Something Wicked This Way Comes: A Book Chat

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This Book Chat we’re continuing with another classic Ray Bradbury title: Something Wicked This Way Comes, his 1962 novel that mixes fantasy, horror, and coming-of-age to tell the story of a sinister carnival that arrives in the town of two 13-year-old boys, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMaskerade by Terry Pratchett fantasy book reviewsBill Capossere: I’ll start off by saying I loved this book when I read it the first time as a young teen, somewhere when I was probably just a year or two older than the two protagonists; I choked up and I think actually cried a bit when I read it to my own son about four or five years ago, and I loved it again on this re-read. Some of the reasons were the same, some of the reasons are different, and certainly I’m a bit more critical of the craftsmanship than my 14 or 15-year-old self was, but yep, it’s definitely held up well for me.

What interested me in really paying close attention this time around was how this book really works (in my mind at least) for two wholly different readers. For the youthful reader, it works in the way it fully captures that early best-friend camaraderie, the way the adult world is a mysterious land filled with aliens, even those adults you live with and see every day like your father and mother, and how it gets that betwixt-and-between feeling of wanting to be older and “your own person” but also not wanting to let go of that childhood freedom and innocence.

For the adult reader, at least this 50-year-old one (OK, OK, 52), it works (although perhaps a little less so thanks to some overwroughtness) in its aching reminiscence of youth, its anxiety and uncertainty of the life not lived, and the fierce love of a parent for a child. I wonder now what my 14-year-old self thought of all those parts of the book — did I get them? Did I just yawn and move on? Dismiss it as dull adult navel-gazing?  I don’t remember, though I doubt I would have loved the book as much if I didn’t respond at least on some level to what, after all, is a pretty large portion of the book.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn some way, I have to think there’s no way a book structured like this should work — with such glaringly different tones and subject matters, aimed at two very different audiences. So I wonder, did it work for you guys?

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett fantasy book reviewsStuart Starosta: Bill, I really wish I had read this book back when I was an early teen like the protagonists Jim and Will. That would give me a proper basis of comparison, because this book really is all about the transition from childhood to adulthood as you said, and how frightening and fascinating the adult world is for young people on the cusp. I think it’s important to have read Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine first, which is about the perfect summer spent by two best friends, age 12, in Green Town, Illinois. It’s a very nostalgic view of everything good about small time life from the perspective of youth. It’s thus no accident that Something Wicked is set in the fall, its two friends are slightly older, and the tone of the novel is far more dark and sinister.

Since I didn’t read Something Wicked until I reached age 40, and I am a dad of a 12-year old daughter myself, there were certainly some scenes that really got to me. In particular, the late night talk between Charles Halloway and his son Jim was incredibly bittersweet, as Charles struggled to connect with his son who wants so much to understand and admire him. I guess it’s even more poignant for a father and son, but I imagine every parent wants to be a hero in their kid’s eyes. And in Something Wicked, the elder Halloway does play a pivotal role in final confrontation with Mr. Dark.

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett fantasy book reviewsJana Nyman: When I first read Something Wicked This Way Comes, I was eight or nine years old. Carnivals weren’t creepy yet, I was still young enough to enjoy being little without that desperate teenage ache to hurry up and be an adult already, and destroying one’s enemies by laughing at them seemed completely logical. I’ve re-read the book a few times since then, and every time it’s like reading a completely different book — though, of course, I’m the one who’s changed.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBradbury’s style is what always hooks me, right from the beginning: he writes as though he’s telling this story directly to the reader, and I’m reminded of the stories my grandfather used to tell about his childhood escapades. There’s the same tone of nostalgia for the fleeting folly of youth, when life was simpler and yet more frightening because of one’s immaturity. Thirteen-going-on-fourteen is a rough, scary time for anyone, and dealing with a demonic carnival only complicates matters further for Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway.

So much of what makes the characterization poignant for me is Bradbury’s clear portrayal of the difficulties parents can have in trying to connect with their children — kids don’t believe that their parents were ever young, and parents have difficulties crossing the gulf between their adult selves and their own childhoods. Stuart mentioned the late-night talk between Charles and Will Halloway, and that’s a perfect example: Bradbury seems to be using Charles as a mouthpiece for his own fatherly experiences and advice, and that provides an added emotional heft to the scene.

As Bill pointed out, there are some flaws, and different elements rub me the wrong way each time I read the text. I could do without the “Women live off gossip” line, especially since Will and Jim’s mothers are very minor characters in the story, but are still portrayed as kind people. The idea that, once Jim is saved, they “all jigged Sambo-style” turns my stomach. I know that this was published in the early 1960s, and such attitudes were hardly out-of-the-ordinary then, but those two phrases are both emblematic of the time period and so unnecessary that they date the book in a very unpleasant way for me.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThose faults aside, I love much of this book, and even with the shifts of tone and perspective, it still feels like a complete and cohesive novel. I’m eager to see what my older self thinks of it!

Stuart: Jana, I’m impressed you read this book at such a tender young age! I think some of the scenes would have been pretty frightening, especially anything involving the Dust Witch, like when she searches for the boys at night from a balloon, and when she hunts them in the library. I can’t imagine reading those parts at night without shivers of terror running up my spine. Don’t even get me started on the funhouse mirrors sequence towards the end!

I also like the idea of reading the same book at different stages in life, particularly books by someone like Bradbury who is keenly interested in nostalgia, youth, and the bittersweet taste of experience and age. Each time your reading experience is different (you can never step in the same river twice, as Heraclitus said). In the case of Something Wicked, since I missed reading it at that early critical age when I would have probably felt closer to Jim and Will, I found myself more in tune with Will’s father Charles, feeling sorry for him that he didn’t know how to make a connection with his son, and later being so impressed by how to managed to keep his cool when facing up to the fearsome Mr. Dark when the two boys were hiding, and then later at the carnival when he again faced off against Mr. Dark in the climactic finale. That was a great moment in the book.

Bill: Stuart, “bittersweet” is the perfect word.

Jana, I cringed at those exact same lines about women and gossip and Sambo, as I’m sure all modern readers will (or I hope they will). They’re unfortunate, even if placed in their timely context, but they don’t mar the book overmuch for me, and do so less than, say, many of the portrayals of women do in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

As you both say, reading any book twice (or more) is always a different experience as we’re never the same person and thus never the same reader, but because Bradbury offers us the two poles here of childhood and adulthood, this book more than most seems to be a starkly differing read depending on when one comes to it.fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

Beside the content and tone of this book, I also think it is one of Bradbury’s best constructed. As a few examples:

  • Will looking at his father on my page 12 and thinking “why, he looks like me in a smashed mirror” is a foreshadowing of that funhouse.
  • The mention of Dr. Faustus on the library shelves as foreshadow to the theme of temptation
  • The bar conversation about alcohol as the Elixir of Life
  • Will pulling Jim from the mirrors as precursor to pulling him from the carousel
  • All those ways we see Jim leading and Will following, Jim tempted
  • All those step by step ways the carnival is presented in sinister fashion

It’s a very tight construction, very focused.

I feel the same about how the father-son relationship gradually is set up, then slowly, gradually is changed. And I especially love that pivotal moment with his father above the two of them hiding under the grate. That whole parade scene I think is vintage Bradbury, but the moment when Will’s father is in conflict with Dark — such an understated yet moving and thrilling form of conflict it is. An old man, some cigar smoke, language and words. I wouldn’t mind if some of our more recent books, but especially our films, took a lesson from this — that not every conflict has to be presented as a choreographed dance of violence or a series of spectacles and explosions. The same with his scene with the witch and the bullet trick at the end. I cringe to think of that scene filmed today, with Charles diving, laid out horizontally over the ground, two pistols in his hand as he lets fly a hail of bullets at the witch, the cartridges flying out in super-slo-mo around him.

It’s funny, because as wrought as admittedly some of the language is, the more I think of it, the more I think “understatement” is so core to my love for this book. It does have that quiet, autumnal feel to it. Will’s lonely and near-silent stand against the witch and the balloon (which in today’s film would have probably exploded in the sky and rained flesh down), the threat of the carnival folk that never materialize into out and out physical violence, Mr. Dark conversing rather than pummeling/slashing.

It’s interesting too, because as “happy” an ending as it is in some ways, it retains that autumnal feel because, unless I’m misreading things, it appears that all those poor people entrapped by the carnival and their own issues remain so. The lightning rod salesman, Mr. Crosetti, etc. —  none of them will be coming back, right? Is that you’re reading?

Jana: It’s definitely a frightening book, in addition to being nostalgic and melancholy in a supremely autumnal way. The scene where the boys are hiding in the sewer grate, desperately hoping they won’t be noticed by Mr. Dark, still gives me chills! The witch’s balloon-search for the boys — and Will’s brave attempts to defeat her so that she can’t leave marks on their rooftops — was also satisfying suspenseful. From start to finish, it’s absolutely a well-constructed and composed novel. And the generally understated tone of the text makes those moments stand out all the more clearly to the reader.

Bill, I think you’re right about the portrayal of women in this book — it’s much less problematic, and certainly fairer, than in The Martian Chronicles. Modern readers should be able to place those unfortunate lines in the appropriate context, and obviously they don’t ruin the entire text for me, or I’d never pick the book up for a re-read. And for my money, I’d say that the people trapped by the carnival remain in their twisted forms — it never occurred to me that they’d revert back to normal, since I wouldn’t even know if they returned to their original selves or disappeared into dust.

Bill: Ok, we’ll be picking up Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 next, so we’ll all meet back here soon and see what we thought of this other classic title of his (assuming of course nobody comes to our homes to burn our copies!).


And here is Stuart’s previous review of Something Wicked This Way Comes:

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury fantasy book reviewsI didn’t read Ray Bradbury until age 40, so in my critical early years I missed out on his poetic, image-rich, melancholic prose and themes in books like The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, Fahrenheit 451, and his short stories. Though I can’t go back in time to rectify this, I am glad I finally took time to explore his world.

I’m sure if I had read Bradbury back when I was the age of his protagonists Jim Nightshade or Will Halloway, I would have loved his work immediately. But alas, I’m no longer a bright-eyed teen, my taste in books runs more to Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, Philip K. Dick, and George R. R. Martin, and my favorite TV shows include The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones. I’m very much a product of the conflicted and complex world we live in, and seeing my 13-year old daughter growing up in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, constantly connected to friends with her smartphone and text messages, the wistful world of Bradbury’s innocent Midwestern teens feels so divorced from today’s world as to seem totally irrelevant at first glance.

And yet I decided to give Bradbury another try. I discovered I could get his books (including this one) at a discounted price on Audible since I already had the Kindle editions. I hadn’t really enjoyed them last year, but I knew I must be missing something considering Bradbury’s legendary status. And when I started listening to The Martian Chronicles as narrated by Scott Brick, I realized what had been wrong. Bradbury’s poetic prose DEMANDS to be read aloud, and it comes to life with the right narrator. As Jana mentioned in our Something Wicked This Way Comes Book Chat (above), his style of storytelling makes you feel like a kid curled up next to the fireplace in winter listening to your grandfather telling you stories of his life. Christian Rummel gives an impressive performance with all the characters in Something Wicked This Way Comes, including the innocence of Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade on the verge of becoming young men, the bittersweet wisdom of the father Charles Halloway, and the sinister hiss of the evil Mr. Dark.

The story is simple but filled with vivid and memorable scenes. Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are two 13-year old friends growing up in rural Green Town, Illinois, the same setting for Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, and modeled after his own upbringing in Waukegan, Illinois. One night a mysterious carnival called Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show comes to town in late October, well past the usual carnival season. The boys are drawn to it and witness a frightening carousel that goes backwards while playing wild calliope music, reducing Mr. Cooger from an adult to a 12-year old boy. This metaphor for life and the desire to return to youth (or to get older quick, as Jim is drawn to it) is central to the story, and a very adroit image indeed.

The two boys go through a number of adventures as they are being hunted by Mr. Dark and his minions, all the while not being believed by the adults of the town. Will then turns to his father Charles Halloway for aid. Initially he is skeptical, and there is a very touching late-night father-son talk in which they clumsily try to bridge their gap in age and life experiences. Eventually, Charles overcomes years of disillusionment and solitude to confront the sinister Mr. Dark and become a hero for his young son.

There are amazingly described scenes throughout the book, particularly the 3 a.m. 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 nighttime 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.

The themes of Something Wicked are timeless. For the young boys, the adult world is both enticing and terrifying, filled with dark and sinister forces. At the same time, the older Charles Halloway sees things from the opposite perspective, wishing for his lost youth and the wasted middle years of his life, and the pain of not knowing how to connect with his son. The carnival is also a powerful image of the temptations of dark powers and how they feed on the fears and vanities of people. Thus — as Bill pointed out above — when Charles rises to the occasion to battle these powers, it is a titanic struggle between good and evil that is carried out in an understated way compared to the pyrotechnics of today’s books and movies.

Bradbury’s descriptive language is quite colorful, sometimes perhaps too much, but never pedestrian. When I read it first I found it a bit overdone and purple, but somehow hearing it narrated it really let it sink into my mind’s eye. Here’s a sample to give you a taste:

“Mr. Dark came carrying his panoply of friends, his jewel- case assortment of calligraphical reptiles which lay sunning themselves at midnight on his flesh. With him strode the stitch- inked Tyrannosaurus rex, which lent to his haunches a machined and ancient wellspring mineral- oil glide. As the thunder lizard strode, all glass- bead pomp, so strode Mr. Dark, armored with vile lightning scribbles of carnivores and sheep blasted by that thunder and arun before storms of juggernaut flesh. It was the pterodactyl kite and scythe which raised his arms almost to fly the marbled vaults. And with the inked and stencilled flashburnt shapes of pistoned or bladed doom came his usual crowd of hangers- on, spectators gripped to each limb, seated on shoulder blades, peering from his jungled chest, hung upside down in microscopic millions in his armpit vaults screaming bat- screams for encounters, ready for the hunt and if need be the kill. Like a black tidal wave upon a bleak shore, a dark tumult infilled with phosphorescent beauties and badly spoiled dreams, Mr. Dark sounded and hissed his feet, his legs, his body, his sharp face forward.”

In the end I found myself carried away by the power of Bradbury’s writing and also the poignancy of the story of Will and Jim on the cusp of manhood, while Will’s father Charles struggles to come to grips with life at the other end of experience. As a father of a teen, I suddenly realized how much I could empathize with Charles, even more so than Will and Jim. It is a story that any parent can appreciate, or anyone who has lived through life’s bittersweet experiences but still thinks back fondly of more innocent times.

Published in 1962. A masterpiece of modern Gothic literature, Something Wicked This Way Comes is the memorable story of two boys, James Nightshade and William Halloway, and the evil that grips their small Midwestern town with the arrival of a “dark carnival” one Autumn midnight. How these two innocents, both age 13, save the souls of the town (as well as their own), makes for compelling reading on timeless themes. What would you do if your secret wishes could be granted by the mysterious ringmaster Mr. Dark? Bradbury excels in revealing the dark side that exists in us all, teaching us ultimately to celebrate the shadows rather than fear them. In many ways, this is a companion piece to his joyful, nostalgia-drenched Dandelion Wine, in which Bradbury presented us with one perfect summer as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old. In Something Wicked This Way Comes, he deftly explores the fearsome delights of one perfectly terrifying, unforgettable autumn.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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3 comments

  1. This is one I’m reluctant to re-read for exactly the reasons you give in the review, Stuart. I read it at the “right” time and the themes of loyalty and friendship stayed with me. I don’t want to read it again now and find it naive.

  2. Very good – I still liked this book on a recent re-read.

  3. I love seeing all the different cover artwork over the years -nice touch!

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