Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)

One of my favorite “semi-horror” reads. I suppose it could be called “horror” but it doesn’t fit neatly into the mold. The point of view is that of a boy on the brink of manhood as he gets to know more about certain concepts of “good and evil” than he ever really wanted to…the traveling carnivals that moved from town to town, showing up at county fairs, sets the background for this tale–with their mysterious denizens, noisy rides, lights that filled the night while leaving pockets of darkness. The barkers and their “side shows”, the fixed games of “chance” are now a thing of a bygone era. Bradbury paints such a vivid picture of a now-lost bucolic rural life here as to be almost heartbreaking to contemporary readers. 

Something Wicked is the story of two kids scrambling to be a day, a month, a year older, and an aging parent reflecting on the nostalgia of his youth and perhaps wishing to shave a few years off his own accumulated tree rings. The desire here, in the former to be older and in the latter to be younger, serves to drive the characters’ behavior but does so at the expense of sound judgment; and the desire—not unlike Macbeth’s desire to become king—is shown to be inextricably bound to a sense of malevolence on account of that clouded judgment. In fact, the very title of this novel harks back to the opening scene of Macbeth, where a witch intimates the evil nature residing in the main character– I think that line subsequently calls attention to the potential within each of us for evil to be realized, provided we let it.

Other than being a rather creepy story, this novel is also a lament for the passage of time and the ending of things. Consider Jim Nightshade, who at the age of thirteen, has decided not to ever have children. And he means it. This novel succeeds on many levels; death and fear are, after all, universal and timeless. There are amazingly described scenes throughout the book, particularly the 3am arrival of the carnival, Will and Jim’s first glimpses of the carousel’s powers, Miss Foley getting lost in the house of mirrors, the night time hunt of the boys by the Dust Witch in a balloon, Charles’ confrontation with Mr. Dark during a parade to hide the boys hiding directly below, a long expository interlude in the library where Charles explains his theories on how the carnival got its start as a parasitical evil force that feeds on fear and despair, the subsequent confrontation with Mr. Dark and the Dust Witch in the library, and the final battle against Mr. Dark and his crew of carnival freaks at the carnival.

Bradbury’s setting is the fictional Green Town, Illinois circa 1928, but his theme is the perennial one of the battle between good and evil for the human soul. And his thirteen year olds are the embodiment of all the hopes and fears of adolescence. Jim, too eager to be grown. And Will, afraid his friend will leave him behind. On a previous read I was drawn to the quiet library haunted by Mr. Holloway. This time I ran through the night, pulse-racing, thirteen year old legs pumping, young lungs relishing the crisp October air, revelling in the strength and bright freedom of youth. Nostalgia is not for the young. Not for the Wills and Jims of the world. It’s for the boy Charles Halloway once was “who runs like the leaves down the sidewalk autumn nights”. It’s for old library janitors, spinster school teachers, and itinerant lightning rod salesmen. It’s for people who lie awake at three o’clock in the morning.

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