August was an interesting time to read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I don’t think I know of any other books that so accurately portray the smell, appearance and general feel of autumn, particularly late October when the season is in full swing and the frost is only beginning to set in in the mornings. I know it’s a particularly North American concept of October, but that being the one that I’ve grown up with, it really made me long for sweater weather.
For a horror story, it’s very much a boy’s coming-of-age tale. Not to say that only boys and men can relate to it, I know I found it totally engaging regardless, but the text is rife with nods to apparent shared experiences by men of a certain age who grew up in a certain era. Released originally in 1962, it doesn’t exactly subvert the sensibilities of that era, but it doesn’t fall victim to them, either.
When I say horror in describing the story I definitely mean classic horror. There’s no gore or teenagers being stalked by serial killers here. A supernaturally evil carnival comes to town. No, there aren’t any murderous clowns, either. The carnival itself is something that would probably be passed off as utter camp if it were written into a horror story today, but Something Wicked’s temporal setting makes it totally believable. This is a time where 13-year-old-boys roam free in the middle of the night, escaping through their bedroom windows and are reprimanded only via brief scolding when and if they are ever discovered. There aren’t any cellphones or computers, and travelling salesmen are still a thing. The town is presented as a relatively idyllic portrait of “all-American” life in the late fifties.
Yet the action never feels dated or dull. There’s suspense, bits that are genuinely scary and as a reader I was still able to form an attachment to the characters to the point where I cared what happened to them. The story is tight throughout and never drags. I think this was at least partially a side-effect of Bradbury’s extremely short chapter structure – sometimes a chapter was only half a page long. I’m a fan of this. It means each chapter is a clean divide, describes only one scene, no matter the length, and it really keeps the pages turning. Not to mention that we’re treated to an ending that’s much more than just “the heros win, and the bad guys are vanquished.” It’s thought-provoking, satisfying and most importantly doesn’t feel like a rip-off the way so many happy endings tacked on to horror stories do.
As for gender roles: Bradbury is no Larry Niven, but again, the women in the story are passive objects. Set dressing and plot devices. Arguably the most prominent female characters are the boys’ mothers, and these two “characters” are completely interchangeable. Will’s mother has a few lines of dialogue in which she consoles her husband and son – Jim’s mother is only described from a distance. Basically, the boy’s mothers are on there to act as foils for the maleness of our three heros. Other than that, they don’t affect the story at all. The boys and Will’s father barely seem worried about getting in trouble with their women after running around through the town all night. Also, when do they sleep? There were points at which I got tired just thinking about this. Maybe I was just never a 13-year-old boy.
Aside from the mothers, women are presented in a weird dichotomy. On the one hand, they’re the gullible fools who get eaten up by the supernatural evil presence while the astute young males see through the clever ruse immediately – and isn’t this sort of intuition often a traditionally feminine thing in literature? Men figure stuff out with science, while women are in tune with nature and “just know”?
If not that, they’re a part of the evil, as in the only female member of the carnival – the blind witch. I guess this is our feminine intuition nod – the woman communes with nature, has a sixth sense and is therefore a practitioner of evil black magic. The witch is portrayed as inherently evil, being a part of the carnival, but really all she ever does in the story is smell and feel things, knowing things in spite of her blindness, which we’re supposed to interpret as really creepy.
My short rant aside, there’s a reason Bradbury has been called the greatest sci-fi writer in history. (Link NSFW) This is an engaging story with solid characterization and plot. And for old, classic horror, I found it genuinely eerie. Read this at Halloween! Read it in front of your gas fireplace or with a lamp on under a blanket. Pretend you’re 13 again.