something wicked

The chilly winds of autumn howl across the plains and carry the distant sound of a train whistle, heralding the arrival of the carnival show. It’s an occasion for gaiety, breaking up the monotony of a small-town October with bright lights, fabulous freaks, and the merry clamor of the calliope. But there’s something lurking in the musty shadows of the canvas tents — something unearthly and strange. Sometimes it is a benevolent force, come to show us glimpses of our true selves in the bewildering reflections of the mirror maze. But more often, it is something dark. Something hungry. Something wicked.

The motif of the carnival as a venue for spiritual ordeal — as a netherworld where our true character is revealed, for better or worse — is an idea that keeps coming around in our culture. It’s as old as John Bunyan’s description of Vanity Fair in The Pilgrim’s Progress, and as new as the current season of American Horror Story. Sometimes its manifestation is benign, as in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (which took up residence in the Conceptual Theater last month), or the 1953 film Lili, or in the Kansas sideshow where young Dorothy Gale, having run away from her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, encounters that old humbug Professor Marvel (a very good man, mind you, but a very bad wizard). Sometimes it is ambiguous, as in the short-lived cult show Carnivàle or Terry Gilliam’s indescribable The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. But most often it is dank and sinister — and never moreso than in Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Set (like much of Bradbury’s work) in a mid-century, Midwestern Saturday Evening Post sort of small town, Something Wicked tells the story of two boys, sober-sided Will Halloway and his headstrong friend Jim Nightshade. Both are closing in on fourteen years old; Will was born a minute before midnight on October 30, and Jim two minutes later, just over the line into Halloween. Both are restless creatures, discontented as only adolescent boys can be. Jim in particular is impatient for all that he could do if he were just a little bit older.

One October 23, the boys are accosted by an itinerant seller of lightning rods, who brings cryptic warnings of oncoming storms both literal and metaphorical. Not long afterward, handbills appear in town advertising the imminent arrival of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show — Fantoccini, Marionette Circus, and Your Plain Meadow Carnival. The boys slip from their beds in the dead of night the witness the arrival of the carnival train. When they explore the show the next day, they encounter Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man. His flesh crawls with tattoos that seem to writhe like souls in torment, and he demonstrates an unhealthy interest in the two — but especially in reckless Jim Nightshade.

Creeping around the lot after hours, Will and Jim discover the carnival’s supernatural secret — a carousel that can send its riders forwards or backwards in time, a trip that could make an old man young again… or turn a young boy into a grown man. For this Faustian freakshow seduces its prey by offering them what they think they want — the promise of youth returned, or riches, or power. But the souls so damned must serve the carnival forever.

But the boys are discovered, and become targets of the carnival. Fugitives, they turn to Will’s father for help — but Charles Halloway is subject to temptations of his own. Married late in life, he laments his lost youth and his life lived mostly through books. But now, to save himself and the boys he protects, he must contend with the autumn people, the creatures who thrive on human misery — who come to us in our dark nights of the soul and feast on our unhappiness, who relish our suffering as we lie awake in the hour of the wolf.

If Something Wicked has become the coal-black gold standard for the creepy-carnival subgenre, it’s down in part to the sheer quality of the prose. There was a serviceable film adaptation made in the 1980s — that’s Jonathan Pryce up top, as Mr. Dark — but it’s really a book that needs to be read, maybe even read aloud. Bradbury was always a deeply lyrical writer. That can be a bit much in his longer works; but though Something Wicked has its brief doldrums of poetic languor, it remains his most successful novel, the one that best captures the tension between musicality and pulp nastiness that so electrifies his best short stories.

Mostly, though, it is because Something Wicked lingers in the mind, untidy and unresolved. It’s a messy book, emotionally-complicated. A slower, more temperate writer might have cleaned it up some in the final draft, identified the major themes and amplified them. (That single-mindedness of theme is what sinks Fahrenheit 451, as the drumbeat of its Message drowns out all else.) But Bradbury doesn’t simplify, and his mysteries remain intact and breathing. The wicked thing that comes this way may be hopelessness and despair; or it may be fickle Time, which kills us all in the end — sheer pitiless mortality. But the change that the night people represent, the corruption, the Fall, is inevitable, in a way. The boys’ loss of innocence has already begun before the carnival’s arrival; they are aware of vanity, and desire, and sexual deviance within the confines of their sleepy town. The carnival remains a free-floating symbol of malevolence whose exact meaning you can never quite pin down.

And it’s all evoked in grotesque, dreamlike imagery: the human skeleton’s hungry flesh, the wind shrieking over the calliope’s pipes conjuring debased hymns, the sickly-green hot-air balloon that leaves sluglike trail where it passes over, the Dust Witch with her eyes sewn shut, living boys made still as waxworks, Mr. Dark in his bible-black suit prowling the dark streets of town and whistling “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” All of it, rich and strange and troubling. And wondrous.

And so, my gift for you this Halloween: an unquiet dream poured into your ears, a waking nightmare yours for the taking the next time you’ve eighty minutes to spare.

Special thanks are due to my friend David Barnett, whose conversation helped me shape my thoughts on this book we both so love.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1:19:22)

PLAYLIST

Conceptual Theater intro bumper

Introduction: Blooming Youth – Huggins and Philips Sacred Harp Singers

Some boys walk by and you cry, seeing them. They’ll get hit, hurt, cut, bruised, and always wonder why, why does it happen?

Lightning Rod – Guster

“Jim,” said Will. “Don’t stand there. Your house, he said. You going to nail up the rod or ain’t you?”
“No,” smiled Jim. “Why spoil the fun?”

Season of the Witch – Luna

“For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ’s birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”

Mystery Train – Elvis Presley

Yet this train’s whistle! The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river-cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protests of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, burst over the earth!

Dark Carnival – Resurrection Band

“The carnival doesn’t care if it stinks by moonlight instead of sun, so long as it gorges on fear and pain. That’s the fuel, the vapor that spins the carousel, the raw stuffs of terror, the excruciating agony of guilt, the scream from real or imagined wounds. The carnival sucks that gas, ignites it, and chugs along its way.”

Hi Diddle Di Dee (An Actor’s Life For me) – Ken Nordine with Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell

“You’ll travel with us, Jim! How would you like to be partners? I’ll grow you to a fine strong age, eh? Twenty-two? twenty-five?! Dark and Nightshade, Nightshade and Dark, sweet lovely names for such as we with such as the sideshows to run around the world!”

Karn Evil 9, First Impression (excerpt) Emerson, Lake & Palmer

“Most men jump at the chance to give up everything for nothing. There’s nothing we’re so slapstick with as our own immortal souls.”

Tattoo – The Who

Mr. Dark and his mob of illustrations surged forward on the pine platform, a jungle beneath each arm, an Egyptian viper scrolled on each bicep. Mr. Dark waved, and strange monsters gaped their fangs from his chest, a Cyclops with a navel for a squinted moron eye twitched on his stomach as he strode…

Magical Mystery Tour – The Beatles

“Then out on the road, Gypsies in time, their populations grew as the world grew, spread, and there was more delicious variety of pain to thrive on. The train put wheels under them and here they run down the log road…”

Welcome to the Pleasuredome (homebrew edited remix) Frankie Goes To Hollywood

…that peculiar stage where people, all unknowing, flourished shirts above their heads, let fall clothes to the rug, stood raw and animal-crazy, naked, shivering like horses, hands out to touch each other…

(montage derived from Lulworth Calliope – Plinth)

Hall Of Mirrors – Siouxsie and the Banshees

Beyond lay fathoms of Mirror Maze which housed a multifold series of empty vanities, one wave on another, still, serene, silvered with age, white with time…

Dust Radio – Chris Whitley

They knew that she was blind, but special blind. She could dip down her hands to feel the bumps of the world, reap dust, examine draughts that blew through halls and souls that blew through people, draughts vented from bellows to thump-wrist, to pound-temples, to pulse-throat, and back to bellows again. She could feel their souls disinhabit, reinhabit their tremulous nostrils. Each soul, a vast warm fingerprint, felt different, she could roil it in her hand like clay…

Nite People – Colin Scot

Midnight’s not bad, you wake and go back to sleep, one or two’s not bad, you toss but sleep again. Five or six in the morning, there’s hope, for dawn’s just under the horizon. But three, now, Christ, three A.M.! Sleep is a patch of death, but three in the morn, full wide-eyed staring, is living death…

Some Fun – The Raindogs

“The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by deathwatch beetles, and thrive the centuries. They were the men with the leather-ribbon whips who sweated up the Pyramids seasoning it with other people’s salt and other people’s cracked hearts. They coursed Europe on the White Horses of the Plague. They whispered to Caesar that he was mortal, then sold daggers at half-price in the grand March sale…”

I Spent the Night In the Wax Museum – Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis

Amid the wax figures of murdered, gunshot, guillotined, garroted men and women the two boys sat like Egyptian cats, unblinked, untwitched, unswallowing…

Smile – Modern Times OST (composed by Charlie Chaplin)

“The crescent moon I have marked on the bullet is not a crescent moon. I have put my smile on the bullet in the rifle.”

Walking Into Mirrors – Johnny Warman

She wanted to thrust through the frames to test their weather. But she was afraid that doing this might cause all the mirrors to somehow assemble in billionfold multiplications of self, an army of women marching away to become girls and an army of girls marching to become infinitely small children…

Golden Boys – Loto

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.

The Night the Carousel Burned Down – Todd Rundgren

He heard the calliope summing the golden years ahead. The great wind of time blew in the brass pipes, a fine, a jolly, a summer tune, promising everything and even Will, hearing, began to run toward the music that grew up like a peach tree full of sun-ripe fruit…

The Carnival is Over – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

“Dad, will they ever come back?”
“No. And yes. No not them. But yes, other people like them. Not in a carnival. God knows what shape they’ll come in next. But sunrise, noon, or at the latest, sunset tomorrow they’ll show. They’re on the road. We got to watch out the rest of our lives. The fight’s just begun.”
“What will they look like? How will we know them?”
“Why,” said Dad, quietly, “maybe they’re already here.”

                Conceptual Theater outro bumper

Interstitial montages from the BBC sound effects library and the late, lamented One Minute Vacation

I’ll see you next month, with an imaginary soundtrack for a classic of the modern graphic novel. Until then, keep your ears open, and don’t believe everything you see.