Today I want to talk to you about a novel by Ray Bradbury, it was published in 1962 and tells the story about two 13 year old friends who have a terrifying encounter with a passing carnival. I am of course, talking about Something Wicked This Way Comes.
For those of you up on your Shakespeare you’ll recognise the title as a line from Macbeth, spoken by the witches.
This book has an interesting backstory, as it was not written as a book initially, it started out life as a short story, which Bradbury turned into a film treatment for Gene Kelly, but when no studio would purchase the treatment Bradbury (over a five year period) turned it into a novel. A transformative past if ever there was one.
The story opens with two friends, Will and Jim meeting with a salesman. The salesman, who sells lightning rods, tells the boys that something is coming to the town and gives Jim a lightning rod for free to protect his house.
The ominous opening continues as the boys talk to more people in the town who all seem to sense that something is coming. There is foreshadowing that this is a carnival. The next day there are fliers around town for Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. Will’s dad has a bad feeling about the show but the boys are excited.
The carnival arrives at 3am, which is referenced as being Souls midnight, when men are closest to death.
The following day the boys explore the carnival, the agree to leave and come back after dark but upon finding the lightning rod salesman’s bag they decide to stay. They find the carousel which is out of order, upon clambering all over it they are caught by Mr Cooger. A Mr Dark then appears who pays attention only to Jim, Mr Dark invites the boys to come back the next day to go on the carousel. The boys then hide and watch as Mr Cooger rides the carousel backwards (literally sitting backwards, rotating backwards, the music plays backwards) when he gets off the ride he is 12 years old.
The boys follow the young Mr Cooger into town and try to speak with him because Jim wants to ride the carousel. Will stops him but follows him to the carnival. This time Mr Cooger is riding the carousel forwards and becoming older. Jim tries to ride but Will hits a switch making the ride run very fast and aging Mr Cooger up 100 years.
The boys try to get the police, but on arriving back at the carnival Mr Cooger is nowhere to be found. Mr Dark invites the boys back the next day. That night the boys see the Dust Witch in the sky in her balloon.
The next day the boys find one of their teachers as a young girl crying on the street. She has been made young but also blind. The carnival is now hunting the boys, Will’s father protects them by lying to Mr Dark and blowing smoke at the Dust Witch.
The boys go to the library that night with Will’s father who has been reading his own father’s notes about the carnival which apparently visits the town every generation. Mt Dark arrives and finds the boys, injuring Will’s father. The witch tries to kill Will’s father but is defeated by laughter. Will’s father then follows Mr Dark to the carnival to rescue the boys.
Will’s father fights Mr Dark, destroys the carnivals mirror maze and kills the witch, all via laughter and cheer. Mr Cooger turns to dust before the carousel can save him. A child runs up begging help, Will’s father recognises him as Mt Dark aged down and hugs him, his genuine affection apparently killing him. Jim ends up on the carousel and ages forward almost to the point of death but is saved but singing, laughing and dancing.
Happiness saves the day.
When I first read this book I admit that the ending disappointed me, it felt much to sweet, the evil is defeated by happiness for crying out loud. It felt like the Care Bears descended from on high and shot love light out of their stomachs.
But despite my original sour feelings towards the ending, the setting and the build up intrigued me enough that I gave this a reread years later and found, on that second reading, that the ending actually fits really well with the story’s themes and character arcs etc. It gives the whole story an almost classic fairy-tale feeling that I am far more appreciative of now than I was originally.
The story plays on several instinctive fears, the most obvious one being the fear of growing old. Mr Dark tempts people into joining the carnival by offering them a way to avoid growing old and dying, he effectively makes people immortal. People join him to escape the fear of death and decay, despite having to live poorer lives because of it.
It is also addressed in the book that the carousel’s change is superficial, it only changes the body, so a child aged forward is a child in an adults body, and an adult aged back is an adult in a younger body. I personally really liked this as many a time I’ve talked to older friends and relatives who describe looking in the mirror as an odd experience for them, as they still feel like someone in their twenties but when they look in the mirror there’s a thirty or forty year old person looking back. This story touches on that idea that while we age physically we don’t always change in our minds.
The story also explores the instinctive fear that many have towards the unknown or the outsider. The carnival is portrayed as a place of fear, seductive fear yes, but still fear, its never a warm, safe or happy place. It is the outsider in the town, come to do harm.
Then we have the fear of monsters or the supernatural, the carnival is never explained, neither is Mr Dark. But they are clearly supernatural in origin, with the magic time reversing carousel and Mr Dark, the main antagonist, who holds power over everyone at the start but as people turn away from fear and doubt he loses that power, to the point where their positive emotions physically harm and eventually kill him.
The fact that these clearly inhuman people and objects are masquerading in plain sight is haunting, but not only that they are actively hunting people. Monsters using the disguise of being a carnival to hunt people is very effective.
The atmosphere of the book is well crafted, Bradbury merges fantasy with horror skilfully to create an atmosphere that has elements of thriller-horror with it’s psychological fear, and fear of the intangible threat of time, and fear of temptation; and gothic horror, with it’s vivid descriptions, spooky settings and bone chilling character’s like Mr Dark.
Overall I’d strongly recommend this book, its atmospheric, chilling and well crafted. Definitely worth your time.