it does, I leave it to your imagination the last few hours of madness that will be left to us; all the countless moments that now make up our lives suddenly ripped apart and chaotically tangled in time.”
Although Finney’s stories never appeared on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, Stephen King has famously declared that Finney, perhaps more than anyone, truly forged the modern fantasy vein popularized in that series: "I urge you to find a copy of Finney's The Third Level," wrote King, "which will show you what The Twilight Zone could have been."
|Drawing of Jack Finney by John C. Tibbetts|
That's all right. I'm content. Jack Finney's work, I am convinced, is for all our times, not just for this one. That's his secret: He tests the flux of time and tide against the ticking of our own pulses.