I read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury twice as a teenager, but it has been decades since I had last read this work. I found this to be a superb book the first time that I read it, and I still do. It works both as a fantastical adventure as well a philosophical romp into the mysteries of life
The story is set in a small American Midwestern town. The protagonists are two 13-year-old boys, William (Will) Halloway and James (Jim) Nightshade. Will’s father, 52-year-old Charles Halloway, the janitor at the local library, also plays a major role in the story.
Early in the narrative, the boys’ world is disturbed when a traveling carnival comes to town. All sorts of strange and sinister happenings begin to occur. The carnival is owned and staffed by various malevolent characters including Mr. Dark and Mr. Cooger, the two bizarre leaders of the group. The attractions include a strange mirror maze that traps people and shows them images of their older selves, as well as a carousel that is capable of making a person younger or older, depending upon which direction it runs in. These odd attractions play a major part in both the plot and the themes of the book.
Eventually, various town residents begin to disappear or are transformed in ghastly ways. As Will and Jim get closer to the carnival’s mysteries, Mr. Dark and his minions begin to hunt the boys.
The story is dreamlike and surreal. There is an alternate sense of wonder at the Universe itself and an ominous sense of evil and malice coming from the carnival and from the people associated with it. Bradbury’s prose is often poetic throughout his works. That is very true here.
What I love about Bradbury’s writing is encapsulated in the below quotation. When the boys enter the library, their sense of wonder is described.
“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 spices....”
I am aware that some find Bradbury’s style not to their liking, but the above exemplifies why I like his writing. I find it both whimsical and serious at the same time. This prose seems poetic. The above quotation also illustrates Bradbury’s wonder and awe of books and what they contain. The way that the above is connected to Charles, who is the “oldish man,” is also elegant.
The book is also full of philosophical and metaphysical musings that come both from the 3rd person narration and characters. Charles Halloway is the book’s philosopher and seems to be the voice of Bradbury.
I first read this book way back when I was around the age of Will and Jim. I particularly related to the world that the boys came from. The setting is of the book is similar to that in which I grew up in. I am now three years short of Charles’s age. One of the major themes of this work also centers upon aging. Thus, the experience of rereading this book now, is striking for me.
The themes of life, death, aging, happiness, good and evil are examined in all sorts of complex ways within this work. Like many good books of this sort, I could explore the characters, themes and philosophy in a series of blog posts.
I want to devote a few words to the examination of the nature of good. In this passage, Charles Halloway speculates on the origin of goodness and love in humanity.
“I suppose one night hundreds of thousands of years ago in a cave by a night fire when one of those shaggy men wakened to gaze over the banked coals at his woman, his children, and thought of their being cold, dead, gone forever. Then he must have wept. And he put out his hand in the night to the woman who must die some day and to the children who must follow her. And for a little bit next morning, he treated them somewhat better, for he saw that they, like himself, had the seed of night in them. He felt that seed like slime in his pulse, splitting, making more against the day they would multiply his body into darkness. So that man, the first one, knew what we know now: our hour is short, eternity is long. With this knowledge came pity and mercy, so we spared others for the later, more intricate, more mysterious benefits of love.”
In the above quote, several themes that are repeated multiple times in this book are encapsulated. First, the idea that goodness and love originate with empathy is illustrated here. Also, it is the specter of death that motivates us to be good. The despair driven by the potential end of life generates positive emotions, such as pity and mercy and, in the end, love.
Later on these ideas are further developed in several passages. At one point Charles observes,
“we share this billion-mile-an-hour ride. We have common cause against the night. You start with little common causes. “
I think that Bradbury is on to something here. Though not the sole source of human goodness, empathy towards others is, in my opinion, one of the key components to human virtue. As Stephen Pinker pointed out in his The Better Angels of Our Nature, peoples’ tendency to become more empathetic to one another is one of the leading factors driving humanity’s improvement.
Similar explorations of evil, as well as of aging, the power of books, life and death are also contained within these pages. This book is full of ideas.
This novel is a modern fable. On one level, it is an atmospheric and poetic adventure tale of young boys encountering supernatural horror. On another level, it is a philosophical journey into life and the Universe. I have only scratched the surface on the philosophical musings above. It is a tale that can be enjoyed and pondered by readers of all ages. As the story concerns itself with time and aging, readers who experienced it while young might find it particularly enlightening if, like myself, they read it again when older. It is ultimately, a fantastic book.