Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, Read by Paul Hecht, Recorded Books LLC, 1999
Authors like Salman Rushdie, I’ve written, are unable to write authentically in the vein of good wholesome simple answer philosophy because they write about complicated moral issues, complicated worlds, complicated resolutions. They deal with a very real world with very real difficulties.
Ray Bradbury is a different kettle of fish entirely. For the most part, Bradbury writes of a simpler moral universe, one in which there is starkly defined good and evil and there are people swayed in one direction or the other, sometimes both directions. This is true of the world that people vacillate from one pole to the other, but for most people there are precious few instances in which one meets face to face with Evil or Good in their purest incarnations.
It is precisely this kind of eternal struggle between Good and Evil that makes up a great deal of Bradbury’s justly famous novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Far more a morality tale than Farenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles (the two other novels of comparable fame, the former being political, the latter a philosophical sci-fi take on the notions of the Other and man’s essential isolation), Something Wicked distills the world into the two camps. These are represented in embryonic stage by the thirteen year olds Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, and by Will’s father Charles and the proprietor of a sinister traveling circus, Mr. Dark.
What’s good in Bradbury’s world is primarily childhood and the nostalgic view of it the author has, a reductive argument but not an uncommon view especially among writers of Bradbury’s generation. Not that there aren’t bad kids in his worlds, but they are usually run of the mill bullies or mama’s boy snitches. They aren’t bad, really, just misguided. Childhood is freedom and possibility and energy.
Pitted against them is the world of adults with its lack of imagination, its rules and strictures, its shutting down of vibrancy. Most adults aren’t evil, simply tired and small-minded, but it is only adults who are Evil. Yet what’s hidden in nearly all adults is that child in them, that elemental goodness that can be coaxed to rise to the surface and manifest itself in singing, dancing, and running. An adult’s relative scale of goodness is often measured in how often or how easily this can be brought out or if it can show itself in a pinch.
Something Wicked has as its adult hero, Will’s father, married to his much younger wife, lamenting that he is so much older than Will, too old for playing ball and other games. It is axiomatic that he will get in touch with his inner child, that inmost joyfulness before the book’s over and definitely in time for the climax. Will is, of course, then our childhood hero. His best friend Jim is the novel’s victim; wanting desperately to know the secrets of adulthood, he is tempted by Mr. Dark’s circus, most especially by the calliope merry go round. One trip forward on this ride ages you a year; one trip backwards strips you of a year. The story of his temptation is the novel’s tragedy.
To read this book is to feel a very specific nostalgia for childhood in general with its pat dichotomies, but also for a much more innocent childhood. I grew up in a small town (like Green Town in the novel), and I can easily recall when children were far less supervised, far less at risk, when you could slip out unnoticed of your house and run through the night while your parents slept, how you could cross town at a good running clip, breathless with excitement. And not only that, but here Bradbury catches with perfection that undeniable pull to sneak out of your house after dark, the illuminating illicitness of it that somewhere on the road to adulthood disappears. Tonight, I slide outside my house at 3am and it feels like nothing particularly special.
Part of what made it so hard to stick with the novel as written was the excellent film version I saw as a child. Without even closing my eyes, I can still see the spiders in the bed scene, an incident wholly invented for the film, yet clearly a creepy notion that lingered. Whenever Mr. Dark was in a scene, my mind instantly saw Jonathan Pryce; Will’s father’s face could be no one’s but Jason Robards’.
Bradbury’s book remains an enduring classic, though it leaves a great deal of the plot unresolved and not in that cool what-will-happen-next way, but in that did-he-forget-about-Miss-Foley way. And perhaps Bradbury’s story is the most famous evil merry go round tale, but I’ve often wondered why death for a character only ever comes from aging in these stories. Why does a baddie never meet his end by regressing past childhood, past babyhood, back to fetus, then embryo, then blastocyst, to finally separate into component sperm and egg before drying out and crusting away?
As the kind of writer he is, ultimately a sentimentalist, Bradbury manages to somehow beg your indulgence as a reader and get it. He manages the neat trick of showing you what your critical faculties should describe as a big pile of corn, but which somehow you see as through a glass darkly as heaps of gold. I’m not certain how he does it; I was aware before I began listening; I was prepared for it; I fell for it anyway. It’s fundamentally a conjuring act, the best literary sleight of hand going, and I can read the book ten times in a row and miss the moment it happens every time.
Reader Paul Hecht, apparently Recorded Books’ go-to guy for Bradbury, does a lovely job with the novel though he’s a little soft on the bad guys, never investing Mr. Dark with quite enough villainy. For Will’s father Charles, it seemed as if Hecht too were unduly influenced by the film, his voice a passable Robards imitation. Like a shadow, the movie falls over every future experience I will have with this book. In some ways, that’s bad, but in others it’s a triumph for the art of the cinema in its ever-tangled relationship to the printed word.