Prose & Conversation: 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' by Ray Bradbury
Sometimes a book can be wickedly beautiful. It can blow through you like a storm, cleansing and refreshing, while being scary and intense.
Ray Bradbury's classic, Something Wicked This Way Comes, is one of those books. I read it as a child; Richard Thomas read it for the first time this month. Read on for our take on this gorgeously devilish little book, and the terrifying cast of characters within.
Leah: This month I'm really excited to revisit a book from my childhood with you, Richard, and I'm doubly excited because it's a new one for you. And it's so different from the books we've already discussed. As a bit of background, for me, I saw the movie version of Something Wicked This Way Comes when I was very small, and it scared the daylights out of me. So when I was old enough to figure out it was a book first, I HAD to read it, and I've loved it ever since
Did you know there was a movie version of it?
Richard: It's a great choice, and I can't believe that I hadn't read it. No, I have not seen the movie.
Leah: We used to have a tradition of watching movies on New Year's Eve as a family, and I'm pretty sure we saw it then. My memories of it are dark and gritty, but I don't see the book as dark or gritty...
Richard: I grew up reading Bradbury, but other titles: Fahrenheit 451 of course, Dandelion Wine, R is for Rocket, tons of books. But not this one.
Leah: Ha! I can't believe you missed it! What did you think?
Richard: It's definitely dark and gritty, but in a poetic way. I'd forgotten how lyrical Bradbury's voice is. Damn, his sentences are dense. You can't rush him. It made me feel better about the way I write. I didn't realize what an influence he was on me.
This is a great book, a classic for sure. It's dark, atmospheric, there is tension, and all kinds of freaks. I loved it. If you like Bradbury it's a must read, and if you haven't read him, it might be a good place to start. I really enjoyed this. Have you read other books of his? I haven't read him in 30 years. I can't remember if all of his work is this lyrical.
For example, I don't remember Fahrenheit 451 being this dense. But I could be wrong.
Leah: I read Fahrenheit 451 in school of course, and parts of Dandelion Wine. And maybe The Martian Chronicles. So yeah, I've read Bradbury, and he's one of my favorites. He's so different from what's being produced now-a-days. The lyrical parts are actually my favorite, which is odd for me because I'm normally more of a straightforward writing kind of girl.
But his writing is GORGEOUS. It's beautiful. It makes the pages somehow look beautiful to me.
Richard: I mean, I try to write sentences that are more than just utilitarian, but dammit if Bradbury isn't a poet. I started to mark passages that were just beautiful, so original, and stopped after I had 50 notes on the first 10 pages.
Leah: Yeah. Me, too.
So, for a basic story recap, for those who haven’t read it, Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of two 14-year-old boys, Jim Nightshade (best name ever) and Will Halloway, and a carnival that comes to town. Of course, this being Bradbury, the carnival isn’t exactly what it seems, and when Jim and Will see it for what it really is, they find their lives are in danger. To survive, they have to find help in an unlikely place: Will’s dad, who thinks he’s too old to help anyone.
People talk so often about opening paragraphs, I just need to put this one out there. Because it sets the scene, and the tone, and it's amazing.
The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.
And BAM. Suddenly you're in the story. In the town. And the storm that's coming...is it a real storm, or is it something...else?
Richard: It's a great opening for sure.
I love his mix of the supernatural, the surreal, with reality. He really gives us a lot of information, details that really ground the time and place, and then riffs on it in a jazzy, poetic way, his own interpretation, so unique.
Leah: Yes, it's a nice blend, isn't it? There's the carnival of the damned element, but at its heart, it's a book about childhood, and innocence lost...but would you call this a book for kids? An early version of YA?
Richard: Tough call, for a mature YA audience, high school, sure. My son is ten and I think this is way too verbose for him, yeah? So I'd say 12-14 sure, right around the age of the protagonists, right?
Leah: I think I was about 17 when I read it.
Richard: I love how he pairs Jim and Will together, almost opposites, light and dark, and yet, they have the same curiosity. Who wouldn't love to go to the carnival? So cool, and how it sneaks into town at night. I used to sneak out of my room when I was 14.
Leah: Did you? I never did. Ha!! I was too well-behaved...
Richard: For sure. Got into all kinds of trouble. I really loved how he described their night adventures. Going to the train, the carnival, all kinds of trouble.
Leah: Nice. But yeah, I love Jim and Will. Jim is dark, Will is light...there's a great dichotomy there. Do kids still do that though? Does your son sneak out? I feel like it offers a picture of a world very different from what today's kids experience.
But that makes me sound all, "Kids these days, sonny..."
Richard: No way, I'd kill my kids if they snuck out. They're way too young, but even at 14, they'd be grounded for life.
Leah: Ha, exactly. Life seems so very different for these two small town boys who pretty much have run of the night. It's so romantic.
Richard: I'm 45 and it was a lot different back then. I'd run around my neighborhood all day, and then my mom would ring a big bell, like ten feet tall, and I'd come running. She had NO IDEA where I was.
Leah: Which gives the novel almost a fantastical element atop what it must have had when it was first written.
Yeah, I mean, I was out all day, too. Now I can't even let my daughter out of my sight. She's only five, though...
Richard: Weird how things change like that. It's not like there weren't criminals in the 1950s or 1960s. We had a big yard, 2 acres, backed up to my grandmother's, also 2 acres, and I knew everyone in our neighborhood in St. Louis.
Leah: Yeah, it's bizarre. I know my immediate neighbors, but the neighborhood is so dense...but anyway, we digress.
Richard: All of this really adds to the danger of the book, but I definitely believe it. I mean, when Will's father catches them, he doesn't even punish them!
Bradbury plays Jim and Will off of each other nicely, so we really care about these two kids, and early on in the book, right? We see how they stand up for each other. I wonder if Stephen King read this before writing It and his other kid-centered novels.
Leah: Jim and Will and Mr. Dark's carnival, with a carousel that can speed up or reverse time. What do you think, would you ride on the carousel?
Richard: That carousel, wow, was a trip. Either direction, seemed totally out of control. But can't you remember being that age, wanting to be older, at any cost? The temptation. And then the older people, they wanted to be young again! Miss Foley, and Cooger!
Leah: Yes! With two older brothers, I always wanted to be bigger than I was, just to keep up with them. I remember playing house when I was small, and my best friend and I always thought 16 was the best age EVER, so we'd pretend to be SO OLD at 16.
Of course, nowadays, I still feel like I'm 16 inside...but my body tells me otherwise. So maybe I would take a ride? I'd want it to be reversible, though.
Richard: For sure.
Yeah, I think I'm kind of eternally 25 or something, in my head and heart.
Leah: Exactly. But I like where I'm at in life, too. I have a pretty good life.
And the thing is...so does Jim, though he wants to be big, and so does Will's dad, though he wants to be young again.
Richard: Yes! He wants to be young again, climb up the ladder on the outside of the house! But with age comes wisdom, yeah?
Leah: Yes, and the grass is always greener, I suppose.
Richard: Right. His father was surprising, I liked him a lot. Took a lot of courage for him to stand up to the freaks, to Mr. Dark.
Leah: Yes, for a bookworm he was incredible under pressure.
Richard: I definitely want to talk about the freaks!
Leah: Oh, the freaks, yes, let's.They gave me nightmares, even now.
There was Mr. Dark, with his dancing tattoos, that seemed to come and go at will.
Richard: So many unique characters, of course Mr. Dark, the illustrated man.
<Editor’s note: We typed the above at the same time. I’m leaving it because of COURSE!>
Leah: See? He stuck with both of us. He's so menacing. And dark! So aptly named.
Richard: And Cooger, the Dust Witch, the Skeleton, the Dwarf....wow. That scene under the metal grate was intense.
But strangely, no clown, right?
Leah: Thank God there's no clown. I'd have peed.
The Dust Witch, though, is creepy. She flies through the night, searching for the boys. How do you hide from that?
Richard: I guess I have to pick up The Illustrated Man now. I didn't know that was a collection of stories based on the art on his skin. Have you read that?
Leah: It is? Wow. Great. Now I have to read it too!
Richard: Now I feel like a hack of a Bradbury fan, especially with so many of these being big titles, ones we surely knew about. More reading!
Leah: I guess I'm in the same boat.
Richard: Which of the freaks scared you the most? They all had unique abilities, and the ending was pretty intense.
Of course, we don't want to spoil this for anyone.
Leah: I think the Dust Witch gave me the most chills. She could see without seeing, she could fly, she was terrifying.
No spoilers there, I think.
Richard: Yeah. Did she remind you at all of the moths in Mieville's Perdido? I keep thinking that Bradbury had an influence on so many people. King for sure, why not Mieville? I think Dark scared me the most, he was so convincing, the temptations. But the witch was intense, too.
But let's talk about Bradbury the writer, for a sec. He's so skilled, and I think he loves messing with his readers.
Richard: Talk about something besides the fact that he's a genius?
Leah: He's so playful, and skilled. Like this.
Chapter 31: Nothing much else happened, all the rest of that night.
Chapter 32: At dawn, a juggernaut of thunder wheeled over the stony heavens in a spark-throwing tumult.
He devotes an entire chapter to a single moment of peace, then shatters it with a storm on the very next page.
Richard: Yeah, I laughed at Chapter 31. He does have a sense of humor.
Leah: I'd never have thought to write something like that! It was funny, and heart-breaking, all at the same time.
Richard: He's not just a great storyteller, but a poet, too. Such a unique voice.
Leah: Do you think there's anyone out there like him today? (Other than you, of course. <winky emoticon>)
Richard: I was just thinking about that, and reading this for the first time ever, but revisiting his voice after some 30 years, not many people. Have you read Benjamin Percy? I think he gets there at times. Stephen Graham Jones, maybe? Clive Barker now and then. I know I'm forgetting some people.
Leah: I feel like Margaret Atwood, perhaps. I'll have to look at your suggestions for sure.
Bradbury is what I aspire to be as a writer. I'm nowhere close, but if I keep trying...then maybe someday.
Richard: Yeah, good call.
It definitely makes me feel better about what I'm writing, that it can be done, there is an audience for it, and I don't have to simplify or ease up on the atmosphere, the language, or the lyrical voice.
Leah: Yes! You don't have to write down for people to get it!! Because we can get it!
It's inspiring. He's inspiring.
Richard: For sure. I remember Cemetery Dance telling me that with my story in Shivers VI. I was worried I wasn't being obvious ENOUGH, and they felt I was being TOO OBVIOUS. They said to trust them, their readers would understand it, they could follow me. Which was a pretty exciting thing to hear. We always doubt ourselves, yeah?
Leah: Yes, we surely do.
But with the bestsellers out there today...sometimes it does feel like we could be spinning our wheels. But it's good to know we're not.
So what's your final verdict? Does the book hold up?
And do you like how I'm pretending to be you this month, asking all the questions? We're in role reversal mode.
I think this is a fantastic book, I gave it 5/5 stars, an intense read, one that is heavy on the atmosphere and language, not an "easy read" by any means, but one that really gets to you emotionally, makes you care, and keeps your attention the entire time, with a poetic voice, compelling characters, and a plot that keeps you guessing. If you like Bradbury, you must read this. If you've never read him, it's time to check him out.
Leah: I couldn't agree more. It's beautiful, immersive. I lived in their world, you know? And I think the passage of time has only intensified the effect. Like, if the world in which we live more closely resembled his world, it might have felt different. But instead it felt so foreign, and that made the elements of magic seem so much more POSSIBLE.
And in the end...that's what got me. It all felt so POSSIBLE.
Richard: So true, great observation. I believed all of it, as Will's father said, when they told them what was going on. I bought it all. Quite a ride.
Leah: I'm glad I made you read it.
Richard: Me too! Way too long. Should have read it YEARS ago.
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