I started reading Ray Bradbury’s 1962 highly acclaimed dark fantasy novel Something Wicked This Way Comes at the beginning of this summer. Previously, I’d finished his The Martian Chronicles, The illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451, so, to my way of thinking, I was rounding out my knowledge of his most celebrated and familiar works. I had had mostly positive experiences with the three previous works; Martian and Illustrated are short story collections woven together with loose framing devices, and Fahrenheit is short and considered a “must-read” on many lists. All three were taut and accessible with frequent payoffs and didn’t put much pressure on the reader to enjoy or engage in them. I also had a faint positive memory of the 1983 Disney film of the same name that I had seen in the theater but not since, and of Jason Robards being great at something in it, but I couldn’t remember what exactly. Disney has announced plans in the future to re-shoot Something Wicked for the screen, so there’s no time like the present to read this significant novel. So I began…and it was like landing in some kind of literary bizarro hell right from the start.
Archaic, muddled, or just absent grammar; metaphors that seemed to run for pages; a muddied narrative that left me wondering “what the hell just happened?” and a loose story that seemed to never get started for chapter after chapter. I could make out that there were two boys; a salesman; a spinster teacher; and a kindly, wise, and weary father of one of the boys. I gathered that a carnival of freaks came to the Midwestern town, led by the ominous Mr. Dark, who was also their Illustrated Man (and may or may not be the same man from the eponymous novel), and people started disappearing. There was also a carousel that if run forward made one age rapidly, and if run backward made its passengers “youth-en” to fetal stage. The story slowly, joltingly, almost grudgingly un-spun itself in page after page of vivid, obtuse imagery that left me uncertain and angry as to what Bradbury was trying to say. I read each chapter and put the book down in frustration and apathy. ‘This feels like a short story strung out to novel length,’ I would lament to Nancy (which indeed is true). ‘I feel like Bradbury is just padding his prose to hit a word count. I don’t know what the Dust Witch is? Is she dead? What just happened?’ And on and on and on.
My relationship with the book soured early, and I turned to reading other things rather than grind through its flummoxing narrative. I never gave up on it. I just set an agenda that I would read one chapter at a setting and then set it down and pick up something else that I was truly enjoying. I rewarded myself for stomaching it and for keeping my promise to myself that I would read this mess? trash? critically praised opus? And so almost five months went by with me every couple of days peering back into the arcane head of Ray Bradbury, unsure of what would come out. Now finished, I can honestly say I’m glad I did.
Great literature makes us no promises. And I don’t know if Something Wicked This Way Comes is great literature. But it certainly is difficult in places, good, and meaningful. Once the story had all but played itself out, the villains vanquished, the heroes triumphant, Bradbury in an eloquent, quiet denouement breathed the following exchange into his characters:
“Dad, will they ever come back?”
“No. And yes.” Dad tucked away his harmonica. “No not them. But yes, other people like them. Not in a carnival. God knows what shape they’ll come in next. But sunrise, noon, or at the latest, sunset tomorrow they’ll show. They’re on the road.”
“Oh, no,” said Will.
“Oh, yes, said Dad. “We got to watch out the rest of our lives. The fight’s just begun.”
They moved around the carousel slowly.
“What will they look like? How will we know them?”
“Why,” said Dad, quietly, “maybe they’re already here.”
Both boys looked around swiftly.
But there was only the meadow, the machine, and themselves.
Will looked at Jim, at his father, and then down at his own body and hands. He glanced up at Dad.
Dad nodded, once, gravely, and then nodded at the carousel, and stepped up on it, and touched a brass pole.
Will stepped up beside him. Jim stepped up beside Will.
Jim stroked a horse’s mane. Will patted a horse’s shoulders.
The great machine softly tilted in the tides of night.
Just three times around, ahead, thought Will. Hey.
Just four times around, ahead, thought Jim. Boy.
Just ten times around, back, thought Charles Halloway. Lord.
Each read the thoughts in the other’s eyes.
How easy, thought Will.
Just this once, thought Jim.
But then, thought Charles Halloway, once you start, you’d always come back. One more ride and one more ride. And, after awhile, you’d offer rides to friends, and more friends until finally…
The thought hit them all in the same quiet moment.
…finally you wind up owner of the carousel, keeper of the freaks…
proprietor for some small part of eternity of the traveling dark carnival shows….
Maybe, said their eyes, they’re already here.”
― Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1962
I was blown away. The elegance, the simplicity, the profoundness of the allegorical novel hit me all at once in one great rush. The novel was a cautionary tale about the gradual creep of evil into our lives; how we allow it through laziness, through neediness, through caving to addiction, through apathy, through ethical and moral ambiguity through not exercising our agency and industry. The novel is deliberately obtuse, for only through patience and diligence can we separate the wheat from the chaff, find the diamond in the rough, find the light at the end of a sea of darkness. Evil clouds our mind with extraneous questions and temptations that take us away from our charted endeavors. I found that my experience of the novel was no different. Bradbury made me work for the payoff, and I balked and bitched and hesitated for months because it was hard, because it wasn’t instant gratification, because it wasn’t “The Real Housewives of Ray Bradbury!” I was elated and ashamed, victorious though it be hollow, battle scarred but alive to live and learn another day. I had, in fact, experienced the greatness in good literature.
I am reminded of those memes that show up on social media every so often about how Lord of the Flies or Huck Finn or The Good Earth ruined someone’s summer. The implication is that the reader struggled through the book and got nothing but pain and lost pleasure out of it. It makes me wonder how many people of that opinion finish but don’t really listen or let it in, or skim, or read the Wiki entry, or just give up and glaze over while turning pages. I was right there with this novel until the carousel stopped and confronted me with my own wickedness, held the mirror up to nature, and made me dislike what I saw. We only grow in adversity. And the road less traveled makes all the difference. Only one in ten Americans actually read a book after high school, and even fewer attempt to crack truly worthwhile works of literature. Do me a favor: help me raise that percentage. It’s worth it. Really. You’ll see.
Now off to crack open Walden….again.