This afternoon, the news of Ray Bradbury’s death struck me like a lightning. His departure really marks the end of an era, an incredible and long career devoted to science-fiction, sometimes tinged with horror and gothic, and at the same time it’s the nth reason to be sad. I’ve read most of his works, but there’s one novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, published in 1962, which has a very special meaning to me. It has influenced many contemporary authors for the original interpretation of the traditional fairy tale structure and for the modern and charming vision of evil, embodied by Mr. Dark, the disturbing Illustrated Man.
I wrote an essay about this novel in 2004: at the time I was attending a postgraduate teacher course in Venice and I often wrote essays about novels of the Anglo-american/British tradition. I remember I picked the novel by Bradbury because it totally mirrored that “thrill of wonder” which was the topic of the essay. Today is the best day to publish it on my blog: I hope you’ll enjoy it.
The story is set in Green Town, Illinois: just a week before Halloween, the small town is shocked by the arrival of a “dark carnival”, a mysterious circus, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, which promises happiness and eternal youth. Two 13-year-old friends, William Halloway and Jim Nightshade, will face the dark forces triggered off by the macabre attractions of the circus: they will see how suble is evil and its deeds. The novel is structured like a journey (it’s divided into “Arrivals”, “Pursuits” and “Departures”) – the physical journey of the circus, but also the psychological painful journey of the protagonists, a sort of initiation which makes them learn what the unthinkable and death are. Moments of hectic action alternate with pages of pure poetry, depicting emotions and desires of youth, when everything seems possible, when you can find the miracle of infinity in your best friend’s eyes. The mysterious power of love finds its roots in the brotherhood/friendship between William and Jim.
By their voices, the boys had told the tale all their lives, proud of their mothers, living house next to house, running for the hospital together, bringing sons into the world seconds apart; one light, one dark. There was a history of mutual celebration behind them. Each year Will lit the candles on a single cake at one minute to midnight. Jim, at one minute after, with the last day of the month begun, blew them out.
Being born on the same day is just the first knot of a strong bond which – the narrator explain – will never break. Despite being very different, even from a physical point of view (one is blonde, the other is dark-haired), the boys symbolize the two sides of the same coin, the two sides of the moon (one lighted, the other hidden in shadows): the same dreams and a certain childish boldness keep them together and make them apparently invincible. There’s no competition between them, no wickedness: the endless movement of their bodies and minds is one thing, flowing one next to the other, like the traces left by their trainers on the grass:
Like all boys, they never walked anywhere, but named a goal and lit for it, scissors and elbows. Nobody won. Nobody wanted to win. It was in their friendship they just wanted to run forever, shadow and shadow. Their hands slapped library-door handles together, their chests broke track tapes together, their tennis shoes beat parallel pony tracks over lawns, trimmed bushes, squirrelled trees, no one losing, both winning, thus saving their friendship for other times of loss.
Despite the games and fantasies of their everyday life, the routine is heavy to stand, but there’s a place, a sort of magic cave where everything is possible, thanks to the huge power of imagination: the town library, realm of a thousand incredible adventures, and the retreat of Charles Halloway (William’s father), who can find there the serenity he’s been looking for. The “world of paper” becomes an extraordinary field where to fight a million battles on, where you can live someone else’s life:
Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as the gift of tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered.
The subtle thrill of adventure that the protagonists wish to feel will finally come unexpectedly, in the form of the disquieting members of a circus, coming to town like a nightmare. The train, which carries a load of death and despair, arrives like an exotic and mysterious animal, blowing like a stove and shining like hell fires. The feral connotation of the train is what gives the circus (a place of fun and joy) a dangerous vibe.
The train itself appeared, link by link, engine, coal-car, and numerous and numbered all-asleep-and-slumbering-dream filled cars that followed the firefly-sparked chum, chant, drowsy autumn hearthfire roar. Hellfires flushed the stunned hills. Even at this remote view, one imagined men with buffalo-haunched arms shovelling black meteor falls of coal into the open boilers of the engine.
Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man whose body is completely tattoed with images of dangerous insects, can be considered the personification of Evil, Bradbury’s version of the Bogeyman. He can grasp human souls with a look, with a gesture; his dark fascination is rooted in the origin of the world, in the desire of men to be immortal, to defy the laws of nature and the passing of time. A merry-go-round – symbol of light-heartedness – is what Dark uses to steal the soul to those who visit his circus. The first encounter between Dark and Jim (described through William’s eyes) seems like a fight evenly matched: the boy fearlessly faces the man, and something menacing and adult appears in his eyes, as if the negative presence of Dark awakened his survival instinct:
Slowly, with great mouth-working pleasure, Mr Dark pushed his sleeve high to his elbow. Jim stared. The arm was like a cobra weaving, bobbing, swaying, to strike. Mr Dark clenched his fist, wriggled his fingers. The muscles danced […] For there stood Jim and there was this tall man, each examining the other as if he were a reflection in a shop window late at night. The tall man’s brambled suit, shadowed out now to colour Jim’s cheeks and storm over his wide and drinking eyes with a look of rain instead of the sharp cat-green they always were.
The wickedness and the treachery of Dark’s Pandemonium are not part of this world, but they feed on human hopes by “sucking the soul” of those trapped in the Mirror Maze or killed by the merry-go-round, a heavy toll in human lives to the Lord of Evil. The kids, lost in their world of childish beliefs and super-human desires, can’t really grasp the meaning of the shocking events happening in their town, but Charles Halloway, a wise father figure who still believes in hope and fantasy, opens their eyes. His monologue, full of biblical echoes and concern, is the wonderful narrative climax of the novel:
For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles – breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them […] The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by death-watch beetles, and thrive the centuries.
The list of pressing questions on the true nature of the circus creatures is like a magic spell that will help Will and Jim to face the last difficult trial (a ride on the merry-go-round for Jim); it also opens the door to one of Bradbury’s trademark themes: the “October people” arrive where they feel a pain is starting, where a nightmare arrives, and one absolutely has to avoid them. The closing scene of the novel is a pure poetic images, through which the reader can feel the thrill of being alive, still together, in a world that has changed forever. The protagonists, now rich in a new and almost adult self-perception, walk through the cold night, after living an incredible adventure. The memories of what happened should serve as wake-up call, but the charm of nature and the upcoming dusk prevail. Nature casts its positive and reassuring ray on the boys and whispers wise and comforting words:
It was fine printing their life in the dew on the cool fields that new dark suddenly-like-Christmas morning. The boys ran as tandem ponies, knowing that someday one would touch base first, and the other second or not at all, but now this first minute of the new morning was not the minute or the day or morning of ultimate loss. Now was not the time to study faces to see if one was older and the other too much younger. Today was just another day in October in a year suddenly better than anyone supposed it could ever be just a short hour ago, with the moon and the stars moving in a grand rotation toward inevitable dawn, and them loping, and the last of this night’s weeping done.