“But no man’s a hero to himself.”
Nostalgia has never been rendered with such bittersweet whimsy as in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the only full-length novel written by speculative master, Ray Bradbury. The adjective-laden prose, nuanced with strokes of scent and shade and breeze, is beautiful in a uniquely poetic way. Even Stephen King, with his notorious hatred of adverbs, was an ardent fan of Bradbury’s genius, admiring his stories for their “resonance and strange beauty”.
In Bradbury’s language, April becomes “a rare month for boys”, the carnival folk are “autumn people”, women are “strange wonderful clocks”, a book is best read “for its empty spaces”, you have to run “so the sadness could not hurt”, and the wind takes you “to all the secret places that were never so secret again in life”.
The tale was originally intended for the screen in a collaboration with Gene Kelly (yet another reason to love the story), but when the movie was never made Bradbury turned it into a novel and the world was forever grateful. Entwined in a dark fantasy narrative about the secret horrors of a traveling carnival is an achingly rich examination of childhood, friendship, age, and integrity. Will Halloway’s friendship with Jim Nightshade runs the plot along in a frenzy of boyhood adventure, but the depth is in the play of differences between each boy, observed offhandedly by both as their awareness of the world and of each other matures with each passing moment.
Adding further dimension is Will’s relationship with his father, Charles, the janitor at the library who teaches the boys to love stories but holds an aloof and melancholy presence in his son’s life. Through the events of the story it is his transformation, from the grief of what is lost to the joy of what is now, that becomes the most compelling. I can’t help but wonder if this is Ray Bradbury himself.
Around these three characters swirls a confounding and at times terrifying story of how our human broods and desires become forces for evil, and that the victory of life is won only as we continually cling to hope in the face of despair. At times Bradbury draws this out in painful tension, creating moments of page-turning suspense that are both deeply chilling and emotionally agonising.
So the triumph of the story is not the vanquishing of the corporeal foes, which at times seem genuinely immortal, but the ability of one friend to hold out hope for another despite the evidence of overwhelming defeat. This conclusion makes the story even more profound and transformative, and the three characters are left pondering the nature of the evil that has touched their lives.
“Dad, will they ever come back?”
“No. And yes.” Dad tucked away his harmonica. “No not them. But yes, other people like them. Not in a carnival. God knows what shape they’ll come in next. But sunrise, noon, or at the latest, sunset tomorrow they’ll show. They’re on the road.”
“Oh, no,” said Will.
“Oh, yes, said Dad. “We got to watch out the rest of our lives. The fight’s just begun.”
They moved around the carousel slowly.
“What will they look like? How will we know them?”
“Why,” said Dad, quietly, “maybe they’re already here.”
So there it is. Maybe they’re already here, the autumn people. Any one of us could be them — whether we are or not is up to us.