Tattered Tomes: And the Circus Comes to Town – Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked Book CoverMy relationship with Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes began with another book. Already familiar with Bradbury’s work after reading The Martian Chronicles and a few of his many collections of short stories, it was reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre that led me back to the writer that started it all for me. The fact that I found both King’s book and Bradbury’s book at my local library—one of the many settings of Bradbury’s novel—and that the next books I read were King’s The Dead Zone, then It, both of which seem to be inspired partly by Bradbury’s novel, is more than a coincidence. I read all three books back to back. That, folks, is synchronicity, especially considering that in 1986 the library’s sign-up list for King’s novels was several pages long. I had been waiting for The Dead Zone for a couple of years.

As great as those two King novels are, they cannot hold a candle to Bradbury’s novel. A true literary classic accessible for young as well as older adults, Something Wicked This Way Comes has stood the test of time, and is just as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1962. It’s strange to find out that the book almost never came to be, and that it was inspired by such an unlikely source, the legendary Gene Kelly. How fortunate are we that Bradbury took his friend’s advice and wrote the novel.

The novel begins with a rather quiet yet ominous prologue, detailing the setting, Green Town, Illinois. Though effective, I feel this short piece may have been written later, and by today’s fiction standards, may seem unnecessary. For the time it was written, it works as it sets the stage for the big fight between the ultimate adversaries: Good versus Evil. It also works to provide the framework needed to best convey this tale; Green Town is the main character of the story, and every scene is portrayed through her eyes, and a few of the people that live in the town, of course. Bradbury wrote the novel using an omniscient narrator with a very careful cross-section of the people of the town to best show his story, and was skilful enough to write the story effortlessly and seamlessly, allowing all of his characters their time in the spotlight, rarely dimming that light in transition.

The first chapter starts with one of the best opening lines for any novel. Best in that it is simple and foreshadows the battle to come.

The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.

Our two leads, Jim Nightshade and Will Holloway—just two boys whiling away that shady time where summer ends and fall begins—encounter the lightning rod salesman with a little skepticism not uncommon for boys of any age. Bradbury purposely sets this character off right away, and he does sound a little sinister. The master of misdirection, we later find ourselves saddened by the lightning rod salesman’s fate, if not a little horrified. But the lightning rod salesman wasn’t lying; there was a storm coming. No rain, or lightning, or damaging wind. This was a storm hungry for souls, and it knows exactly how to get them.

Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to town. In the still of night, the carnival appears, carousel music twinkling through the breeze, capturing the imagination of the whole town. And who doesn’t love a traveling carnival, with all the rides, and a freak show, even a house of mirrors. But this traveling circus doesn’t want your money. This carnival’s currency is souls, and business has been very, very good. Jim and Will don’t know this at first, but once their curiosity gets the best of them, they discover something wicked has come to town, and they don’t know how to stop it. Mr. Dark, also called The Illustrated Man, is indeed The Illustrated Man, or at least a version of him for this story. Sinister and relentless, Mr. Dark will stop at nothing to stake a claim on the souls of the townspeople. He knows how to find pain and sadness in people, and uses his carnival attractions to transform those who dwell in the darkness into minions for his crew. Often dangerous, and sometimes even sad, there isn’t anyone of his team that can be trusted. Will’s father, Charles Holloway, also knows something’s not right with the traveling circus. Somewhat older than his peers, Charles spends his time with his nose in books at the library, and once things begin to unravel, uses his book smarts to figure out exactly what has arrived in Green Town. As smart and well read as he is, it is not Mr. Holloway’s mind that will help the boys, and the town, survive. No, that power comes from the heart, and he soon discovers that he has that power in spades.

Part of the joy of reading Bradbury is how he always managed to convey a sense of dread by expanding upon the innocence of his characters. By using the human collective nostalgia of growing up, the reader feels those growing pains just as the characters do, so when they get hurt, we feel it, physically and emotionally. Jim and Will are best friends, yet couldn’t be more different than night and day. Jim is a little darker, more pessimistic, but loyal and stubborn. Will is a raw nerve, emotional and thoroughly dependent on his friend. Both boys take away a little something from the other during the course of the story, something that just can’t be chalked up to general maturity and ‘growing up’. The events of the story change them completely. Bradbury illustrates this by using the boy’s ying and yang personalities in contrast to the growing evil spreading through their town. We see that not everything is always black and white, even among friends. Especially among friends. The themes Bradbury explores here are universal, but also very personal for our characters. We care about what happens to these boys because every single one of us has grown up. We know the ups and downs about our own childhood. We can relate, no matter the setting, no matter our age. Combine this understanding of human nature with Bradbury’s unique poetic writing style, and the story sings a song we all know in our hearts. We just don’t know how that song ends.

They ran in urine smell of shadow, they ran in clean ice smell of moon.

The calliope steam-throb whispered, tatted, trilled. –page 263.

Speaking of Bradbury’s style, with this novel, he was at his most poetic and lyrical. He knew the mechanics of language, and knew how to work language, shift it and shape it to fit into his story, to become the world he was sharing. Some writers try to shoehorn poetry into their prose, and it shows. With Bradbury, it was just how he wrote; second nature, writing stories his way, blending his influences and dreams and nightmare into an incredible canvas that still allows readers to gain entrance into his worlds. Poetic, lyrical, yet accessible. He pits goods versus evil, light versus darkness, and still manages to keep it all very simple, and, most importantly, personal. The personal part is very important. He knew that if he couldn’t make the story personal to the characters, there was no way he could make it personal for the reader.

My second read of Something Wicked This Way Comes was a pure joy, and I don’t think I’m going to let so much time pass before reading it again. The story in those pages is more relevant today than it was thirty years ago. It beckons to a simpler time, a time this world has long passed up in favor of instant gratification and unlimited streaming data. The novel is simply a timeless literature classic. Those unfamiliar with Ray Bradbury should invest some time to read a true master at work. Many may shy away from his stories, seeing that science-fiction label and fearing tomes of hard science and travel between worlds and times far beyond our understanding. Bradbury does bring us to many of those places, and farther still, but each time we experience the ride through the eyes of people just like ourselves. He may have been labeled a science-fiction writer, but the truth of that matter is that he wrote from the heart to get to our hearts, and my dear readers, it just doesn’t get any better than that.


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