Published in 1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury is the story of two teenage (13 year old) boys who discover an evil carnival and attempt to save their town from it. The edition above is the one that I read, and the very 80s-looking cover did not help the case. The creepy bowl-haired child riding a neon purple carousel horse could not fit into any story I wanted to read*. However, it was Bradbury so I had to pick it up.
The story follows Jim Nightshade (on the cover) and Will Halloway (he yells “Jim!” a lot) through their adventure with the carnival, which is 90% freaks and 10% evil dudes. Evil dude #1, Mr. Cooger, is barely in the story, but ends up masquerading as an evil baby doll person thing (the influence of this novel on Stephen King is evident). Evil dude #2, Mr. Dark, is the real baddie though, tattooing victims on his arm before giving them “what they want” as long as “what they want” is a ride on the Magic Carousel of Evil Badness. Predictably, the carousel gives them the monkey paw version of what ever they want, though we never see anyone ride it aside from Cooger. For the most part what people want is to be younger (adults) or older (Jim!). This is a happy coincidence since the only thing the reader is assured of is that the carousel can make people younger or older depending on if it runs backward or forward. We are just left to wonder how the other “freaks” were transformed.
The novel, in some ways, feels really brief, even though it’s not, and young adult in some ways as well. Both of these feelings come from two 13 year old boys being the center of the plot, so we see the world through their somewhat oblivious eyes. We get Will’s dad’s perspective a little at the end and all of the novel’s women are just set pieces. The only woman the novel spends any time on is the Dust Witch … I’m just going to leave that be, that’s an essay by itself. There is no world building in terms of Cooger and Dark’s motivations, origins, or the way things actually work (aside from how to defeat them). What is strange is that there are about five pages of pure exposition wherein dad (Charles) explains what he thinks the carnival is up to, where it came from, and also some really old fashioned, sexist, heteronormative views (to paraphrase: “the one thing all men have in common is chasing dames!”).
What I find impressive about the novel though is that the hero of the story is a middle-aged man. Batman aside there are not a lot of older guy heroes around and I like that the book is not ageist in this way. The message is emphasized when people are punished for wanting to be younger, and the wisdom that comes with age is what saves the day. The other interesting thing about the novel, to me, is that there is no way it would be published today. Aside from it being about white men and no one else, the dad also drifts into almost Faulknarian stream of consciousness, and if it is a young adult novel the vocabulary is absurd. Clearly tweens and teens were not entirely meant to read this, but the protagonists are too young to engage adult readers. Genre bender.
All of that being said I would absolutely teach this book. It’s hard to find good books for young men to read and everyone needs to see themselves in texts. The vocabulary pushes the difficulty, but the linear structure is easy to follow. Outside of the classroom it’s still an interesting read, particularly because it’s so obviously influential on other writers. It’s not even close to my favorite Bradbury (cough, The Martian Chronicles, cough), but I’m glad to have read it.
* I know the saying goes “don’t judge a book by its cover!” but I feel like this is one of the more idiotic sayings because that it the literal purpose of a book cover.