Thu. June 7
Ray Bradbury: The Lightning-Rod Salesman
It was cloudy this morning in Washington, D.C., a cool June day with rain behind it and sunshine ahead. But when I saw that Ray Bradbury had died I thought I felt a different season. His name will always make me feel the honeyed, shallow heat of Indian summer, and that first cold acrid little wind which comes twisting through the heavy air promising autumn. Bradbury played many roles as a writer—kaleidoscopic fantasist, visionary techno-skeptic—but for me he will always be the cartographer of what he called the October Country, and his great book will always be 1962′s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Something Wicked is a strange book, and one which shouldn’t really work. Its prose is lurid and in most hands would become histrionic. Its hero is a young boy who seems old before his time, and its primary concerns are aging and regret. The book is about Will Halloway’s love for his father, yes, and about his love for his best friend Jim Nightshade, a kid with little guidance for his powerful and inchoate desires. But it’s also about the adults in Will’s small town, who feel that life has passed them by. It’s a Stephen King novel in disguise, about people whose deepest shames will be revealed by a merciless intruder: the nightmare carnival, which pulls into town at three in the morning when the sorry citizens of the town are lying in bed sleepless and restless and longing.
The carnival offers a merry-go-round of eternal youth and a funhouse mirror maze where desires are fulfilled. It offers the end of weakness. The exchange price is the same as it always is.
Something Wicked is an atmospheric book, creating a sense of dread and a lingering sadness. The bravery with which Will’s elderly father battles real evil doesn’t entirely dispel the book’s sense of sorrow, of lost opportunities; it’s a book which seems written in the subjunctive tense, all would-have, might-have. It’s a book which suggests that temptations will recur throughout one’s life, that vanquishing evil once doesn’t protect you forever. October will come around again, and the night wind will carry the sound of a distant calliope as the carnival arrives.
The book was turned into a surprisingly serviceable movie in 1983. The movie is pretty scary, especially the scene with the spiders and the broad-daylight chase through the town. But there are certain notes it’s hard for a Disney movie to strike: compassion for human weakness, for example. Something Wicked does not pull any punches when it comes to depicting the horror of wrongdoing, and yet it simultaneously manages to make the reader feel for the people who are willing to sacrifice their souls to grow up or get young, to have their dreams come true.
The edition I read had a terrific cover, one which gets the full-blast summer joy of the Bradbury canon: the author’s head ruled over a moonscape prowled by dinosaurs and other critters who can best be described as awesome. There was little hint that what lay between the covers was something very different from an outer-space adventure story or a sci-fi fable. The only hint was the book’s smell—that yellowed scent of aging paper, the smell of foxed corners and cracked spines. It smelled like a book which had been read a hundred times, yet still kept secrets.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/. She has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.