The Body Snatchers – Jack Finney
Dell Books – 1955 (Originally serialised 1954)
I have known of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies and had an idea of what they were about for as long as I remember, but I have never actually seen either of them. I didn’t know they were based on a book until I saw this novel being discussed in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, a history of horror. If you haven’t read The Body Snatchers already, let me tell you a bit about its history before you rush out to buy a copy. I wish somebody had told me this before I read the book.
The Body Snatchers was originally serialised in Colliers Magazine in 1954. The first whole edition came out in 1955. The movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out in 1956. After this, reprints of the book bore the film’s title. In 1978 another film version was made, and Finney updated his novel to coincide with the release of the new movie and to make the book more appealing for a younger generation
The changes in the revised text, as far as I can tell, were minor. The revised version is actually set in the 70s, the place names are switched around a bit, and there’s a few paragraphs that are moved around/added/deleted. I didn’t conduct a detailed cross examination or anything like that. I was reading from the original text, but when I was preparing dinner, I switched to an audiobook version on youtube that turned out to be a reading of the revised text. I only noticed that the texts were different when I had to switch between the two and found myself searching for phrases from one that were different in the other. I looked online (very briefly) to see if anyone else had listed off the differences, but I found nothing. I think the story is basically the same in both.
I mentioned the two film versions, but there have actually been 4 Hollywood movies based on the book and countless others inspired by it. References to this story pop up everywhere, and I knew what to expect in general terms of plot. I had been surprised to see Stephen King list it as one of the most important works of horror. Influential sure, but horror? I thought this was science fiction. After reading this (and a few more of the books that King recommends in Danse Macabre) the utter silliness of the notion that literary science fiction is inherently separate from horror has become apparent. Even if you know what to expect, The Body Snatchers is a surprisingly creepy story.
So what’s going on in here? Well, the locals of a small American town have started noticing their relatives acting strange. They look the same, talk the same and largely act the same, but they’re clearly not the same. Things get worrisome when a couple find a surprisingly plain looking corpse in their house. Then weird vegetably pods start popping up in people’s cupboards, and it becomes apparent that these pods are the source of the bizarre uncooked bodies that are assuming the forms and minds of the villagers while discarding their souls. Weird and cool.
The only thing that disappointed me about this book was the ending. The story is horrendous; what’s happening is truly nightmarish, and Finney does a great job of making his readers feel the surmounting inevitability of the doom of all humankind. In the final chapters, when the protagonists are caught, you realise that there is no way out. This isn’t going to be pretty. Personally, I love a horror story with a bleak ending. As this tale draws to a close, it looks like the entire human race is going to get their souls torn out and their bodies drained of life. Hell yes. That’s the perfect ending for a horror novel. Unfortunately, the last few pages of his book actually describe the antagonists suddenly changing their mind and abandoning their mission, leaving the vast majority of humanity unmolested.
I felt swindled.
I thought that the ridiculously fortuitous turn of events at the end of the book might have been to please a 1950s’ audience, but then I remembered that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, a novel with as bleak an ending as any, was also first published in 1954. Maybe Finney’s publisher insisted on a positive outcome. I might just be speculating, but the turn of events which leads to humanity being spared is so sudden, unexpected and quick that it made me think that Finney might originally have had different plans for ending this novel.
Even with the dumb ending, this was an enjoyable book. There are genuinely creepy moments, and its such an important work within the horror genre I’m glad to have read it.