Thursday, April 14, 2016


Time-Travel stories have long fascinated me. And my first encounter at age 13 in 1959 with Jack Finney’s short-story collection, The Third Level, put the seal on what has become a life-long interest. The story is about a Third Level platform at Grand Central Station where a train can take you to Galesburg, Illinois in the year 1894. By the time I had finished the story, by God, I was ready to go there with its gentle narrator as my tour guide.

Although best-known for the book that launched no less than four movie adaptations, including Don Siegel’s classic INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS in 1956, Finney’s time-travel stories command my special attention. And now I’ve completed an article, “Time on His Hands: The Fantastic Stories of Jack Finney,” which will soon appear this Fall in the Weird Fiction Review, No. 7.

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.”

This is no mere nostalgia. Finney is careful to note that fractured time can be dangerous. In a disturbing fable, “I’m Scared,” the narrator speculates on the consequences of a “growing rebellion against the present:
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
I may be no longer the thirteen-year old kid who first stepped on the platform of the Third Level so long ago, but when I dip back into the pages of Finney's books, as I do on occasion, strange things happen. Characters don't move and talk precisely the way I had remembered; events don't transpire in just the way I had supposed. Blinking, I double-check the lines of print. No, that can't be... Just as the seams between past and present in Finney’s stories “momentarily buckle and tear,” I think the borders between Finney and me are breaking down. I am no longer sure what time period, even what reality I inhabit...

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.

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