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.
Here is a dose of this speech:
“First things first. Let’s bone up on history. If men had wanted to stay bad forever they could have, agreed?…Somewhere we turned in our carnivore’s teeth and started chewing blades of grass. We been working mulch as much as blood, into our philosophy, for a quite a few lifetimes. Since then we measure ourselves up the scale from apes, but not half so high as angels…. I suppose one night hundreds of thousands of years ago in a cave by a night fire when one of those shaggy men wakened to gaze over the banked coals at his woman, his children, and thought of their being cold, dead, gone forever. Then he must have wept. And he put out his hand in the night to the woman who must die some day and to the children who must follow her. And for a little bit next morning, he treated them somewhat better, for he saw that they, like himself, had the seed of night in them….”
This goes on, with a few interjections from the youngsters in attendance on the Socratic exercise, for more than ten pages. The reader can sense Bradbury’s excitement, and even get a feeling that this is the core of the novel from the author’s perspective. What a contrast from horror story maestro H.P. Lovecraft, a key role model for Bradbury in a book of this sort, or from Stephen King, who was inspired in turn by this novel, but would never let his appreciation of metaphysics get in the way of the plot.
The plot, in Bradbury’s case builds on the exploits two thirteen-year-old boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who find themselves irresistibly drawn to the strange carnival that has arrived in town — even as they grow fearful in the face of the mysterious goings-on and odd characters they encounter. One of the proprietors of the traveling show, Mr. Dark, makes them shudder with his torso and limbs covered with tattoos. He is sometimes called the Illustrated Man here, and thus stands as another example of Bradbury’s willingness to recycle concepts and character types, and sometimes entire stories, from his earlier books. But our young heroes also cross paths with the Dust Witch, the Skeleton, the Dwarf and Mister Electrico, among other unsavory carnival characters.
Bradbury tosses in some evil apparatuses for good measure. We have a carousel that can make the rider turn older and younger, depending on whether it is running forward or reverse. A house of mirrors beckons people into a frightening labyrinth, where the reflected images seem to turn on the unwary originals. We have an electric chair, an predatory hot air balloon, and a guillotine and other instruments of horror. Bradbury is especially skilled at employing these elements as objective correlatives in creating an atmosphere of dread and suspense.
Yet, above all, this is a beautifully written book, perhaps the most poetic horror novel of its time. Not a single page comes across as perfunctory, and even when the plot is moving at its fastest pace, the author measures every phrase, and luxuriates in his imagery and asides. In fact, Bradbury runs the risk of undercutting the scary elements, by presenting them in such majestic sentences. In the final analysis, he transforms this novel into a coming-of-age story, in which the darker elements are again and again pushed to the periphery. Yes, you will find more terrifying tales out there than Something Wicked This Way Comes, but few that turn the ingredients of the horror genre into something quite so exquisite.