Ray Bradbury will forever be remembered as a writer of genre stories, yet most of his oeuvre reveals a stubborn resistance — that borders on obliviousness — to the accepted formulas of the pulp fiction trade. He has complained about the sci-fi label invariably applied to his work—“I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality,” is his oft-quoted comeback. And his best known outer space work, The Martian Chronicles, has about as much about the Red Planet as a Mars chocolate bar. In general, the science in his various tales is rarely more than a passing fancy, and sometimes totally absent.
And then we come to his “horror novel,” Something Wicked This Way Comes. How does Bradbury fare when dealing with the terror of the supernatural?
An early warning sign that this book is not your typical scary tale arrives even before the opening sentence. The dedication to silver screen idol Gene Kelly will come as a surprise to many readers — even more so, when they learn that Bradbury originally conceived this story as a film feature for the charming song-and-dance man to produce. Even more to the point, I can easily imagine Mr. Kelly residing in the slice-of-Americana, Norman Rockwell-ish setting (based on Bradbury’s home town of Waukegan, Illinois) where the novel takes place. No, Nightmare on Elm Street this is not.
Certainly Bradbury tries to amplify the horror as best he can, which revolves around a sinister carnival coming to town, but his temperament is not suited for dark themes. The scary scenes are among the most perfunctory in the book. Meanwhile the author really hits his stride when waxing nostalgically over issues of youth and aging, life in Middle America, and other familiar Bradbury themes. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, the reader is rewarded with a long monologue on the metaphysics of good and evil, delivered by a janitor at the local library, and this interlude is thought-provoking and powerful, but has taken us so far away from the conventions of the horror story, that we wonder whether Bradbury will ever find his way back.