Don’t You (Forget About Jack Finney)

Jack Finney

Jack Finney

It broke my heart, but I did it anyway. I bought an anthology of 72 time travel stories even though not a single one of them was by Jack Finney.

You know who Jack Finney is. At least you know his most famous work, The Body Snatchers, which has been made into four separate theatrically released films. He has also written noirish heist books and thrillers that were translated into film, but those are forgotten today. You won’t find them in print. The book of his you are most likely to run across, if you’re not looking for one, would be at a chain store, clustered with 40 other books on a table labeled “Summer Reads.” That book would be Time and Again.

Jack Finney's 1970 novel   Time and Again

Jack Finney's 1970 novel Time and Again

Time and Again, published in 1970, is a novel length distillation of the time travel themes Jack Finney had been building shorts stories out of for the two decades prior. The book was a big hit and remains beloved today, especially by New Yorkers who appreciate its researched and detailed journey back to 1880s Manhattan where a modern ad man slips back and finds his great love. Time and Again was never filmed, but you’ll find many of its conceits in the movie Somewhere in Time, based on Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return.

It is not uncommon to charge Matheson with outright stealing of his premise from Jack Finney, just as his Hell House is accused of cribbing from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I make allowances for Matheson because I enjoy so much of his work, but in the realm of time travel, I would prefer to see Finney’s legacy be the one to persist. Jack Finney’s first two short story collections, The Third Level and I Love Galesburg in the Springtime, are each about 50% time travel stories. Both are out of print, but you can find the time travel stories pulled out of each into the 12 story collection About Time.

But despite this rich stockpile of time travel fantasies, that 72 story anthology, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, opens with a minor Richard Matheson short story, “The Death Ship.” Matheson wins again.

Maybe this is to be expected. Maybe Jack Finney’s charming, easy going approach to time travel does not fit well with a modern sensibility. When you read a Jack Finney time travel story, you will not find sojourners with elaborate time machines, facing off with questions of alien life forms, lasers, or mortality. Instead you will find characters with a yearning for a quieter, simpler, less frightening age. In “The Death Ship” Matheson’s characters spend a good portion of the story trying to convince themselves that the time slip they are experiencing can’t possibly be real. When Jack Finney’s characters feel the tug of a former age, they find only relief.

Such wistful nostalgia might not be enough for anthology editors today. Zack Snyder will never adapt a Jack Finney time travel tale. Samuel L. Jackson will never act in one. But editors second guessing the appetites of modern audiences could rob readers of some wonderful variation in their literary diet.

People still have a longing for an imaged, better time lost to history. The past always was and has been better. Even the notion of chivalry, from the moment of its invention centuries ago, was conceived of as a thing of a bygone era, when people behaved better than they do today. Some modern Republicans express a longing for the 1950s, before the civil rights movement, before the sexual revolution, before Viet Nam. But in the 1950s, Jack Finney’s characters wanted to return to the 1880s and 1890s. That is his personal idealized period. In “The Third Level,” first published in 1952 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the protagonist, Charley, discovers a train on the third level of Grand Central Station that will take him back to 1894:

To be back there with the First World War still twenty years off, and World War II, over forty years in the future… I wanted two tickets for that.

A dozen Jack Finney time travel stories are collected in   About Time

A dozen Jack Finney time travel stories are collected in About Time

Charley could only get together $200 in 19th century currency, “but I didn’t care; eggs were thirteen cents a dozen in 1894.”

No one so much as considers going forward in time in a Jack Finney story. It’s always something in the past that they want to get back to. In the classic story “Such Interesting Neighbors,” from 1951, the couple who move in next door seem to be from 2190 where time travel was recently invented and is depopulating the Earth as everyone flees the present to settle in their favorite time and place of the last millennia or two. In the telling of how time travel played out, it doesn’t appear to have occurred to a single person to peek ahead and see what 2290 might be like. They seemed too frightened to find out.

Even in his day, Jack Finney was far from the most ambitious writer of speculative fiction, The Body Snatchers aside. You would find most of his short stories published in The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s or McCall’s. The dust jacket to first editions of his 1962 anthology I Love Galesburg in the Springtime proclaims:

"This collection of light fantastic stories will fill you with nostalgia for the older, gentler ways; and, happily, it will assure you that some of those ways are still around."

Not the action packed adventure an Alistair MacClean cover of the same period would have promised.

But I tell you, the man is still great. There is a simplicity to his language that charms and endears you such that you don’t feel invited into his worlds as much as you just feel you were already there when the story started. You never feel Jack Finney straining. You just get a pleasant cadence from his every sentence.

Jack Finney may not be of our time. He wasn’t even of his time. Whatever time you’re from, maybe even if you’re from 1882, Jack Finney was from the past, but it’s a past you want to be in with him, for as long as you’ve got your hands holding up one of his works.

Jack Finney is a bright vein of gold for any reader first discovering him. He’s a writer with so many wonderful works that are so easy to make time for. You can disappear into a Jack Finney story and reemerge before anyone realizes you were gone.

I tend to like stories with harder turns, more violence and less hope than the standard Jack Finney story, but even I just can’t help loving the guy.

Jack Finney may be a writer of the past, enamored with the past, belonging to the past, but let’s not ever let him slip into the past.

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