One of my current projects is editing an anthology of carnival-themed fiction, and in dealing with my clutch of authors, time after time they have name-checked Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Wishing to maintain a vague semblance of integrity, I have had to nod mutely and try not to mention that I haven’t actually read it.
Thought I’d better fix that.
I read the first quarter of the book in a coffee shop in the centre of Manchester. I’d gotten locked out of the house, and walked an hour and a half to the city centre, where I was stranded. At a loss, I popped into Waterstones and emerged with Something Wicked This Way Comes. Whereupon, I devoured it.
It opens with Jim and Will, two boys born a day and a house apart, both on the autumn cusp of thirteen, with the end of October creeping close. A portention lightning rod salesman appears, and warns of a storm coming, and a storm it is: Cooger and Dark’s carnival is arriving to tempt the townsfolk into their dark entertainments. The hall of mirrors that shows you the endless fractured permutations of your self. The carousel that can turn your age forwards and back.
Plotwise, the novel is actually pretty slender and with a little bit of prodding the holes in it disintegrate pretty quickly, but that is completely beside the point of the book. The point of the book is atmosphere, which Bradbury ladels on liberally. I saw a review on goodreads that made me laugh–“Bradbury never met a pudding he didn’t like to over-egg”–and there’s truth in that, because every paragraph of the book borders on poetry, and like any poetry stretched over 300 pages it can get a bit wearing, but when it soars, it really soars.
The highlights are often those moments that settle outside of the horror aspects of the carnival–the book is at its best and most gripping delicately and evocatively pencilling in the relationship of Jim and Will, dashing boldly on the edge of the shadows of summer, both eagerly and fearful for the temptations of adulthood. The bittersweetness of aging is an unsubtle theme of the novel, with the boys, with those tempted to return to childhood on the carousel, and with the disconnect of Will’s father, the librarian who fears he isn’t understood by his child–those moments, the ones that take the fantasy and use them to breathe life into our own unspoken, fragile feelings are the ones that make this a justifiable classic.
And, stepping away from literary pretensions, its genre moments have an elegant dread to them too–the dust witch searching the city in her balloon, the boys quivering in the drains as the Illustrated Man searches for them overhead, the sinister threat of Mr Dark. The carnival geeks themselves are present but indistinct, skittering on the edge of the story, and there’s a real sense of the weird about the carnival, which other stories have misplaced for exoticism.
And, justifying my anthology project, its queer as hell–from the arch camp and melodrama through the allure of the transgressive other, right down the Jim and Will’s relationship. (I mean–come on, unrequited crush, clearly.) When I started the book I was gripped by Bradbury’s eloquent use of language and the shiver of recognition some of his best sentences could produce. As the novel wore on I was left subtly with the feeling of all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go, but if you want to see what this book is without any of its poetry or beauty, nip on youtube and have a look at the trailer for the dreadful film version.