First of all, it isn’t every day, or even every year, that I write about old short stories. But this one is special. It was one of the most influential stories I read as a child. It made me think about the power of art and the power of words to create a mood, and to create ideas that weren’t explicitly on the printed page. It also served to broaden my view of what was possible in terms of plot and tone. Yes, it’s just a humble little sci-fi/fantasy story – but it’s nothing like the tidy little tales found in the storybooks and readers of my childhood.
It’s possible that you’ve seen a few adaptations of “It’s a Good Life.” It was first adapted as an episode of the original “Twilight Zone.” Bill Mumy, later to achieve fame as Will Robinson on “Lost in Space” appeared in the role of Anthony, a child gifted with god-like powers. It was adapted again many years after that in the “Twilight Zone” movie. Both of those adaptations have their charms, but neither comes close to the original story. The old “Twilight Zone” adaptation softens or eliminates some of the major horrors of the original story, while the movie adaptation is largely about its entertaining visuals and is almost unrecognizable as having come from the original story.
The short story concerns the inhabitants of the town of Peaksville, Ohio. They live in mortal terror of a monster in their midst – 3-year-old Anthony Fremont. At the moment of his birth, the doctor took one look at him, dropped him, and tried to kill him. Anthony responded by making the doctor go away and turning Peaksville into an isolated town. The universe melts away into gray nothingness at the edge of town, though whether Anthony has destroyed the rest of the world or simply taken Peaksville far away is a question no one in Peaksville can answer.
Anthony is never described in specifics. Author Bixby cryptically refers to Anthony’s “bright, wet purple gaze” and his “odd shadow,” but the reader is otherwise dared to imagine his appearance. Anthony can read minds; he can create, destroy, and alter life. When we first meet him, he is compelling a rat to eat itself from the tail on up until it dies. Various people in the town have been killed or had their brains addled by Anthony in the past 3 years. Due to the town’s isolation, there is no phone service or electricity. Farming is difficult on account of Anthony’s capricious decisions regarding what the weather will be on a given day, and canned goods are beginning to run low. The town is slowly dying and no one can do anything about it.
It is Anthony’s mind reading ability that particularly defines the tone of the story. People force themselves to think cheerful thoughts when Anthony is near. Even when something dreadful happens, they tell each other that “It’s a good thing that happened; yes a very fine thing.”
The story ends with no sign of hope. The closing sentence reads, “Next day it snowed, and killed off half the crops – but it was a good day.”
It wasn’t until many years later that I began to think about some of the buried themes percolating just below the surface of “It’s a Good Life.” The biggest clue is to be found in the story’s original publication date: 1953. Eisenhower was president. The post-war baby boom was in full swing. Middle America was intent on viewing this as a great Golden Age, having lots of babies, enjoying the fruits of booming business and technological innovations, and putting a lot of distance between themselves and the horrible war only a few years behind them. The pressure to conform – and to give the appearance of conforming – was tremendous. On top of this, “Better Dead than Red” was a catchphrase of the time; lives and careers were very much at risk if one were even accused of being a Communist, so whatever public face one had to adopt to prevent such whispers was considered well worth the compromise. All of this is clearly reflected – or shall I say refracted – in the citizens of Peaksville forcing a cheery outward countenance, regardless of the thoughts they were struggling to deny.
Even in the midst of all this growth and prosperity, the Cold War also weighed heavily on America’s mind. Thoughts of creeping Communism and the threat of nuclear annihilation had to coexist with peace and prosperity in the minds of many. Note that 1953 was also the year in which Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason after being found guilty of passing along nuclear weapon information to the Soviet Union. The stakes were very high and the perceived threat of a nuclear catastrophe was strong in the minds of many. So if “It’s a Good Life” seems like an oddly dreary story from a cheery time, it actually reflects the common dread that our world might be wiped out in a single stroke of madness.
So is all of that what the story’s about? No, not at all; it’s about an inexplicable creature with unearthly powers and a town trying desperately to cope with the horror. But it is a fever-dream of its time. I don’t think it has a political or social agenda; but it vibrates with a chord that was ringing in America at that time.
If you’d like to read the story for yourself, it’s been published in various anthologies over the years, and I’ve tracked down the text to this website as well. I would only suggest that you not rush through the reading of it. It’s mostly a quiet tale set in a quiet town. And by the way, if you read up on Jerome Bixby’s career, you’ll find that he wrote quite a bit for movies and television during his career, including some notable work for the original Star Trek series. One more bit of trivia – I’ve only recently learned that in 1970, “It’s a Good Life” was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the 20 finest science fiction stories ever written, so I guess I’m not the only one it made an impression on!