Ray Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962/2014)
Bradbury is a legend. He is directly and/or indirectly responsible for dozens of classic films, he wrote something like 30 books, and I even enjoyed his weird, 80’s television show, Ray Bradbury Theater, which fell pretty firmly in the Tales from the Darkside, Amazing Stories, Twilight Zone vein. One of my favorite films based on his work is Something Wicked This Way Comes, released by Disney in 1983 and starring Johnathan Pryce and Jason Robards. I found Pryce’s performance as Mr. Dark, the evil ringmaster of a demonic carnival, to be mesmerizing. (Some of you might know Pryce from his role as the High Sparrow in a fairly recent season of Game of Thrones.) Despite my love of the movie and fascination with the character of Mr. Dark, I’d never read Bradbury’s original novel. I thought I’d better fix that---and just in time for Halloween!
For those who have never seen the film or read the book, here’s a quick plot summary. In a small, midwestern town, two young boys (both 14) are best friends, live across the street from each other, and do everything together. Though both are mischievous, the two boys have different personalities. Jim is more impulsive and adventurous, and Will, the son of an aging library janitor, is more introspective and innocent. One late October, just as the boys are starting to experience the first hints of sexual awareness (a subject that has opened a tiny rift in their otherwise rock-solid friendship) a storm blows into town, and with it, a strange, sinister carnival. Sneaking out, as boys do, they race to the carnival grounds only to witness some supernatural goings-on, including a carousel that can manipulate a person’s age! (When the carousel goes backwards, the rider gets younger, when forwards, they grow older.) For a young person on the verge of sexual awakening, the prospect of being just a little bit older seems enticing, and Jim is inevitably drawn to the idea. Will, more sober, knows Jim mustn’t give in to the temptation.
The master of the carnival, Mr. Dark, is covered in living tattoos, and has under his control a cadre of odd characters, including The Skeleton, The Lava Drinker, The “Dwarf” (to use Bradbury’s word), and The Dust Witch (sometimes called a “Gypsy” by Bradbury; although some of the language in this book can be a bit insensitive by today’s P.C. standards, I don’t think Bradbury intended to be offensive.) Bradbury names this cast of interesting side-show characters, but unfortunately, only the Dust Witch really has anything interesting to do in the story, beyond lurking about and being menacing.
The novel’s setup is fascinating, and the concept of a supernatural carnival that can grant wishes is creepy and enticing, but sadly, Bradbury’s language is so dense that I had real trouble navigating the prose to get to the “here’s what’s actually happening.” I know that some people will really enjoy Bradbury’s language and texture, but let’s face it: IT’S PURPLE PROSE. I’ve read enough Victorian Gothic literature to know purple prose when I see it, and this stuff is so purple it feels like I’m reading directly off an eggplant! The language can get so drenched in metaphor it becomes confusing, and often feels indulgent. (A screeching solo where a riff would do.) Rather than complain, I’ll just give you an example. Here’s a scene in which Jim and Will watch Mr. Cooger, one of the proprietors of the carnival, ride the carousel backwards and become a little kid:
“Another and another time around under the sky and trees and Will whispering, Jim counting the times around, around, while the night air warmed to summer heat by friction of sun-metal brass, the passionate backturned flight of beasts, wore the wax doll down and down and washed him clean with still stranger musics until all ceased, all died away to stillness, the calliope shut up its brassworks, the ironmongery machines hissed off, and with a last faint whine like desert sands blown back up Arabian hourglasses, the carousel rocked on seaweed waters and stood still” (p. 79.)
Notice, if you will, that this is ONE SENTENCE. Don’t get me wrong, some of the imagery is poetic, and I’m cool with poetry, but this is a dense, complex, labyrinthian sentence, and it’s not uncommon in this work. When describing magic, I think some poetry is warranted, even necessary, but Bradbury takes this to extremes. Here’s another example, this time describing Will’s father who gets his hand broken by Mr. Dark:
“Where his left hand should be was this swelled blood pudding which pulsed with such ecstacies of pain it fed forth his life, his will, his whole attention. He tried to sit up, but the pain hammerblowed him down again” (p. 226).
It’s a bit much. In fact, there really aren’t that many actual events that even happen in this book because everything takes a minimum of three pages to be described, even when it's not that important to the story. In fact, several things that DO occur, and seem to point towards future events, fizzle into dead ends. Bradbury makes a big deal about selling a lightning rod to the boys early in the book to protect Jim’s house from a lightning strike that the salesman says he’s sure is coming, but the lightning strike never happens---unless it’s a metaphorical bolt, but if that’s the case then why did he need the lightning rod? And this is just one of a number of scenes that seem to come and go without directly impacting to the story. (To be fair, they do meet the salesman again, after he's been turned into one of Mr. Dark's freaks, but there's no lightning...)
What does happen is freaky and strange, and the idea of a supernatural carnival full of magical creatures who feed on fear and sorrow is brilliantly creepy, and don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I finally read the book, although it took a lot more work to get through than I thought it would. Bradbury’s imagination was deep and dark, but he was also a product of his times. As I mentioned, there is some non-P.C. language in the book, but not too much. In 1962, this book would probably have been considered downright polite. Another issue I have with the book is with a scene towards the end where Will’s father basically beats him, smacks him in the face several times and smashes him across the ear, in order to get him to BE HAPPY and dance and be silly. I’m not buying that for an instant. A 14 year old who is being beaten by his father would not and COULD NOT laugh about it. Bradbury had some strange, old-fashioned views on boyhood (and besides the evil Dust Witch, most of the other female characters in the book are basically made of cardboard.) Something Wicked is considered a classic, and there are certainly people out there who will find Bradbury’s prose style charming, but for me, it was more work to read the book than I’d hoped it would be. I might reread it again someday, but it’s going to be a long while before I do…
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)