‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

A harrowing classic from one of the masters — just in time for Halloween.


The bait is hard to resist but if you bite, you’ll be trapped in a sinister nightmare you hadn’t bargained for and from which you may never wake.

It’s a bait dangled by Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, the mysterious carnival in Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” that Stephen King called a “darkly poetic tale.” The show rolls in and sets up its ominous tents in a meadow outside Green Town, Illinois, in the dead of night a week before Halloween, arriving on a dark and silent train, a calliope playing mournful tunes that can be heard in town.

Which was where Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who would be turning 14 a day apart before and after Halloween, heard the train arriving, its ancient engine chuffing, the calliope sighing in the night. A carnival arriving in the middle of the night in a rare season for such entertainment is no ordinary show, the two boys would soon learn.

A Mirror Maze whose endless glass walls reflect your image distorted in time, showing you the way you were but also the way you would be as an adult — or as a 100-year-old; a carousel that can stretch time in any direction like so much taffy and toss you off at a point of its choosing, returning you to a past or hurtling you into a future you while leaving you in the present. Then there are all the shadows, the cast of characters in the carnival’s Main Freak Tent: the Dust Witch, her lids sewn shut, her lips stitched together, who can cast a spell to do the same to you; and Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man who collects souls for his show, their images drawn in pulsating tattoos on his body, a gruesome ledger of his work going back to a time nobody can remember.

Welcome to a tale of fantasy and terror, its title borrowed from the witches’ cauldron scene in Act 4 of “Macbeth” foretelling Macbeth’s entrance: “By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes.” Bradbury was a prolific writer of short stories, publishing more than 600 in his lifetime. “Something Wicked” was his only novel-length work; it gave him the space to explore multiple themes by creating a world and populating it with more characters with more relationships and connections than shorter works allowed.

It’s a tale of the familiar battle between good and evil, but with side trips into the tropes of the end of boyhood and coming of age, of a son getting to know and understand his father, of the wisdom and knowledge tucked away in histories and books. Charles Halloway, Will’s father, a janitor at the local library and a man in love with books, eventually saves the day when the boys get in serious trouble, as they inevitably would. A confrontation, powerful and almost cinematic in the telling, unfolds at the library, where Halloway has spent hours researching the carnival’s dark past in old tomes and yellowed newspapers. Evil has a long lineage, as he discovers.

There are several more themes woven into the story. One is greed — not for material possessions necessarily but greed for time, greed that speaks of dissatisfaction with one’s now and a selfish desire for the past or the future. But then you discover that sneaking back and forth across time is not the answer, that you may get what you were looking for but are forever trapped in the carnival’s Freak Tent. You’ll never get back to the sweetness of the present you left behind. 

It’s also the fear of dying, the fear that fills you when you see yourself in the Mirror Maze, shrunken and old, the fear of the carousel of time catapulting you into that future before you could get to it on your own.

But then there’s a way out, there’s a way to exorcise the demon that is Mr. Dark’s carnival and restore order to the world. It comes suddenly to Charles Halloway during the confrontation at the library, and it works. Improbable though it seems, the answer is laughter, the joy of the now, peals and hoots of laughter that plant you squarely in the moment, laughter that you can share with those you love. You and your friends can laugh at the carnival’s freak show together and watch the tents, the dark carousel and the calliope playing in the night disintegrate before your eyes.

Maybe that’s the way to exorcise the fear of dying too.

Stephen King described Bradbury’s writing as the rush that comes “when (the writer) puts the pedal to the metal, yanks back on the steering wheel, and drives his jalopy straight up into the black night of unreality.” There’s a scene where Will tries to bring down a balloon carrying the Dust Witch in its basket, who has been out at night looking for him and Jim: “the blind Witch gabbled, moaned, blistered her lips, shrieked in protest … as the balloon wailed, whiffled, guzzled, mourned its own gaseous death, as dungeon air raved out, as dragon breath gushed forth and the bag, thus driven, retreated up.”

That is the sound of the pedal hitting the metal.

“Something Wicked” is a tale that can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, but it’s also a joyous story. Bradbury dedicated the book to his good friend Gene Kelly, partly because Kelly had tried to interest Hollywood in an earlier version of the story but also in great measure because Gene Kelly’s films were about that very joy.