Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 22, 2010

Scary Carnies

Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury (1962), Avon Books, 290 pp.

In a review* of one of Bradbury’s later novels, Mary Elizabeth Williams writes that he is “Edgar Allan Poe for optimists.” She continues:

Creepy without being terrifying, cynical without being despairing, he’s the author you read under the covers by flashlight, untroubled by the prospect of nightmares.

This is an especially apt quality of books like The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, or even Dandelion Wine, but I’m not so sure it applies to the book highlighted in this post.

Williams then calls Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury’s “most apocalyptically dark book”, but at this I really have to say, “Stop!”. Yeah, I get the stuff about book burning (see my links to Banned Books Week, which is coming in September), but I happen to think that jealousy among friends, and a merry-go-round that speeds you into the past (your youth and birth) or the future (your old age and death) are much darker. The evil in Fahrenheit attacks the mind, but the evil in Something Wicked attacks the soul.

When I was in about 7th grade, I discovered Bradbury and plowed through everything I could find–I loved the irony in his short stories and thrilled at the thoughtful futurism of Martian Chronicles. But Something Wicked This Way Comes always stood apart from his other works.

The action never leaves Earth. In fact, it never leaves the small town in Illinois where it begins. Mystical things happen there, no doubt about it, but not of the space-monsters-and-other-planets sort. No, this takes place here and now, with danger hidden behind temptation, and evil within the hearts of two carnies and a gypsy woman from hell.

The two boys who end up battling the evil are so normal, you can see them walking down the street in almost every town, even nearly 50 years after the book was published. I’m not a boy — never have been — yet I identified with Will and Jim. I’ve had (and still have) friendships like theirs, close despite that tiny bit of envy I had, because the other has something I don’t or is something I’m not.

The evil itself was that much more terrifying for being located on earth, in a recognizable “present”, in a town much like the one in which I grew up. My family went to the occasional carnival, where the side show entrances lined one edge of the grounds, and barkers called out to those passing by. I remember wanting to enter some of these, to see the dog-faced boy, or the sword swallower, or even the exotic dancers. Because it was forbidden, it was irresistible. If I’d had my own money, and my own transport to the carnival, I’d have gone into every single one of those tents. Like in the movie, Freaks, you simply can’t look away.

So, all that happens in this book is possible. And that terrified me more than any space monster ever could. When I’m ready for a good scare, or if Halloween (even in NYC) seems too tame, I return to this book. The scene in the library stacks, with the boys hiding from Dark (what a name for a villain!) has made me hesitate to enter any underground maze of bookshelves. The lightning rod seller, the gypsy witch, the Illustrated Man, the hall of mirrors: I’ve talked myself into reading this again, and soon!

Bradbury knows how to create an atmosphere of menace, disguised beneath an appealing entertainment like a traveling carnival. Remember Big, where a boy wishes he were older and wakes as Tom Hanks? Where did he make that wish? At a carnival! Big always struck me as the comic version of Bradbury’s dark tale of yearning to be older/younger.

And, if you’ve never seen Freaks (1932), click the link and watch it on-line. Unforgettable.

*”Monsters, Inc.”, The New York Times, 09 December 2001.

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