Source of book: Borrowed from the library
First of all, as full disclosure: I am not really a fan of horror. There are a few suspense movies I like (The Others comes to mind), and I like Edgar Alan Poe. But as a general rule, it’s not my thing.
On the other hand, I do like Ray Bradbury, and this book was recommended by a number of people I trust, so I decided to put it on the list.
I loved it, and am decidedly glad I read it. Bradbury’s writing is just fantastic, the book is well plotted and paced, and the metaphor and philosophy are fascinating.
The story centers around two boys, Will and Jim, best friends on the cusp of turning 14. A mysterious “lightning rod salesman” shows up ahead of a vaguely sinister carnival, which is expected to come in at midnight. The boys are both creeped out and fascinated, but everything seems more like atmosphere and their overactive imaginations. Until they see the carousel. Which appears to be able to take people forward or backward in age. Oh, and the carnival seems intent on getting Will and Jim to...well, it isn’t clear exactly what they want or why they are targeting the boys, at least until much later in the book.
Also central to the book is Will’s dad, the night security guard at the library - who is much smarter and formidable than he looks. It’s just the three of them against an array of malevolent forces, though, and the carnival is about more than it seems.
I won’t spoil it beyond that, because the unfolding of the truth is part of the fun.
One thing that I think I do need to say might be considered a spoiler, so if you aren’t interested in that, you might skip the rest for now, and read the book first.
The reason the book is more than just a horror book is that Bradbury isn’t interested in just scaring the reader with senseless malevolence. The carnival is merely evil, and it certainly isn’t pointless. It feeds off of a natural human experience. We all long for something, and most of us, when we are honest, desire to be a different age. For someone my age, I could see wanting my 30 year old body back, when I was lighter and recovered faster from exercise. At another time of life, I would have preferred to have been older. (My teens, for sure. I am glad I never have to be in 8th grade again.) The carnival catches its victims through this discontent, and keeps them on through guilt and regret. After all, when you get younger and everyone else gets old, well...this is a common philosophical question from Tolkein to Plato. I’ll quote a few bits below.
It isn’t too often that I can say that I was hooked on a book from the first sentence. Usually, for the kind of books I read, things take a while to develop. Something Wicked This Way Comes starts off with a riveting prologue, a few paragraphs that are so good, I knew I was going to enjoy being immersed in the book. And the language maintained its descriptive power throughout. Bradbury could write. Flat out write. Here is how it starts:
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
I’ll stop with that, but as far as prologues go, this was superbly memorable. The evocative language throughout is so quotable, but I’ll just pick a few. There is this one from the thoughts of Will’s father, Charles Halloway.
Look! he thought. Will runs because running is its own excuse. Jim runs because something’s up ahead of him.
Yet, strangely, they do run together.
What’s the answer, he wondered, walking through the library, putting out the lights, putting out the lights, putting out the lights, is it all in the whorls on our thumbs and fingers? Why are some people all grasshopper fiddlings, scrapings, all antennae shivering, one big ganglion eternally knotting, slip-knotting, square knotting themselves? They stoke a furnace all their lives, sweat their lips, shine their eyes and start it all in the crib. Caesar’s lean and hungry friends. They eat the dark, who only stand and breathe.
That’s poetry right there. Those three-fold repetitions. And the references to Shakespeare and Milton, little easter eggs for those who read. Or how about the description of the carousel?
They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth.
That’s...disturbing. And yet, weirdly accurate. Bradbury notes in the afterward that he freaked out on a carousel at age 4, and has hated them ever since. And my goodness, does he pay that ride back with that description.
Charles Halloway is delightfully philosophical. There are several scenes in which he talks with Will, or with Will and Jim. This one is striking.
“Now, look, since when did you think being good meant being happy?”
“Since now learn otherwise. Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light. The seal-barker, the laugh-shouter, half the time he’s covering up. He’s had his fun and he’s guilty. And me do love sin, Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells. Times come when troughs, not tables, suit our appetites. Hear a man too loudly praising others, and look to wonder if he didn’t just get up from the sty. On the other hand, that unhappy, pale, put-upon man walking by, who looks all guilt and sin, why, often that’s your good man with a capital G, Will. For being good is a fearful occupation; men strain at it and sometimes break in two.”
I have to mention Chapter 31, which is the shortest chapter by far. It reads, in full:
Nothing much else happened, all the rest of that night.
About two-thirds of the way through, when Jim and Will realize what is happening, they are able to meet up with Mr. Halloway at the library. He has been reading through old newspapers and makes some useful discoveries. But the best part is the extended riff Mr. Halloway goes on. Here are some highlights.
“First things first. Let’s bone up on history. If men had wanted to stay bad forever, they could have, agreed? Agreed. Did we stay out in the fields with the beasts? No. In the water with the barracuda? No. Somewhere we let go of the hot gorilla’s paw. Somewhere we turned in our carnivore’s teeth and started chewing blades of grass. We have been working mulch as much as blood, into our philosophy, for 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. He felt that seed like slime in his pulse, splitting, making more against the day they would multiply his body into darkness. So that man, the first one, knew what we know now: our hour is short, eternity is long. With this knowledge came pity and mercy, so we spared others for the later, more intricate, more mysterious benefits of love.”
“Really knowing is good. Not knowing, or refusing to know, is bad, or amoral, at least. Acting without knowing takes you right off the cliff.”
And, perhaps, one of the most profound truths in the book:
“Can they…” said Jim. “I mean...do they...buy souls?”
“Buy, when they can get them free?” said Mr. Halloway.
“Why, most men jump at the chance to give up everything for nothing. There’s nothing we’re so slapstick with as our immortal souls.”
Oh man, the saga of Trump and Evangelicals is Exhibit A on this. Literally willing to give up their morals, their compassion, their intelligence, their reputation, even the next generations. And for what? A chance to fuck up their grandchildren’s lives a bit more? A sense of petty revenge on the people they hate? As those eminent philosophers Calvin and Hobbes put it, "I don't know which is worse, that everyone has his price, or that the price is always so low."
And that’s a good way to look at the horror of the book. We are so quick to throw away what we have, what is good, what makes us human, for essentially a pocket full of ashes. Bradbury makes the process of becoming evil look so easy, so natural, so hard to avoid. But he also has the wisdom to see that ultimately, it is that love he says the caveman discovers as a consequence of understanding mortality.
Anyway, I loved this book, and highly recommend it, even if, like me, you aren’t really into horror. This book is more than genre, it is literature by a true master.
Fortuitous coincidence: I was researching different types of sonnets today, and learned for the first time about the differences between the styles of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. The article mentioned Milton's "sonnet 19" that ends with "they also serve who only stand and wait." And when I read it, I had the strongest feeling of familiarity!ReplyDelete
I looked up "they eat the dark, who only stand and breathe." (And that quote led me to this marvelous post which clarifies and discusses some of the things that I most loved about "Something Wicked this Way Comes.") The writing of it is so beautiful and has a depth that it makes commentary sometimes difficult to express. It was really gratifying to make the connection between Milton, Shakespeare, and Charles Halloway, and then immediately find confirmation!
Welcome to the blog, and thanks for your comment. I agree - Bradbury is a wonderful writer (and I am seriously that my mother-in-law got to take a class from him back in the day.Delete
I love sonnets, and you will find plenty of posts about them - I particularly recommend Edna St. Vincent Milay's wonderful ones.