How on earth did I miss Ray Bradbury?
Growing up, I was introduced to the science fiction and fantasy literary genres mainly through recommendations from family and friends; recommendations like: Frank Herbert, J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Jules Verne, Aldous Huxley, and Mervyn Peake, but, somehow, Ray Bradbury never found his way into the mix.
I knew of Bradbury, of course. I knew he wrote a book about censorship, and the screenplay for an episode of The Twilight Zone which I never liked very much. But that was about all I knew. And so, as far as I was concerned, Bradbury was probably a B-class writer of boring and mildly cheesy sci-fi books. Not really worth much of my time, in other words.
And that would’ve been that, if not for a raggedy old copy of Fahrenheit 451 I found in my bookcase a few months ago while searching for something new to read. I’m not even entirely sure how it got there (I’m one of those people who accumulate books and justify it by telling myself I’ll read them “someday”) but, since it was handy and I was fairly desperate for reading material, I decided to give it a shot.
I approached Fahrenheit 451 with an open mind but mostly with low expectations, anticipating something interesting, probably predictable and a little dated, but hopefully fun. Yet, within the first few chapters, it became obvious that I was in the hands of a capable storyteller. At the final showdown between Montag and Captain Beatty, I audibly gasped. The ensuing chase and mysterious ending of the novel I devoured in a single, fevered sitting. By the end of the book I was utterly stunned.
How on earth did I miss Ray Bradbury? Why hadn’t anyone told me how good this was? Probably someone did, but I couldn’t get that episode of The Twilight Zone out of my head, I suppose. Well, shame on me.
Needless to say, I was enchanted, and so I did what any self-respecting reader would do after discovering an author: I went to the library.
Truth be told, I was looking for The Martian Chronicles but alas, they had it not. I was left, then, with a choice between a hefty tome of Bradbury’s short fiction and a slim-ish novel with a wicked title and a wicked dust jacket cover. I settled for the latter, and so, carried home with me Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I dove into the novel with very different expectations than my previous Bradbury voyage. I approached it with a certain child-likeness, a wonder and willingness to be awed, but I was yet still unprepared for what followed.
Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story about two 13-year-old boyhood friends, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, living in Small-Town-USA (Green Town to be exact, a recurring location in several Bradbury stories) and their encounter, one week in late October, with a traveling carnival of secret and malevolent supernatural power.
The inhabitants of this carnival seem, at first, to be merely eccentric, harmless, and entertaining. But our boys suspect otherwise and, after several midnight investigations, echoing the best of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the boys make a startling discovery: indeed, there’s more than meets the eye to this carnival, and the price of admission might just be your soul. Along the way we meet a gothic rogues gallery of freaks, a hellish hall of mirrors, a carousel of dreadful power, a hapless father who might just save the day, and a downright diabolical villain, illustrated in tattoos of ghosts and tormented souls; the leader of The Freaks, The Autumn People – one Mr. Dark. And so, the boys begin a foray to save the town (and themselves) from a dark force which feeds off their deepest fears and worst inclinations.
Now, at first glance, this synopsis seems devilishly intriguing, but in the hands of a lesser power, such a story could easily stray into adolescent silliness, or worse: maudlin predictability
But in the hands of Ray Bradbury, the fantastical elements are merely a means to an end, a vehicle in which to carry the reader towards a profound look into the human experience; what it means to grow up, what it means to be a friend, and even what it means to live and die. It is a story of lust and temptation, acceptance and redemption, youth and old age, Light and Dark. And, yes, there’s an evil carnival in it too.
There is much of the novel worth highlighting, too much, really, for this short review. But the tale of Will and Jim is essential. Their changing relationship to each other is nuanced and thoughtful. We endure their failings and foibles, their innocence and loss of innocence, and watch as they simultaneously grow closer together and yet further apart. There’s a sense of initiation taking place, a painful and undesired shedding of boyhood into adulthood. But a sweetness remains, even unto the end.
Then there’s the entire cast of freaks and ghouls of the carnival, which are the source for much of the novel’s shocking elements of genuine horror. From the sickening descriptions of Mr. Electrico to the disturbing absurdity of the Dwarf, the carnival freaks get under your skin and remain there, like a tick, mostly unwanted.
But most unwanted of all is Mr. Dark himself, unrivaled in his dreadfulness. He is a true villain for the ages, an archetype, perhaps, for the devil himself (or itself), and one which will likely stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. There are many moments where he seems less like a flesh and blood character and more like a half-remembered nightmare, but for me the most visceral scene is when he encounters the boys in the library. It’s wicked.
Bradbury’s prose must also be mentioned. It is one of sweeping, dark beauty, breathtaking, weird, sumptuous, synesthetic, and even, at times, avant-garde. It is rich in metaphor, pregnant with portents, and bafflingly descriptive. Nothing escapes his eye, from the red and white pole of a barber shop to the final moments of Mr. Electrico, he finds unconventional ways to describe anything and everything, leaving the reader, at times, almost overwhelmed. To be sure, it is challenging, but if endured it rewards the reader with moments of penetrating and long-lasting clarity. He weaves effortlessly through whatever genre the moment calls for and defies categorization. Is the book Fantasy? Horror? Science Fiction? Tragedy? High Adventure? Symbolic Drama? Religious Art? Magical Realism? Mythic Fairy Tale? Psychoanalysis? The answer is: yes.
But for me, the greatest surprise of the novel is Will’s reclusive and aimless father: Charles Halloway. I read in awe as Bradbury changed him from a listless, impotent shadow to Hero, Holy Fool, and Great Initiator of the boys. He is like a Phoenix rising from the ashes and is alone worth the cost of the book. The several passages between him and his son Will possess a tenderness and gentleness which brought me to tears on several occasions. As the father of a young boy, I was probably primed for such a reaction, but still, I say Charles Halloway steals the show. The final 50 pages or so, starting with the “World Famous Bullet Trick”, are absolutely thrilling, unpredictable, and might have you standing up and cheering for him. I was.
The novel also boasts one of the most iconic and satisfying endings I’ve ever read. But this is no “Happily Ever After” style ending, these are not anemic platitudes or sleepy cliches. Bradbury’s writing, in all its complexities and strident colors, still remains concerned with reality. He flexes his muscular imagination and plays with the painful ironies and paradoxes of life, ending up, unexpectedly, with something like faith, hope, and love. The book doesn’t have a triumphant ending, it merely ends in the midst of a triumph, small in the grand scheme of things, but transformational nonetheless. This is fantasy for grown-ups, a rare gem, perhaps, amidst a landscape mostly of common quartz.
Now this is not to say that I found the novel to be entirely without its flaws. As mentioned above, the style of prose, although truly beautiful in it’s own right, can often be confusing and may prevent those with little taste for poetry to understandably abandon ship early on. I also would’ve liked a little more time dedicated to Jim Nightshade. His motivations felt unclear to me and vaguely one-dimensional. And the sequence between Will and the Witch riding in a hot air balloon battling on a rooftop left me bewildered and more than a little disoriented. But a case could be made against these criticisms, and I have a sense that they have more to do with user-error rather than the shortcomings of Mr. Bradbury.
Ultimately, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a work of High Art, a modern and mythic tale of Good against Evil, but one which never slides into sophomoric dualism. It’s, instead, the kind of art which is true, honest, pure, just, lovely, and of good report. Art that is worth your time and might even be good for your soul. I give it a very high recommendation, 4.5 out of 5 stars.
In closing, the question remains: How on Earth did I miss Ray Bradbury these 37 years? Maybe I was living in The Twilight Zone. That would explain a lot.
And now…on to The Martian Chronicles…