On Charles Beaumont’s “The Jungle”

“The birth of a city… the death of a world.”

First appearing in If Magazine in 1954, Charles Beaumont’s “The Jungle” explores social-political tensions between “primitive” tribalism contra the tireless march of urban civilization. It is also a bit of an indictment of global humanitarianism. It follows one Western leader named Richard Austin, who has helped to build the vast city of Mbarara in Africa. However, the city goes against the wishes of local tribes so Mr. Austin has a curse placed upon him by a toothless Bantu shaman named Bokawah. As a result, Mr. Austin is now plagued by unbearable animal noises and the haunting pulse of a banging drum inside his head. Also, his wife lies on her deathbed with what some scientists suggest is Malaria, but Mr. Austin suspects shamanry is the culprit.

“He sat in the darkened room and listened to the drums; to the even, steady throb that really neither rose nor diminished, but held to that slow dignified tempo with which he’d become so familiar” (12).

One night, Mr. Austin wanders out into the city and eventually toward a village where he speaks with the shaman Bokawah, but Austin refuses to end the construction of the city. Bokawah reveals a voodoo doll of Austin’s wife Mag. Terrified, Austin rushes back through the city, returning to his apartment where he safely closes himself inside and instead of Mag, he finds a feasting lion on his bed where his wife once lay –thus he faces some measure of supernatural punishment for trampling upon Native African tribes and their land. This is a fascinating little macabre tale about ancient spiritual magic confronting the promise of modern urbanization. There are a few notable changes between the short story and the Twilight Zone episode –such as the name of the protagonist (Alan Richards in the show, but Richard Austin in the story) and the fact that his wife is not suffering from Malaria in the episode. Either way, both the story and the episode contain similar themes of hubris and the all-too often false promise of missionary zeal.

Beaumont, Charles. Perchance to Dream and other Short Stories. Penguin Classics. New York, NY (2015).  

Note: In the Foreword to this essay collection, Ray Bradbury offers some lovely reflections on the life of Charles “Chuck” Beaumont, from initially meeting a sixteen-year-old Beaumont at a bookstore in Los Angeles (talking about Terry and the Pirates comic collection, Buck Rogers, Tarzan, and Prince Valiant), to helping Beaumont publish his first short story and embark upon a successful literary career –“His life revolved around a special desk which he had designed and had built by one of the finest cabinetmakers in the West. His files were beautifully stashed, labeled, and stuffed with a half-million notions, idle fancies, half-grown or full-grown dreams…” (xiii). His was a life that was cut short too soon –a great tragedy for American science fiction.

Ray Bradbury offers the following reflections on Charles Beaumont’s funeral:

“The friends of Charles Beaumont, at gravesite, felt… above all that a time was over, and things would never be the same. Our old group would meet less often, and then fall away. What was central to it, the binding force, the conversational fire, the great runner, jumper, and yeller, was gone” (xiv).  

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

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