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.
This sounds really good! I've never read Ray Bradberry. I definitely need to try something by him. :)
A great one by Bradbury. It's been a while since I read it, so I may dig it out and do it again. And, yes, one of Bradbury's attractions for me is his poetic writing style. Whenever I post something on Bradbury, I always find myself quoting a paragraph or two, something I don't often do with other writers.
You picked out some of my favorite quotes -- something I didn't really have room to do in our discussion. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!
Such a great review! I like how you call this novel a modern fable, and say that it is a book full of ideas. I think I should read this!
Hi Jillian - I love Bradbury. In addition to this book, I would recommend any of his short story collections, The Martian Chronicles or Fahrenheit 451.
His writing style is very unique. I think that most people do not expect this from science fiction.
Hi Lory - He is so quotable.
Hi Suko - I think that you would like this. If you read it I would love to know what you thought about it.
Very interesting post about a book I've never heard of.
You wrote "Though not the sole source of human goodness, empathy towards others is, in my opinion, one of the key components to human virtue."
On the French radio, there's a show called "Sur les épaules de Darwin" (on Darwin's shoulders) that explore a theme through literature, philosophy and science.
There was a series of shows about empathy. The narrator mixes sources from literature, philosophy and scientific publications like Nature or Science. He demonstrated that "empathy" is at the root of human nature and that it's what makes us human.
He also showed that some animals can experience empathy too. Very interesting stuff.
Hi Brian! Bradbury is one of favorites. I read this book a couple of years ago. I'm not sure if I wrote a review on it or not. I found it so intriguing. I wasn't quite sure if he was trying to say something with all the queer happenings but it was very suspenseful.
I agree with you about his writing. Very nice!
Have a good weekend!
Thanks for a great review of this classic Bradbury text. Like you I grew up in a town not too dissimilar from the one that Bradbury depicts. I especially appreciate your highlighting the way Bradbury describes the development of our shared humanity. His poetic style evokes a world that is superbly eerie yet not unlike our own.
Hi Sharon - The suspense and the atmosphere are such an important part of this book.
Eerie is a good word for the world created in this book. Like are own is also true, at least for me, who can relate to the world of the boys.
Hi Brian, I've only read Fahrenheit, although the title of this book is familiar - just discovered it comes from Macbeth. Wonderful review & I think you've just solved the problem of what to get a certain family member for Christmas. Thanks!
Hello Brian! This novel sounds really fabulous. I guess the words "modern fable" and "atmospheric and poetic adventure tale" completely seduced me. In my list for sure. I wish you a lovely Sunday :)
I started reading this about a year ago but it was on audio and I didn't care for the narrator, so gave up. Now I see there is a new audio production. I will give Bradbury another try in print, but it might be a reread of Fahrenheit 451 instead. Still, you make this one sound very appealing...
Hi Carol - I loved Fahrenheit451 but I actually thought that this one was better.
I think that this book would make a great gift.
I agree. Bradbury's writing style is more the exception than it is the rule.
Hi Emma - Empathy is so important. I agree that it is hard wired into us, as well as some animals.
"Sur les épaules de Darwin" sounds so good and it sounds very unique.
Hi Readers's Tales - I would love to know what you thought if you read this.
Hi JoAnn - Fahrenheit 451 was such a great book. I highly recommend it.
I actually liked this one a little better.
Bradbury on audiobook sounds interesting. On one hand I would think that his poetic style would sound very good if read out loud. On the other hand his prose are a bit dense and that might make listening difficult.
I read this a couple of years ago and liked it eventually; I didn't at first. But I think I would have liked it a lot more if I'd read it when I was younger as you did.
Hi Jonathan - I loved it when I was young. Reading it when older enhances the entire experience for me.
Yes, of course. Reading your book review, I was touched by the fact that it had a vivid impact on you. While reading your review it brought back good memories of a quite similar book I once read: "Perfume" by Patrick Suskind. It is a book about an abandoned child who later developed extraordinary olfactory powers and, unfortunately, became a murderer. I'm always attracted to the magical, surreal, poetic and philosophical side that some novels possess . No wonder I adore Coelho, Kafka, Kundera, Amado, Camus, Hak, etc...
It's often neat to revisit a book that was read from our youth. Gosh so many memories a rereading can conjure up! I'm glad you found this book equally as great the second time around. Though I have not read Bradbury, I plan to reread Where the Red Fern Grows soon -- and that is one such book I haven't read since perhaps elementary school, so I will compare how I feel about it today vs. the first time I read it in my youth. Nice post!
Outstanding commentary as usual, Brian!! KUDOS!!
I found this to be an especially fascinating post! As you know, Bradbury is one of my favorite writers, whether SF or not. And it’s precisely because of his beautiful prose, his quirky, and very original, way of combining images, his way of leaving the reader breathless with every majestic, elegant sentence read. Those quotes sent chills up my spine, but not because I felt scared. No, it was because I felt totally moved, totally enthralled. The man’s writing, in short, was utterly sublime! I don’t think I’m exaggerating, either. I was surprised to read that some people don’t like Bradbury’s style. Well, I sure LOVE it!! I SO wish I could have met him in person to tell him so. Perhaps, though, if I had been that lucky, I would only have been able to stand before him, awed and dumbstruck.... Along with Tolkien, this man is one of my literary idols!
Having stated all of the above, I must nevertheless confess to some mixed feelings about some of this great writer’s work. That’s because I don’t like the horror genre at all, and Bradbury’s work does contain undercurrents – and these sometimes become VERY obvious – of horror. I immediately noticed this when I first read two of his famous short-story collections, “The Martian Chronicles”, and “The Illustrated Man”. As for the other Bradbury book I’ve read, “Fahrenheit 451”, I don’t remember the plot having such a strong element of horror, although of course there was the quiet horror of people being forbidden to read, of their hours being frittered away in shallow, meaningless activities.
I’ve always told myself that I would never dare read “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. It obviously contains quite a few elements of horror. Still, I might try it out, because the philosophical elements sound so very fascinating! So this means I’ll need to renew my library card, lol. I don’t think I would want to own this book!
BTW, I LOVE the color of the notes at the beginning of the post, with the links in orange! They match the colors on the cover! Very striking!! :)
Thanks for sharing your fascinating observations on this book!! Hope week is a TERRIFIC one!! : )
My favorite RB is Fahrenheit 451, and I remember being indifferent to SWTWC when I read it many years ago. Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind when I read it. That happens to me a lot. Books don't change over time, but I change. Your fine posting has me poised to give SWTWC another change. I could use a get escape these days. Now if only I can get a library copy. Thanks for your posting. All the best from the Gulf coast.
Hi Susan - Returning to this book was a really an interesting experience as one of its major themes was aging.
I look forward to reading about your impressions of Where the Red Fern Grows now.
Thanks RT - You wrote that "Books don't change over time, but I change", this is so true. I have read multiple books years later. My impressions were so different when I did.
Thanks for the good word Maria.
I was actually thinking of what you had previously told me about horror while I was reading this book.
There is nothing graphic here. There is also Yet there is sense of psychological horror about this book and also some sense of dread. There are also implications that the antagonists have done some very bad things to people.
Have a great week!
Ooh, I'll have to check whether or not we have a copy of this on our shelves.
Sounds like a read that has plenty to offer and one that certainly appeals to me more than Fahrenheit 451 ever did.
I really like your discussion of Charles Halloway. His ruminations on life were a welcome break from the evil and horror of the story and yet, an important underpinning of the book.
And you are right, empathy is necessary here when you consider how easily Mr. Dark, the witch and the others of the carnival trifled so easily with human life. They are long past feeling any of that.
I haven't read this since I was a kid and I liked it very much then. Now and then i think about rereading it but, you know. But I think you may have convinced me. At least it will be on my list of choices for my "spooky" reading next fall!
I have heard of this one and need to make time to read it. I read Fahrenheit 451 a while ago and enjoyed it. I agree, empathy towards others is fundamental. This one sounds very good.
I'm pretty sure I read this book back in the mists of time when I was a teenager and although the detail now escapes me I do remember the dreamlike, surreal nature of the story. Great review as ever, Brian - thanks for the reminder.
The writing in this novel is whimsical, serious, and poetic--not an easy feat! I'm glad I read it, but don't see myself rereading it. I think if I had read it young and returned to it, I would feel much the same as you about it :)
There is definitely a lot of food for thought in this short novel, as you point out.
>"You start with little common causes."
Yes! This is what enables us to move mountains.
The strange surreal nature of it all seemed to be something that I had remembered too.
Hi Jane - The experience of the reread was striking for me.
I was discussing with my sister the other day what standalone book I would say was my favourite, if anyone asked, and this was one of the names that came up. The whimsy, that you so rightly point out, of Bradbury's writing is what I love the most about this book. It is in parts a fable, an adventure, a mystery... and the whole is more. Your observation on age makes me want to revisit the book as well. Thanks for the commentary!
When it comes to modern storytelling, this book has it all.
Hello Brian! Dear, that's the kind of book I sorely want to read (dreamlike and surreal). It's wonderful to write articles about books you read younger. By reading your book review I feel your enthusiasm and that is what seduces me. I will add it to my very long reading list and I'll give you my feedback when I read it. I wish you a lovely week ahead :)
Hi Reader's Tales - I was really enthusiastic about this one :
If you read this, I would love to know what you think.
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