Ray Bradbury wrote some truly terrifying fiction over the years, and for my money, “The Next in Line” is among his creepiest.
The story was the result of his 1945 visit to Guanajuato, Mexico, where he saw the city’s famed mummies. Relatives of the dead were required to pay an annual grave tax to keep their dearly departed underground in Guanajuato. Fail to pay up, and your loved one’s corpse would be dug up to make room for new arrivals in the crowded cemeteries. When they began to exhume bodies, however, the authorities discovered that many of them had naturally mummified in the arid soil.
Guanajuato, of course, saw another revenue opportunity. It stood the mummies in a line and lets tourists gawk — provided they pony up a few pesos.
“The Next in Line’s” middle-aged American couple, Joseph and Marie, are on vacation in Mexico. Joseph is eager to check out the famed mummies, but Marie wants nothing of them. They couple has already witnessed a funeral procession for an infant and the morbid scene has left her feeling rather uneasy.
That unease builds into terror, and because this is a horror story, Joseph naturally drags her into a face-to-face viewing of the mummies. When she does, Bradbury invokes powerful descriptive language to give us the creeps as well.
They looked as if they had leaped, snapped upright in their graves, clutched hands over their shriveled bosoms and screamed, jaws wide, tongues out, nostrils flared.
And been frozen that way.
All of them had open mouths. Theirs was a perpetual screaming. They were dead and they knew it. In every raw fiber and evaporated organ they knew it.
She stood listening to them scream.
While plenty of horror writers can describe dead bodies, Bradbury’s story sticks with the reader because he so effectively taps into Marie’s mounting dread. Every tiny sign of illness, every symbol of death, becomes an awful and foreboding drumbeat in her own funeral procession.
We also realize that Joseph is a sadist who mocks her morbid fixation, at one point buying a Day of the Dead candy skull and eating it in front of her. Naturally, he makes sure she notices that the skull is decorated with her own name.
If you’ve read “The Next in Line,” you know exactly why Marie has reason to be terrified. If you haven’t, I won’t give it away. Either way, why not pick up Bradbury’s October Country collection and give it a read with its namesake cocktail in hand?
Tequila seems to be the obvious liquor for a story taking place in Mexico, and in homage to the American couple, I borrowed the other ingredients from a whiskey cocktail called the Brown Derby, the namesake drink of the famed restaurant in Bradbury’s L.A. hometown.
It’s just the kind of easy-sipping cocktail that would go down easy in the Guanajuato sun. And like nasty Joseph, it’s got a bite that sneaks up on you.
THE NEXT IN LINE
2 oz. anejo tequila
1 oz. freshly squeezed graprefruit juice
1/2 oz. honey
1/2 tsp lemon juice
Twist of lemon rind for garnish
Place all the ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker and shake vigorously for about 20 seconds. Pour into a couple glass and garnish with the twist.