Classics Club (Book and Film): Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)
by Ray Bradbury
So I'm finally back on track with my Classics Club reading, although I did considerably shorten the list to only 50 books. Since Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors, I figured I might just as well start (or rather re-start the list) with him.
With Bradbury you really never know what you're going to get. His mind worked in weird and wondrous ways that often included lyricism beyond belief and at least one metaphor, simile, or idiom per sentence. This makes his work either difficult to absorb or it absolutely enchants the reader. I'm fortunate in that I fall into the latter category, but I sincerely appreciate and sympathize with the readers that simply cannot get into Bradbury's work.
Something Wicked This Way Comes opens with a lightning rod salesman, heading into Green Town, Illinois to ply his trade. Along the road, he encounters two thirteen-year-old boys, Will Halloway (born a minute before midnight on October 30th) and Jim Nightshade (born a minute after midnight on Halloween). The salesman proclaims that a storm is coming and that one of the boy's homes is in grave danger . . . the home of Jim Nightshade. And instead of charging the boy, as he ordinarily would, the salesman gives away one of his lightning rods. He is a man who runs ahead of the storm and right now, he feels in his bones that a massive one is just around the corner.
Now, these two boys couldn't be more different from one another. Jim Nightshade is a dark-haired rebel who yearns for adventure and loves rule-breaking. He dreams of the day he will be a man in a man's world. But Will Halloway, blonde-haired and content, enjoys life just the way it is. He's the rule follower, the one who would never think of jumping off a cliff until Jim talks him into it. Two such very different thirteen-year-old boys and they are best friends. Which means they were guaranteed to make trouble for one another.
The night that Jim Nightshade reluctantly hangs the lightning rod on his house is October 24th. And it is the same night that a carnival train rolls into the sleepy little town. Will and Jim, neighbors as well as friends, poke their heads out their window and Jim is off like a shot. Throughout the day they've scented the popcorn and cotton candy of a carnival, head the distant sound of a calliope, seen a flyer announcing the arrival of Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show. All before it actually arrives. So now Jim can't be held back and when he hears that train approach, it doesn't matter that it's 3am on October 24th, he tears off into the darkness, Will screaming after him to not go alone. The two boys witness the unveiling of the carnival, in the dark at 3am, and nothing about the carnival looks normal, all dark and cold and terrifying to blot out the stars. How does it appear the following day? As a normal, bedraggled circus on its last legs, except that it leaves a queasy feeling in the pit of Will's stomach and a thrill of excitement down Jim's spine.
Such begins the terrifying little tale that is considered among some of Bradbury's finest work.
In the case of Something Wicked This Way Comes, the story works, and works well, at least 80% of the time. Unfortunately, the 20% lag comes at inopportune times where I very nearly yielded to temptation and skipped ahead just to get the plot going again. Anyone who knows Bradbury's style knows that he meanders. Something of a lesser scale George R. R. Martin if aficionados were to be perfectly honest, but at least Bradbury limits the amount of words that he puts on paper and so it is possible to wend your way through one of his books fairly quickly.
Yes, parts of Something Wicked were monotonous. Particularly when the boys are in hiding from Mr. Dark and it takes forever for something to actually happen. But when it does happen, when the plot moves itself along, it's quick as lightning.
While I didn't delve too deeply into the actual plot of this book, mostly for fear of giving away too much because that would be very easy to do, know that the theme is pure genius. What would you do if given the chance to live forever? And not just live forever, but actually choose the age you would appear to everyone else? It sounds like a dream, but as so often happens, when dream becomes reality, there's usually a twist and then it is no longer a dream, but a living nightmare. Such is the case of this story. Promises are made, but certain details left out, and before some of the characters know it, they are far different than they could have imagined.
What I appreciated most in this story was the relationship between Will Halloway and his aged father Charles Halloway who is the janitor for the local library. Charles married late so when Will is 13, his father is well into his mid-fifties. Communication suffers between them due to the age gap, a fact that both Will and Charles regret, and which this story mends. Charles Halloway stops feeling old and Will Halloway stops seeing him as old. The fracture in their relationship is healed.
Then you have Jim Nightshade. Ah, Jim, how to describe you? There isn't anything he won't try. And it irks him that he's still a boy when what he wants most is to be a man. He's predictable in his unpredictability. If there is something dangerous or ill-advised, he'll chase it, like the carnival train and like life itself, wanting something before it's his time to have it.
This book, like nothing else, will give the reader an appreciation for what they have right now, for where they are right now, instead of always looking off to the future and never thinking of the present (to paraphrase Yoda). There are still parts of it I don't understand, like the lady in the ice coffin who was so beautiful and then just disappears and seems to have added nothing to the story except a yearning for some inexplicable something for Charles Halloway. I'm sure Bradbury knew what he meant, but I'm not following his logic in some places, but I learned long ago that it was acceptable and even expected to never understand everything Bradbury wrote. Something Wicked This Way Comes, in spite of it's slow-movements when the reader wants to charge ahead, is brilliant and exciting and I literally never wanted to put it down when I picked it up. It's that good.
Parental Advisory: Violence in a very poetic way with psychological and disturbing images of fear. There are moments when Mr. Dark threatens Jim and Will, and there's another moment where a younger boy is threatened by a much older man (crucial and not as it seems). There's also a witch, supposedly, who's eyelids are sewn shut with black thread, quite scary as imagery goes. What disturbed me most is Jim's addiction to this one house that adults use as a place of debauchery. He climbs a tree and stares in the window at what he calls the stage, and whatever he's seeing isn't good for a boy of only thirteen, or for anyone really. Will saw it once, regrets it, and constantly urges Jim to not go back to that house. In other words, not a book for children, but not a dreadful book either, just psychologically scary, which is what readers should expect from Ray Bradbury.
I'm sure the director had good intentions. Bradbury, it appears, even wrote the screenplay, although why he would have is beyond me.
The film is atrocious, an absolute slander against Bradbury's original work that takes everything he did and upends it. Everyone who read the novel understood that the lightning rod salesman wasn't predicting an actual, physical storm. It was always a prediction of the carnival, always. Not the physical storm this film suddenly placed front and center. The lightning rod salesman's end isn't the same, neither is the school teacher's end, or even the end of Mr. Dark. I understand his end in the book was probably very disturbing, but his end in the film was even more grotesque.
I reached the point of fast-forwarding through bits that were absolute rubbish, which was most of it. There are moments when Bradbury's prose is used, but not nearly enough of them. Overall, it is an abomination of the original story and I'm ashamed it was ever made and that I ever deigned to watch it. Rumor has it that Disney is remaking the film, but they didn't do such a good job the first time around so I'm not holding out much hope for a successful remake.
It's a shame that back when Bradbury first came up with the notion that Gene Kelly wasn't able to sell it as a screenplay and do it himself. Gene was a huge supporter of the premise (it was simply a screenplay idea at this point, not a novel), and the two were such good friends, that it would have been a rousing success. Sadly, he couldn't find the funding. No one was daring enough to give it a go in the 1950s, so now readers have an incredible book and an absolute stinker of a film.
Ah well, books are longer lasting anyway and I anticipate that people will still be reading Something Wicked This Way Comes when the film has long since faded into anonymity. One can only hope.