Recently I’ve been alternating between vintage crime novels and Robert Silverberg; maybe I should do something topical since we’re closing in on Halloween? Yeah, sure… but what? Can’t do Lovecraft, I’m not going to be that predictable. Lukayenko’s Nightwatch wasn’t true horror, more like supernatural noir. Lumley is too long, need something shorter. de Maurier if I can’t think of anything better.
Wait. I’ve got it.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
Ray Bradbury has been the biggest influence on my reading and writing since I found my parents’ The Stories of Ray Bradbury compilation as a kid. His respected reputation was well-earned after decades of selling short stories; he started off in Weird Tales and Planet Stories in the ’40s before progressing into prestigious magazines, spending the ’60s and ’70s populating the likes of Playboy and the Saturday Evening Post. He is the most prolific and famous short-story writer of speculative fiction’s Silver Age, and is still alive today.
It’s also worth noting that his stories are oft labeled science fiction, but are closer to fantasy: despite their topics, most often they have a moral issue at the core, or otherwise examine aspects of humanity. One big theme would be nostalgia, lost youth, the joy of being young if only for a short time. Hence why so many of his stories feature children protagonists (and dinosaurs). “Colonel Stonesteel’s Genuine Home-Made Truly Egyptian Mummy” is a good example. That said, Bradbury covers the full spectrum, and whatever he does, he does damn well. “The Kilimanjaro Device” is a bittersweet story of altering fate for Ernest Hemingway, and “There Shall Come Soft Rains” is a sobering tale about a robotic house trying to continue its everyday tasks after its human owners perished in nuclear fire.
Enough about Bradbury; Something Wicked This Way Comes. This is one of the few novels Bradbury penned, Fahrenheit 451 being the noteworthy other. (Alright, fine, there are some other classics, but most consisted of interrelated short stories, such as The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine.) There was an above-average Disney version of Something Wicked from 1983; I remember seeing it just about every year come Halloweentime. It’s not bad; it got me to pick up the book version from the local library bag sale. And like most books I bought at said resale shop in the library, I never got around to reading it. Fast forward a few decades until I find it in the basement, when I’m digging around to see what I have, horror-wise, stashed away.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
This is the grandfather tale from which all “evil carnival” stories can trace back to. We start off in a small Illinois town with our two heroes, Jim Nightshade and Will Holloway, meeting a plucky lightning-rod salesman who foretells a coming storm. In the middle of that one October night, the mysterious carnival of Coogar and Dark rolls into town; Jim and Will are the only two who notice it, and then notice its oddities. Like the carousal that turns a grown man into a boy and then into an ancient living corpse, a grown schoolteacher into a lost young girl. Or the fortune-telling gypsy Dust Witch, a blind wax mannikin who lives and divines the future through her sown-shut eyes. Or the soul-stealing Mirror Maze which preys upon a person’s worst fears. Or the carnival freaks, all of whom bow down to Mr. Dark—the Illustrated Man, who writhes with inked depictions of monsters and horrors and his own motley assortment of carnival sideshows.
As they’ve discovered the carnival’s dark secrets, Mr. Dark wants to add the boys to his collection. Jim is brash and adventurous, and part of him would love to take a ride on the carnival to be a bit older; Will would make a better sideshow freak or wax museum attraction, with his innocent personality. And thus begins their weekend descent into terror, pursued by the fiendish carnival, lost on their own, battling a supernatural power which they can’t understand.
Something Wicked deals less with visceral horror and more with atmosphere and looming dread: the terror of being a young boy hunted by a supernatural power which isn’t possible and beyond their understanding. The characters are helpless against these outside forces menacing them, and every time they go for help, it leads nowhere. The exception is with Charles Holloway, Will’s father, library janitor best upon by old age ennui brought on by the fact he was in his forties when Will was born. He helps the boys realize the true meaning of this carnival terror. I like horror that makes you dread in anticipation, that chills your spine to its core, and that fits this novel spot-on.
If you’ve read Dandelion Wine, the setting and characters should be familiar: it’s Wine‘s dark, horror-filled twin. It deals with our two young protagonists, Jim and Will, growing up over one horrible weekend. Jim is the dark and adventurous youth, wanting to grow up quicker to do interesting things; his foil is Will, the paragon of childhood innocence, who’s sheepish and set in his safe, predictable ways. Bradbury handles these characters like a master, making them neither too childlike nor too mature. Their growth is paralleled with Will’s father Charles, wallowing in his old age and wishing he could be a better father. He wants to connect with his son despite their age barrier, but can’t; every time he sees Will, he wants to be youthful again, reminding himself of his dreaded old age (52!). All three characters experience a lot of growth over the course of this novel, coming to terms with their flaws and gaining a new perspective on life.
If you haven’t read a Bradbury book before, you’re in for a surprise. Whether it’s a good or bad surprise depends on your tastes. Bradbury has a very specific writing style, filled with run-on sentences and flowery description and some of the greatest metaphors and similes in the history of written English. His work often takes a specific tone, here a bittersweet nostalgia for the lost dreams of youth; Something Wicked in particular has all sorts of euphemisms in the style of a kid’s exaggerated perspective. The height from a house’s roof to the ground is a thousand feet; days can be comprised of billions of years. Everything is over-exaggerated to fill the wonder and awe reality inspires in its young protagonists.
Needless to say, it’s a very specific style, and not Bradbury’s not without his detractors. Damon Knight in particular, the legendary Golden Age short-story writer, considered Bradbury to be something of a hack. Bradbury is one of those writers you love enough to swear by or hate enough to swear at, in no small part due to his aforementioned prose. The length and visual wordplay is slow and attention-demanding; Bradbury doesn’t so much write prose as he writes lyrical prose poems, which some find florid or pretentious. Not everyone wants to delve this deep into spontaneous imagination, much less into a ponderous horror tale with a distinct “what does it mean to be young/growing up” theme. If you’re still looking for a good example of Bradbury’s writing…
At dawn, a juggernaut of thunder wheeled over the stony heavens in a spark-throwing tumult. Rain fell softly on town cupolas, chuckled from rainspouts, and spoke in strange subterranean tongues beneath the window where Jim and Will knew fitful dreams, slipping in and out of one, trying another for size, but finding all cut from the same dark, mouldered cloth.
See what I mean?
Granted, the dialogue and much of the narration is in a less stylized tone, but there are big segments of the book like the above, including the main action scenes. I wasn’t paying attention earlier on, but I would hazard a guess that it’s tied to the awestruck childlike protagonists, reflecting their imagination and hope. (It’s also worth noting that Charles is quite the backdoor philosopher, and also has many such wistful and poetic paragraphs, for example when he’s coming to terms with the carnival’s dark reality and explaining it to the kids.)
I already gave my opinion away with the introductory paragraphs; I eat this stuff up wholecloth. It’s beautiful in the way only a strong literary voice can provide. The novel’s glimpse into the meaning of terror is eclipsed by its examinations into age and growth, life and death. At its core, it is a tale of good and evil. I found it a breathtaking read, albeit a slow one; Bradbury’s wordplay and pacing forces you to take it slow and soak up every image he thrusts onto the page. If you don’t mind the slow going and overt poetic wordplay, give it a shot.