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Something Wicked This Way Comes - Book Review

By Murray Caldwell

‘With a flutter of breath, they raised their eyes from the earth they had been treading. And the carnival was there.’

For years, the world and I have been fans of Ray Bradbury’s work.

The smoky, shimmering prose of celebrated classics like Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man captivated me like generations of readers before. I had always meant to delve into his work further; to once again dive deep and sift up gold from the sand bed. Alas, like always, life just got in the way.

And then it was October, and the carnival came to me.

Something Wicked This Way Comes was first published in 1962, by Simon & Schuster. It has been commonly described as dark fantasy and, while I certainly think there is some merit to the ‘dark’ part, ‘fantasy’ is a tight-tent skin stretch too far.

The story tells of two thirteen-year-old Illinoisan boys, nestled in quiet and safe small-town America. They, just like the country itself, are on the cusp of entering a new, unprecedented period of life. When the carnival comes, announcing its arrival with a train exhalation of skull-smoke, it puts every part of them to the test, causing them to question their relationship with themselves, each other, and life. Bradbury carefully utilizes clever techniques to help craft and smooth the passage, whilst sharpening our understanding of how strange and otherworldly these experiences fundamentally are, how altogether real and universal. The wonderful, fantastical elements to the story help bring out a sense of deep, emotionally grounded reality.

Characters’ names are Bradbury’s direct – but playful – way of signalling personality and inner conceit. He sets up a binary opposition in the two protagonists: the dark, impetuous Jim Nightshade, with green eyes and the black hair of an auspicious cat, and his polar opposite, the polar-white-haired Will Halloway, whose cautious blue-eyed disposition sparks off Jim’s heat. The imagery and suggestion of purple poison plants and honoured spirits in these names alone should tell you where you’re likely to go.

And yet, there’s no straightforward momentum to this macabre calliope song.

The common thread of the story is a-shifting, a-changing: it is a developing, snake-shedding metamorphosis that is reflected through everything, right down to the afflux of the delightful prose. Nothing is stable in this story; ordinary things become fantastical and dark with the advent of carnival and night, given new meaning and weight. The smallest detail is ballooned up and experienced in unique and unexpected ways.

What informs the reader most of the wonderful nature of the tale is Bradbury’s sometimes morose – and always fluid – style of prose. The language and word choice mean the advent of everyday things is twisted to the loaded and macabre, and Bradbury is always moving the reader round and round like a certain flesh-sloughing carousel.

Two friends at a fantastical carnival and their forced discovery of a larger, murkier outside world is all too real. The experience of children on the cusp of something, with no chance of preparation or inkling of what they’re up against, is something very universal, and through his heightened fantasy, Bradbury taps into this very full vein, of very real life. Although, it’s usually minus the challenges of any wizened-eye Mr. Cooger, or midnight-clad Mr. Dark.

Or is it?

I think the book and Bradbury challenge us, beg the question, in the best possible way. We all have these obstacles and nefarious forces to face in our own lives, doubts and challenges that blow across our path like late-October leaves.

Something wicked comes all our way, and the price is always free. You are given a ticket, proffered by the dark. There are times to laugh at it and walk away. And there are those rare times, those special times, when it pays to embrace dark rays of bright carnival lights.

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