Something Wicked This Way Comes

By Ray Bradbury

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Ray Bradbury will forever be remembered as a writer of
genre stories, yet most of his oeuvre reveals a stubborn
resistance—that borders on obliviousness—to the accepted
formulas of the pulp fiction trade.   He has complained about
the sci-fi label invariably applied to his work—“I've only done
one science fiction book and that's
Fahrenheit 451, based on
reality,” is his oft-quoted comeback.  And his best known
outer space work,
The Martian Chronicles, has about as much
about the Red Planet as a Mars chocolate
bar.  In general, the science in his various
tales is rarely more than a passing fancy,
and sometimes totally absent.  

And then we come to his "horror" novel,
Something Wicked This Way Comes.  How
does Bradbury fare when dealing with a
terror-inducing tale  of the supernatural?

An early warning sign that this book is not
your typical scary story arrives even before
the opening sentence.  The dedication to silver
screen idol Gene Kelly will come as a surprise
to many readers—even more so, when they
learn that Bradbury originally conceived this
story as a film feature for the charming song-and-
dance man to produce.   Even more to the point,
I can easily imagine Mr. Kelly residing in the slice-of-Americana,
Norman Rockwell-ish setting (based on Bradbury’s home town of
Waukegan, Illinois) where the novel takes place.  No,
Nightmare on
Elm Street
this is not.  

Certainly Bradbury tries to amplify the horror as best he can, which
revolves around a sinister carnival coming to town, but his
temperament is not suited for dark themes.   The supposedly spine-
tingling scenes are among the most perfunctory in the book.   
Meanwhile the author really hits his stride when waxing nostalgically
over issues of youth and aging, life in Middle America, and other
familiar Bradbury themes.   Two-thirds of the way through the novel,
the reader is rewarded with a long monologue on the metaphysics of
good and evil, delivered by a janitor at the local library, and this
interlude is thought-provoking and powerful, but has taken us so far
away from the conventions of the horror story, that we wonder
whether Bradbury will ever find his way back.   

Here is a dose of this speech:

First things first.  Let’s bone up on history.  If men had wanted to stay
bad forever they could have, agreed?...Somewhere we turned in our
carnivore’s teeth and started chewing blades of grass.  We been
working mulch as much as blood, into our philosophy, for a quite a
few lifetimes.  Since then we measure ourselves up the scale from
apes, but not half so high as angels…. 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….

This goes on, with a few interjections from the youngsters in
attendance on the Socratic exercise, for more than ten pages.  The
reader can sense Bradbury’s excitement, and even get a feeling that
this is the core of the novel from the author’s perspective.  What a
contrast from horror story maestro H.P. Lovecraft, a key role model
for Bradbury in a book of this sort, or from Stephen King, who was
inspired in turn by this novel, but would never let his appreciation of
metaphysics get in the way of the plot.  

The plot, in Bradbury’s case builds on the exploits two thirteen-year-
old boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who find themselves
irresistibly drawn to the strange carnival that has arrived in town—
even as they grow fearful in the face of the mysterious goings-on and
odd characters they encounter.  One of the proprietors of the traveling
show, Mr. Dark, makes them shudder with his torso and limbs covered
with tattoos.  He is sometimes called the
Illustrated Man here, and thus
stands as another example of Bradbury’s willingness to recycle
concepts and character types, and sometimes entire stories, from his
earlier books.  But our young heroes also cross paths with the Dust
Witch, the Skeleton, the Dwarf and Mister Electrico, among other
unsavory carnival characters.

Bradbury tosses in some evil apparatuses for good measure.   We have
a carousel that can make the rider turn older and younger, depending
on whether it is running forward or reverse.   A house of mirrors
beckons people into a frightening labyrinth, where the reflected images
seem to turn on the unwary originals.  We have an electric chair, a
predatory hot air balloon, and a guillotine and other instruments of
horror.  Bradbury is especially skilled at employing these elements as
objective correlatives in creating an atmosphere of dread and suspense.

Yet, above all, this is a beautifully written book, perhaps the most
poetic horror novel of its time.   Not a single page comes across as
perfunctory, and even when the plot is moving at its fastest pace, the
author measures every phrase, and luxuriates in his imagery and
asides.   In fact, Bradbury runs the risk of undercutting the scary
elements, by presenting them in such majestic sentences.  In the final
analysis, he transforms this novel into a coming-of-age story, in which
the darker elements are again and again pushed to the periphery.   Yes,
you will find more terrifying tales than
Something Wicked This Way
, but few that turn the ingredients of the horror genre into
something quite so exquisite.
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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
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The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
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Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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