Something Wicked This Way Comes brings together quintessential elements from the entire range of Bradbury’s writings.
It is set in the fictional counterpart of his boyhood home, which he calls “Green Town,” Illinois (featured in Dandelion Wine and many of his short stories, but absent from Fahrenheit 451 and only occasionally a factor in The Martian Chronicles). It includes a darker version of the Mr. Electrico incident that happened when Bradbury was 12, which inspired him to become a writer (see Bookmark note for page 34). It contains the fullest realization of the recurring image of a “dark carnival” that sucks the life and vitality from weak and fearful human beings (which should not be confused with the positive and largely happy family of witches and vampires who appear in the stories from his first collection, Dark Carnival).
It also features an un-heroic trio of heroes consisting of two young teenage boys and a tired, middle-aged man. (What could be more quotidian than a library janitor?). Along with that comes Bradbury’s love of books and libraries, which turns up in stories that revive his literary heroes (Melville and Poe and Dickens), as well as the dystopian novel about firemen who burn illegal books, Fahrenheit 451. Something Wicked also incorporates meditations on the nature of life, death, love, and creativity; and the rich poetic wordplay and sentiment that annoy some critics but that so many of his other readers adore.
I suspect the ideal age to be exposed to this book is just a little older than Will and Jim – 15 or 16, perhaps. Then, the poetry and menace have their best opportunity to work their magic on the reader.
Words seem capable of anything in Something Wicked. Like the saving elixirs of the plot – love and laughter – words are mysterious, beautiful, unexpected, and powerful. Bradbury is a master of rich metaphors: frightened boys “sucked their breaths like iron Popsicles.” Rain “chuckled in rainspouts, and spoke in strange subterranean tongues….” A glance at a carousel, normally a warm and happy sight, reveals quadrupeds “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.”
When it comes to a set-piece like the arrival, in chapter 12, of the carnival via an ancient steam train and its set-up in the middle of the night – “like old movies, the silent theater haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouths opening to let moonlight smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks” – it is like witnessing an extended magic trick done with words: the magic of books, of the imagination itself.
And yet life, death, and evil prove to be so complex and rich that they strain the resources of language. Bradbury has to invent: he coins a dozen words whose meaning becomes clear from their context: the Dwarf’s flash-camera eyes are “bulbed” wide; hiding boys “hisstled” their breath and “scootched” themselves down to tiny size; eyelids “squinch”; a chair is “prisoning” to its sitter.
Words also get jammed together in hyphenated phrases, which are incredibly dense in this book. I counted more than 250 of them: some familiar (“head-over-heels,” “old-fashioned,” “moth-eaten”), some unusual (“crab-clustering,” “book-breathing,” “horseshoe-taffy-puller”), some that have surely never been seen anywhere else (“mica-snowings,” “insect-Kodak,” “mushroom-witch,” “marionettes-wise,” “snow-pale-death-shimmering,” “terribly-wise-with-nightmare”), and a few impossibly long (“Whisper-whisk-slither-thunder-rush,” “deep-as-an-abandoned-stone-well,” and “forever-lost-and-gone-buried-away ” mad).
Even colleagues who admire Bradbury acknowledge his weaknesses: Damon Knight wrote that the sentimentality can sometimes be “sickening.” Stephen King noted “a tendency to not so much write about a subject as to bulldoze it into the ground.” Many characters in Bradbury short stories are not complete, rounded people so much as representations of ideas, or stereotypes. Narration and heroes (in this case, Charles Halloway) speak with awfully similar voices – most likely the same one as their creator’s. But as Orson Scott Card has argued:
"It is not the characters he expects you to identify with. Rather, he means to capture you in his own voice, expects you to see through his eyes. And his eyes see, not the cliché plot, but the whole meaning of the events; not the scenes or the individual people, but yourself and your own fears and your own family and the answer, at last, to the isolation that had seemed inevitable to you. In short, if you will let him, Bradbury will give you a much better childhood than you ever had. He will name all your nameless fears and bring them home and make you like them."
As Knight also wrote, “Bradbury’s strength lies in the fact that he writes about the things that are really important to us – not the things we pretend we are interested in – science, marriage, sports, politics, crime – but the fundamental prerational fears and longings and desires: the rage at being born; the will to be loved; the longing to communicate; the hatred of parents and siblings; the fear of things are not self….”
This novel had its genesis in a 1948 short story called “The Black Ferris,” in which the Cooger character (there is no Mr. Dark in that story) is outwitted by two boys named Pete and Hank and takes too many spins on a magic ferris wheel, growing ancient in minutes. Sam Goldwyn, Jr. approached Bradbury in November 1954 to make a screen treatment of a pilot teleplay he had produced out of “The Black Ferris.” His friend, actor and dancer Gene Kelly, sought financing for the project in 1955, but the money did not come through. So Bradbury turned the screenplay into a novel that was published in 1962.
It has been through many editions since, and was made into a movie by Disney Studios in 1982 starring Jason Robards, Diane Ladd, and Jonathan Pryce.
Though Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Dandelion Wine may be more famous and beloved, as far as I am concerned this is Bradbury’s masterpiece—an opinion shared by Stephen King: “… I believe that Something Wicked This Way Comes, a darkly poetic tall tale set in the half-real, half-mythical community of Green Town, Illinois, is probably Bradbury’s best work—a shadowy descendant from that tradition that has brought us stories about Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, Pecos Bill, and Davy Crockett.”