Ray Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes

Originally published in Vector at the beginning of the year.

October, and a storm is coming. A travelling lightning rod salesman arrives and alerts two young friends to what he senses on the horizon. Throughout the town, others feel the tension in the air. Something is coming. And that night, 3 am, that something is come. Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show: a travelling carnival, promising rides, freaks, wonders and delights. But Will and Jim watch the carnival arrange itself outside town, and what they see unfold that night is not the rosy funfair that the townsfolk find the following day. Soon enough the carnival folk, the twisted slaves captured by Mr. Cooger and Mr. Dark over their timeless centuries, are led by their masters in a hunt for the boys who alone grasp at the truth. Alone, that is, but for Will’s reclusive father Charles, a man half-lost in his own past.

Although ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is a powerful novel with resonant themes of youth and aging, for me its strength lay in the prose that effuses from every page. Vivacious is the right word for it. Bradbury has carefully crafted a style that mirrors in words what Jim and Will live and experience:

“Like all boys, they never walked anywhere, but named a goal and lit for it, scissors and elbows. Nobody won. Nobody wanted to win. It was in their friendship they just wanted to run forever, shadow and shadow. Their hands slapped library door handles together, their chests broke track tapes together, their tennis shoes beat parallel pony tracks over lawns, trimmed bushes, squirreled trees, no one losing, both winning, thus saving their friendship for other times of loss.”

I found it difficult to read this novel without a grin of pleasure spreading over my face every few pages as another laughing turn of phrase tickled me. If writing could ever be said to seize at life, then this is it.

Of course the tale that Bradbury so presents is no mean thing either. As the author admits in an afterword, the story is spun from his own youthful experiences of the carnival: the sense of magic and of the fantastic, and the seduction thereof. He fuses these experiences to a story of American-gothic horror and the timeless themes that constitute any coming-of-age story, themes exemplified by the central quartet of characters. Jim and Will are childhood friends, growing up and experiencing everything life offered together. But when the carnival arrives, promising change, one friend reaches out, eager to experience what his future offers, while the other recoils, afraid to lose what has constituted their shared past. Similarly Charles Halloway and Mr. Dark are two sides of a coin. Halloway spends his adults years wishing he could reclaim his youth, whilst Dark is eternal, using time to remain the same and make others his servants. The carnival’s power draws all four to it, but it is their reactions to this seduction that make them.

Unavoidably, some aspects of the novel have dated, though these are as much a product of its setting (I struggle to identify the decade, but I imagine it hearkens back to Bradbury’s own youth in the 1920s) as the time of its writing (the 1960s). My own youth, in the 1980s and ‘90s, was a very different thing to what is presented here, characterised as much by rock and pop music, videogames and television as inquisitive self-made adventure. But the novel is a delight to read, its themes are as timeless as its antagonists, and at its core it’s a highly entertaining tale of friendship, fear and triumph. This Orion edition is well-presented and if, like me, you’ve not encountered ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ before, I recommend it unconditionally.

4 Responses to “Ray Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes”
  1. George Berger says:

    Hi shaun, you will remember that I enjoyed this book. I also enjoyed writing a tribute to it when I saw that you launched that topic. I have been unable to get to your website with my computer. But now I am sitting in a Hotel restaurant with my brand new iPhone and another server. Everthing works fine. So thanks again for. Reminding me of this fine book.

  2. Shaun CG says:

    My pleasure, George!

  3. Colum Paget says:

    Bradbury is one of my faves, and he was always the ‘odd one out’ in a bookcase otherwise full of ‘hard-sf’. I remember being vaguely bothered as a kid, after reading clarke describe the physics and workings of a jump-drive in such detail that you could go out into the back yard and build one (except you’d always be missing that one, vital, part), to pick up Bradbury and have him say “Look! A rocketship! And there… martians!”. It wasn’t that he did this that bothered me, it as that he GOT AWAY WITH IT. One felt he himself was a character from his stories, the carniaval illusionist who cannot be trusted.
    Indeed, Bradbury always uses childhood allusions and metaphors in his stories, and I think this was the secret ingredient in his sinster, manipulative mojo. Firstly, it flagposts that he’s not going to bother with all that tiresome physics professor world-building, he’s essentially writing modern fairy-tales. Secondly, it puts the reader almost into a trance-state, regressing them into a time and place where they (or most readers) felt safe and happy. Then he introduces something strange, scary, or downright horrid into the story, and in doing so injects a stain of terror into your own childhood. He presents you with all the things that should make you feel safe and warm, and then threatens you with a knife.

  4. Shaun CG says:

    Yes, I think that describes his approach rather well!