Monday, September 12, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Do they even have carnivals anymore? I mean, real carnivals: rickety, dirty, dodgy, and, above all, scary carnivals? Sure, there are things calling themselves "carnivals" that set up shop in the parking lots of shopping centers and have rides and concession stands and maybe even the occasional game of chance whose rewards include cheap stuffed toys vaguely reminiscent of cartoon characters, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about carnivals, where, in addition to the rides and concession stands, you also get mind readers, bearded ladies, and dog-faced boys. I'm pretty sure they don't exist anymore, outside of works of the imagination and maybe that's not such a bad thing. But there's no denying that the idea of carnivals like that is a powerful one, at least for me.

That, and the incomparable writing of Ray Bradbury, are probably the reasons why I have such a fondness for the 1962 novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. It probably helps, too, that the novel begins in a way that has always rung particularly true to me:
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 grey at twilight, it seems Hallowe'en will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Hallowe'en came early.
As anyone who knows me well can tell you, I adore the month of October. Not only is it the month of my birth, but it's when Fall (my favorite season) is at its most attractive to me. There's still enough life left in the world that it doesn't feel as depressing as November and it manifests a kind of glory that is utterly absent in warmer and more conventional vibrant months. And, of course, there's Halloween, a holiday replete with both religious and secular meaning, which I enjoy probably more than almost any other, save Easter. So, I was probably predisposed to like Something Wicked This Way Comes before I'd even read it.

The novel tells the story of two friends, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. The boys are both thirteen years old and, as the story begins, they're returning home as a big storm is about to hit their home of Green Town. There's lightning and thunder and some say they can smell cotton candy in the air as well. The pair stop off at the library, where Will's father works, allowing Bradbury the opportunity to wax rhapsodic about libraries, books -- and growing old:
Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as the gift of tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes. Way down the third book corridor, an oldish man whispered his broom along in the dark, mounding the fallen. . . .

Will stared.

It was always a surprise - that old man, his work, his name. That's Charles William Halloway, thought Will, not grand-father, not far-wandering, ancient uncle, as some might think, but. . .my father.

So, looking back down the corridor, was Dad shocked to see he owned a son who visited this separate 20,000-fathoms-deep world? Dad always seemed stunned when Will rose up before him, as if they had met a lifetime ago and one had grown old while the other stayed young, and this fact stood between. . . .
As I get older myself, I find this section of the book even more affecting than it was in the past, doubly so as the story unfolds and we learn that Will's father envies his son his youth and looks back longingly on "The boy [he] once was ... who runs like the leaves down sidewalks on autumn nights."

Into this situation arrives a traveling carnival called Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show and its arrival throws Green Town into tumult. Not only do the carnival's tents go up mysteriously but townsfolk begin behaving strangely, some of them even disappearing after a visit to the carnival. Its proprietors, especially the tattooed Mr Dark (evocatively called "the Illustrated Man"), have a decidedly sinister air about them, made all the more clear when they take a particular interest in Will and Jim. Needless to say, these oddities embolden the two boys to investigate the truth behind Cooger & Dark's and soon discover that there is more at work than they ever imagined.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is a delightfully terrifying fantasy. Its characters are well drawn, its imagery memorable, and, most of all, it has something to say. I consider it one of Bradbury's best novels, which is saying something, as I'm not sure that Bradbury ever wrote anything that wasn't excellent. Like Lovecraft, he is quite adept at using words to conjure up not only sights and sounds but also emotions. Unlike Lovecraft, Bradbury typically does this with fairly ordinary words and colloquial language. It's a remarkable gift and is used to great effect in Something Wicked This Way Comes. If you've never read it (or Bradbury), it's well worth the time and effort. Even if, for some reason, you don't find the story to your taste, you might enjoy it for its artistry alone, which is considerable.


  1. Actually they do exist.

    Though sometimes things go wrong even there:

    How's that for a horror story?

  2. You might like this collection of carny slang:

  3. This is one of my favorite Bradbury tales, although there are many others competing for the top spot. I had the great fortune to meet Mr. Bradbury years ago when I was in college in Waukegan, Illinois. At the time, the city was trying to demolish the old Carnegie library building, the same one that Bradbury spent his summers in as a child. Bradbury came in one weekend to speak with the group trying to preserve the building. He spoke of all kinds of radical things, like computers with thousands of books available electronically, giant monitors that would display artworks at actual size, presentations and lectures available to the people of Waukegan but presented by scholars and intellectuals in Europe, Japan, or China. At the time, we were convinced that he was taking ideas from his science fiction stories and proposing them as ways to save his beloved old limestone library. Of course, we know how those ideas came out.

    There are some great pictures of the old library here:

  4. I haven't read Bradbury in years; I remember liking his prose, but parts of his stories were always too sentimental for me; I'll have to revisit his books and see if that is still the case. I remember liking the Mars stories a lot.

    I remember freak shows from when I was a kid at the local carnivals, with 'giant rats' and giant pythons and similar things. Part of the problem may be that spectacles are easier to come by these days for the public with all of the other entertainments available. I'm guessing the heyday of the carnival sideshow in the US may have been before TV.
    Plus current social consciousness probably makes running a genuine freak show harder --- the 'dwarf toss' event in Australia is apparently always subject to litigation from people concerned with the dignity of the tossed.
    There is a performance group here in Detroit that puts on a 'freak show' every year (their name I can't remember; I'll post it if I do) with lurid painted awnings and the whole bit. I just found out about them so I haven't seen a performance yet.

  5. Limpey,

    Bradbury's writing is very sentimental, no question, but I see that as a plus rather than a minus. Mind you, I'm a terribly sentimental guy myself, so I'm certainly biased on this score.

  6. To my everlasting shame I did not read this book through until very recently (within the last 2-3 years). I loved it. It is what I would hand to a person who wanted to know the meaning of the word "eerie."

    Bradbury's imagery never fails to entertain me.

  7. You can still find carnies at full force at State Fairs. They do have the weird creature exhibits, but I have never seen anyone go into them.

  8. They're all in Oklahoma. Trust me.

  9. I saw a carnival some years ago. I thought about taking my boys, but couldn't with a straight face after a comedy routine I heard making fun of the cheaper kind that often found their way into mall parking lots. It had a kid (grown man actually) talking to his Dad about the quality sights to see: stripeless zebras! The incredible talking mute! Giant dwarfs, standing an amazing 6 feet tall! The unbelievable bearded man! Because of that, I don't think I could go to one if it came to my backyard, which is a shame.

    FWIW, I also agree about fall, especially October (a fitting month for St. Francis, I've always thought). Something about it, sort of everything clicks. And don't know why, but when I think of anything fantasy, or even Medieval, I imagine it in a fall setting.

    Speaking also of backyards, I remember when I was a kid there was actually some sort of backyard carnival kit that children could purchase and put together. Actually went to one once. For something aimed at kids and put on by kids, it was pretty impressive.

  10. Next time you hear someone dissing adjectives, quote them "But one strange wild dark long year, Hallowe'en came early."

  11. Just to be clear, I think very few people diss adjectives when done well. They are largely essential to any kind of specific expression. It's the adverbs that are the poison of purple prose.

    Also, I agree about SWtWC. I've worn out two copies of the book, and it ties with The Martian Chronicles as my favorite Bradbury.

  12. Edit: at least, I've never heard of people bagging on the use of adjectives. Now, school kids hate the creative use of language when done like this. You get a lot of blank stares when they have to read "strange wild dark long year." That's some sweet language, though.

  13. Serendipitously, a young guy sits down immediately next to me on the bus reading Ray Bradbury's "Zen and the art of writing", right before I open this review.

    Also, I call dibs on an alternate-universe RPG artist named "Will Nightshade" Serendipitously, a young guy sits down immediately next to me on the bus reading Ray Bradbury's "Zen and the art of writing", right before I open this review.

    Also, I call dibs on an alternate-universe RPG artist named "Will Nightshade"

  14. Probably heresey but...

    I did enjoy the film of the book; especially Jonathon Price as Mr Dark

  15. Is it just me, or is "Something Wicked This Way Comes" a reply to "The Circus of Dr. Lao"?

  16. Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of my all-time favorite books. It's one I come back to again and again, and as I get older different parts of it resonate.

    The film is quite good as well, and contains probably the greatest moment of Jonathan Pryce's not-inconsiderable career: the scene in the library where Dark is trying to convince Will's father to give him up.

  17. I will never forget the day I saw Ray Bradbury at Comic Con in San Diego. If only I'd had the courage to walk up to him and tell him how much I admired his work. America, and the world, is blessed to have his writings.

    Kudos for posting this! Now I want to go read some Bradbury...

  18. James, that's a fine post and a great review. I read "Something Wicked This Way Comes" at school, 25 years ago and I loved it. I enjoyed the story, the almost-physical feel of the setting and the characters. Even more than that, I loved Ray Bradbury's wonderfully economical style, his evocative phrases and the images he conjured. It's a very fine book and, in my view, one of his best and up there with The Illustrated Man (which I think is sublime). James, please keep posting - your blog is fabulous and always interesting, particularly (to me) the posts which look back to the late 70s and 80s. I hope you know how much pleasure you give to a lot of people. Thank you again.

  19. As much as I like most of the book... the ending, or at least the defeat of the remaining villain, does not quite work for me. There is an uncomfortable subtext - totally not intended in the writing but present none the less owing to the way the real world works - in the senior Halloway's defeat of the wicked boy with "T.L.C." so to speak. Most of the rest of the book is a mad success (boredom being worse to the boys than fear, for example) but the ending is not on the same level as the rest of the book.

  20. I adore this book. In a similar vein I have to always yell people to read.Clive Barker's "The Thief of Always". Another book that's required reading in October is Zelazny's "A night in the Lonesome October"

  21. All evil carnies were killed off by newly established Marvel superhero teams in the 1960s.