Invisible Ink: No 149 - Jack Finney

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The Independent Culture

Not all of the writers championed here are easy reads. Some appear because they were game-changers, and don't deserve to be forgotten. I wanted to include Jack Finney because of his prose, which is simple, light and pleasurable. Finney was a generous-spirited everyman who could make you believe in the most unlikely things because he always worked to win readers over. In his short story "I Love Galesburg in the Springtime" he carefully describes the town before bringing in a phantom trolley car that puts out a fire. Galesburg protects itself by drawing upon its own past, and you believe because of the loving descriptions that foreground the situation.

Finney was born in 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and led a fairly uneventful life, working for an advertising agency in New York, starting a family and moving to Los Angeles. His first story, "The Widow's Walk", was published as the result of a contest in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and his first novel brought fame.

The Body Snatchers hinges on such a powerful idea that it has been frequently filmed since publication in 1955. Alien invaders take over humans while they sleep, removing their emotions in preparation for a new world, but how can we tell who's been turned? The central theme of identity loss has come to stand for McCarthyism, fascism, militarism and modern life.

Finney was also fascinated by time travel, and in Time and Again (1970) he utilised old photographs of New York to help explain how his hero Morley practises self-hypnosis to travel back to 1882. The book's premise was subjected to a barely acknowledged "homage" in the film Somewhere in Time, but now the original may resurface as a movie. Just before Finney's death, a sequel, From Time to Time, involved the Titanic, leaving room for a third part that cannot now be written.

Some of his gently nostalgic novels remind one of Ray Bradbury, but Finney was also drawn to tales of heists, as in the casino robbery Five Against the House and the shipboard raid Assault on a Queen. My personal favourite is The Night People (1977) in which a group of friends form a club that stages elaborate practical jokes on the public, only to find their increasingly risky behaviour getting out of hand.

Finney's many fine short stories have never been gathered in a complete edition, but paperbacks sometimes turn up at book fairs.