In the rustling drumbeat, a second thing occurred:
From the sodden carnival grounds, the carousel suddenly spasmed to life. Its calliope fluted up malodorous steams of music.
I had never read Something Wicked This Way Comes, but I have good memories of reading Ray Bradbury's short stories as a boy, including two other books tangentially related to this one, The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine. Then, a year or so ago, I happened to pick up Fahrenheit 451, which I had never read. It was good, I thought, if a little scattershot. But I was disappointed by one of the appended stories, "The Veldt," which I remembered fondly but upon returning seemed shallow and artless. I figured I had overestimated Bradbury as a teenager, biased by a love of speculative fiction.
For that reason, I was blown away by Something Wicked This Way Comes, which, along with Dandelion Wine, I had always thought of as juvenile fiction--and true, Something Wicked seems like it might appeal to a particularly bright kid, as it embodies a lot of what is at the heart of childhood: a sense of immortality and limitless fantasy, coupled with an ironic desire to be older. But it is also about nostalgia, and the desire of adults to have what they lost by leaving their childhood. Also the prose, while bold and full of strong visual imagery like you expect from YA fiction, has a certain obtuse flair that kids might find hard to follow, but that really makes the book enjoyable for an adult reader.
Macbeth's witches provide the title: "By the pricking of my thumbs / something wicked this way comes." That "something wicked" is a carnival, Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show, populated by a number of freaks: the ancient and mummified fortuneteller called Dust Witch, the human skeleton, the dwarf, and the Illustrated Man, Dark himself, who is covered head-to-toe in tattoos--tattoos which we find represent the souls trapped in bondage by the evil carnival. Cooger and Dark have travelled the world with evil intent for centuries, kept in stasis by a carousel that can age a rider forwards or backwards, depending on the way it is ridden.
Two boys, Jim and Will, discover the carnival's secret and set out to destroy it, in typical fashion. Will is horrified by the carnival, but Jim is seduced by the idea of the carousel. I love Bradbury's descriptions of Jim's character:
Waiting, his eyes were dark as twilight, with shadows under the eyes from the time, his mother said, he had almost died when he was three and still remembered. His hair was dark autumn chestnut and the veins in his temples and brow and in his neck and ticking in his writsts and on the backs of his slender hands, all these were dark blue. He was marbled with dark, was Jim Nightshade, a boy who talked less and smilled less as the years increased.
The trouble with Jim was he looked at the world and could not look away. And when you never look away all your life, by the time you are thirteen you have done twenty years worth of taking in the laundry of the world.
Jim is "marbled with dark." That says it all, doesn't it? Jim's counterpoint is Will's father, Charles Halloway, who works at the local library and longs to recapture the magic of youth. Dark's carousel, of course, provides that opportunity, but at a tremendous cost. A lesser book would present this as a conflict of conscience, where Charles is forced to choose between youth and the safety of his son, but Bradbury is wisely content to present Charles as a man who has no doubts when it comes to helping his son, but aware of his own temptations all the same.
Though Will and Jim are its heroes, some of the most powerful passages in the book come from Charles:
His wife smiled in her sleep.
She's immortal. She has a son.
Your son, too!
But what father ever really believes it? He carries no burden, he feels no pain. What man, like woman, lies down in darkness and gets up with child? The gentle, smiling ones, own the good secret. Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity. They live inside the gift, know power, accept, and need not mention it. Why speak of Time when you are Time, and shape the universal moments, as they pass, into warmth and action? How men envy and often hate these warm clocks, these wives, who know they will live forever. So what do we do? We men turn terrible mean, because we can't hold to the world or ourselves or anything. We are blind to continuity, all breaks down, falls, melts, stops, rots, or runs away. So, since we cannot shape Time, where does that leave men? Sleepless. Staring.
I love that. That passage alone rehabilitates Bradbury for me, and I think I'm going to have to revisit Dandelion Wine in the near future. All in all, this is one book I am glad that I stole from school.