When the hurlyburly’s done

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont
1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Ray Bradbury Something Wicked This Way Comes
Gollancz 2008 (1962)

This is a haunting novel, a haunting not necessarily due to ghosts but to images and ideas lingering in the mind’s eye long after the last page is shut. The title (taken from words spoken by the Second Witch in Macbeth) sets the tenor of the story, as much a novel of magic realism as it is a tale of terror. The horror is compounded by being set in an ordinary and very provincial early 1930s town in Illinois where, one is supposed to assume, nothing much happens.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is effectively a three act play, its sections headed Arrivals, Pursuits and Departures almost in the manner of a rail station’s display board. The action itself takes place over three days and nights. On the 23rd October a storm is heralded for Green Town, symbolised by the appearance of Tom Fury, a lightning rod salesman, some handbills and a block of ice raised up on sawhorse trestles in a shop entrance.

In the early morning of October 24th the Cooger & Dark carnival train arrives outside the midwestern town, with the booths and attractions set up in next to no time. All this is witnessed by two youngsters, Will and Jim, whose initial excitement is soon translated into fascinated trepidation as they observe unnatural events happening near the freak show and then, later, much closer — too close — to home. It all comes to a climax late in the evening of October 25th, in the dying days of Will and Jim’s thirteenth year.

US carnival, 1930s
US carnival, 1930s

Best friends Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are both neighbours and near enough time-twins, one born a minute before Halloween, the other just after midnight on October 31st. We largely see events through Will’s eyes but it is clear that the two, although inseparable, are diverging in ways that match their names and appearances — with Will leaning towards the light, Jim drawn by the dark. Their names smack of what is now sometimes called nominative determinism, a trait acknowledged by the lightning rod salesman, Tom Fury, who tells them

Ain’t that a fine name for me who sells lightning rods? Did I take the name? No! Did the name fire me to my occupations? Yes!

The same applies to the owners of the carnival, Cooger and Dark, the first of whom is tawny red like a fierce mountain lion, the other shadowy both by name and by nature. Their trade is in giving people their innermost desires, relying on their victims not heeding the advice of being careful what you wish for. Unsurprisingly many are tempted into imagining themselves a different age — the boys’ teacher Miss Foley wanting to be young again, Jim desiring to be older, Will’s father feeling he is, in his fifties, too old to be a proper parent to his son. Many of the other townsfolk whom we briefly come across also seem to suffer from regret, all potential victims perhaps of the unscrupulous showmen.

cooger-dark

Time, it appears, is not arrow-like: for individuals it can go backwards as well as forwards. That fluidity is emphasised by images of circularity: the town-hall clock, the arrangement of old tomes on library table, the moon sailing in the sky, a gas-filled balloon, a carousel that travels widdershins as well as clockwise. Like Zeno’s arrow nothing is really at rest — the melting block of ice, the carnival parade in motion, the distorting mirrors in the maze, the moving tattoos on Mr Dark’s skin — that is, until victims are caught in the web of Mr Dark’s machinations, and then they become like flies forever trapped in amber.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is at once uncategorisable whilst also partaking of several genres. Part magic realism, even urban surrealism (as China Miéville’s fiction is sometimes termed) it has one real moment of creeping horror as Mr Dark stalks the boys in what should be their ‘safe’ place, the town’s library. But it also can be classed as a bildungsroman; a cri de coeur from someone suffering from middle-aged angst; an evocation of a bygone age in a midwestern township; or an allegory of the innocence besetting America before the horrors of the Second World War (Bradbury, born in 1920, wrote this when the Cold War was in full swing).

Circus scene, 1930s
Circus scene, 1930s

It may also possibly illustrate the author’s sensitivity to those with extreme physical disabilities and appearance commonly termed as freaks and exhibited for the curious attention of ‘typicals’ in side shows. The story is set somewhere around 1932 or slightly later, which is when Tod Browning’s infamous movie Freaks was first released; while the 12-year-old Bradbury would not then have seen it the adult would certainly be aware of it by the 1960s. The problem is that we don’t know how many of Cooger & Dark’s ‘freaks’ were born that way and how many were created thus; all we know is that they have been so pathetically treated that they are quite lost when the inevitable crisis emerges.

I particularly appreciated the language in this novel, the easy slipping in and out of prose poetry, the effortless alliteration, the deceptive simplicity. Buzzing lights are “insect neons” for example; railway tracks in the night are a “lovely snail-gleam” upon which the “dragon-glide” of the carnival train follows the chuffing of the engine; a library is “a factory of spices from far countries,” a place where “alien deserts slumbered”. Homespun philosophy takes on a semblance of a book of sermons: “You don’t have to stay foolish and you don’t have to be wrong, evil, sinful […] There’s more than three or four choices.” And again: “Death doesn’t exist […] But we’ve drawn so many pictures of it we’ve got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy.”

carnegie-waukegan
Waukegan’s Carnegie public library, the model for Green Town’s library

Perhaps one of the more alarming descriptions is the black-clad blind woman known as the Dust Witch, a most apt candidate for our contemporary notions of Halloween personages. If as they say we have nothing to fear but fear itself, then the Dust Witch is the personification of Fear. Unable to use her eyes she relies on sensing human emotions. Her ‘dragonfly needles’ are particularly used to chilling effect, as Will and Jim find to their cost; conversely, sharp objects — arrows, bullets — have little or no effect on her. There is only one way to defeat not just her but also Mr Dark and all his crew, but we have to wait to the end to see if this will prove effective. It is quite delicious, waiting for the moments the Second Witch may have described as

when the hurlyburly’s done,
when the battle’s lost and won …

The glory of Something Wicked This Way Comes is that it is in itself a maze of mirrors, reflecting back at us over and over again a succession of possibilities, of memories, of associations. It’s a literary kaleidoscope which continues to reveal new patterns the more one squints at it, a treasure cave in which one can easily lose oneself.

* * * * *

The Emerald City Book Review

This review was planned as a prelude to Witch Week, the third annual bloggers’ celebration of all things spooky in books, ably and imaginatively hosted by Lory at Emerald City Book Review. For those who want to know more of how much Green Town is modelled on Waukegan, Illinois the New Hampshire-based author J W Ocker posts an inclusive guide. You may also be aware that there was a Bradbury-approved adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes in the 1980s; while tastes and sensibilities may have changed since then this trailer from YouTube may give a flavour of the author’s vision at the time.

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26 thoughts on “When the hurlyburly’s done

  1. What a cracking review. I was beginning to feel creeped out just by your descriptions of the characters! I really must search this out, especially as the language sounds marvellous too. Thanks for the pointer Chris 🙂

    1. Thanks a lot, Lynn! There’s so much more I could have rabbited on about, such as its sensuality — the music of the fairground organ, or the train whistle in the dark, with just the sense of hearing — or the temptation of becoming younger at just the time of year when the clocks go back and we miraculously find ourselves a whole hour in the past … but I had to stop somewhere!

    1. I’d only read one other of his novels, Annabel — Fahrenheit 451, rather predictably — and in fact stalled on SWTWC after a few chapters, probably because I wasn’t in the mood for it. It may have been the wrong time of year …

      Anyway, this is definitely the season to enjoy a tale of what Bradbury calls the Autumn people, so I’m glad my Halloween-timed review has encouraged you to consider it!

  2. Christine

    I am determined to read another Bradbury after Fahrenheit 451 and The Halloween Tree, but as you said in an earlier comment, this one cam lead to some false starts. Perhaps Bradbury’s prose takes some getting used to in this one, but it was difficult to become interested during the first few chapters. Your review makes it sound like an engaging read with wonderfully appropriate atmosphere for the season, so maybe I will give this another go. (Also, it somewhat reminds me of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, though I have never read that either so this is completely unreliable on my part.)

    1. Thanks, Christine, it really is quite engaging once one gets into it, I think! It wasn’t so much the prose, which I really relished this time round, but the almost abrupt shift from realism with a poetic tinge to an alarming unreal dark magic in the carousel scene that unsettled me. Second time round though I managed to take it in my stride!

      I don’t remember The Halloween Tree from my casual browsing but this looks like a possibility for this time next year methinks. 🙂

  3. Yes, SWTWC is definitely NOT a book for spring or summer. Great review, Chris. I, too, noticed the “insect neon” buzzing. The staccato rhythm of Bradbury’s prose in this novel wears me out at times, yet I still reread it every few years. Cooger and Dark and their freaks are among the great fantasy villains of literature, and Bradbury never fails to make me see them as people torn by their desires.

    Re the film version: I have to point out that despite initially approving the film (and providing the initial screenplay), Bradbury was more than disappointed by the result, which (via an unauthorized revision) diverged from Bradbury’s plan. I don’t recommend it.

    1. Thanks, Lizzie, glad you approve! Yes, I think Cooger and Dark are as insiduously scary adversaries as anything Neil Gaiman or China Mieville have created, and I fancy may even have inpired these more recent fantasy writers.

      And thanks for the clarification over the movie version; I’ve only seen the trailer and the odd compendium on YouTube, but I think a more sympathetic director would nowadays create a different ambience. I liked Jonathan Pryce as an actor but as Mr Dark I found his performance as underwhelming as his villain in an old James Bond film.

  4. What a great review! I’ve also been reading this book for Lory’s Witch Week and need to start putting my thoughts together into a post. This is the first time I’ve read anything by Ray Bradbury and I was intrigued by his use of language too.

  5. You really put this book in perspective for me in your discussion about Bradbury’s use of language, the most difficult aspect for me ‘to get over!’ So thanks for that 🙂

    I also agree with you about the Dust Witch fly over. Oh my, that was very scary and real for me in the way Bradbury told it through the boys’ eyes.

  6. The Dust Witch’s balloon and Mr Dark in the library were both unightmare scenarios, I thought, whatever your age. 🙂

    Regarding the language, I realised it was something I had to be in the mood for, and I definitely wasn’t rwhen I first tried it a year or so ago! Anyway, glad I was a help with that for you, Laurie.

  7. I will have to read this. It sounds wonderfully dark and creepy.

    To be honest -and I’m ashamed to say it- i’ve not read anything by Ray Bradbury before. For some reason, i’ve always had it in my head that he wrote science fiction (?!), which is a genre that’s never grabbed me, so i never bothered testing out any of his books. But, i’ve clearly been a complete idiot. He sounds a fascinating writer, especially going by all the additional snippets of info about him in the comments section.

    Cheers for opening my tightly shut eyes!

    1. As many of us agree SWTWC is definitely something to read as winter approaches: it’s not for bright sunshiney days! Yes, Bradbury is best known for SF but his stuff seems to range much wider than this.

      I think though that you’re a little harsh on yourself, I myself have only read two of his novels and the odd short story, and that’s just in recent years!

      Thanks for the follow — I hope you get to enjoy more of my idiosyncratic posts. 🙂

      1. Ooh, yes, there are definitely different books for different seasons, aren’t there? Well,now I have another reason to look forward to the colder months 🙂 I’m inspired to begin exploring some of Mr. Bradbury’s other work, now too. Cheers again!

          1. I’ve heard that said. I vow to give it a go, too. I’m not sure why i shy away from science fiction so much….i think perhaps i’ve been scarred by a few terrible books/films in the past, so closed myself off from it! Not really fair to all the legitimately creative and insightful writing that obviously can be found within the genre. I’m inspired to go down to the library on get my hands on some Bradbury now! Cheers for the inspo 🙂

            1. You’re welcome! I’ve found such a huge range in SF, as with most genre fiction, especially when you see what’s covered by this umbrella title: from Frankenstein to Fahrenheit 451, from Jules Verne through Ursula Le Guin, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Doris Lessing and Andy Weir and whole load of other author styles that I’ll never keep track of let alone getting around to reading.

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