I haven’t done any research on Ray Bradbury and his intentions in writing Something Wicked This Way Comes so I am going to fly here on my own personal impressions; something I believe is the point of reading anyway. After all it is rare that two readers see exactly the same things in any one book.
In Something Wicked This Way Comes the lives of two pre-teen boys, as well as a small handful of adult townsfolk, are turned upside down when a strange carnival arrives in town late one night while the town slumbers. There is no surprise that there is something shady about this carnival, and not shady in a conman sort of way. This carnival is shady in a purely malevolent fashion.The carnival is run by a Mr. Dark, The Illustrated Man. I assume he is the Illustrated Man from Bradbury’s earlier work but not having read it I can’t be absolutely sure. Mr. Dark is surrounded by an array of “freaks.” We meet the Dust Witch, the Skeleton Man, the Dwarf who is quite possibly the Lightening Rod salesman from the first chapter, and other less frequently mentioned oddities. All these “freaks” are mutations; previously whole and normal people who have been turned in on themselves until they have given over to either insanity, malevolence, or both.
The two boys, Will and Jim, become the targets of Mr. Dark and his crew of warped creatures. They come to a point when they realize they are in over their heads and they enlist the help of Will’s father, a man with issues of his own that make him vulnerable to Mr. Dark’s wickedness. The three work hard and furious to undermine Mr. Dark and the wicked carnival. Will’s dad realizes in a moment of epiphany that laughter and joy weakens whatever power the evil entourage has. At the climax of the story, with Jim near death on the ground, Will’s father manages to overcome the evil troupe with his forced laughter. Will, despite his dying friend at his feet, picks up on his Dad’s tactic (fairly forced into it by his father) and joyfully singing songs like Camptown Racers and Swannee River manages to revive Jim. The wicked carnival disintegrates and all is well in Happy Valley.
As someone who rides the rollercoaster of clinical depression I couldn’t help but see this story as an allegory regarding the causes, effects, and remedy for that malady. And if that is indeed Bradbury’s aim I have a serious problem with that.
Mr. Dark, the purveyor of all that is sick and wrong, spreads sadness and despair with everything he touches. His Maze of Mirrors causes people to fear themselves by forcing them to look at themselves and see in themselves whatever it is they fear most. His entourage, as pointed out above, is all crippled creatures who have caved in upon themselves. The Merry Go-Round that will change your age, backward or forward depending on which way it turns, offers promises of happy healing that turn out to be lies. All of this can be recognized by people who have battled depression. We do feel like we are turning in on ourselves. We do fear ourselves at times. We are tempted to look for easy ways out that usually turn out to be dead ends. It can feel at times as if the whole experience is being orchestrated by a Mr. Dark.
My first problem with the allegory is the presentation of depression’s victims as freaks who must be destroyed before they spread their disease to others. My second problem with it is the implication that it can all be remedied if you just “get happy and sing a joyful tune.”
Depression is an illness. It is not just a bout of the blues. The people who battle it, and other disorders, are not mental lepers to be eradicated lest they spread the disease. And healing from depression is not just a case of getting happy.
Granted this story was published in 1962 when the view of depression was far more uninformed than it is now but that is the only break I’ll cut Bradbury on this one. Basic human compassion has been in effect for far longer than studies that have unearthed the cause, effects, and treatments of clinical depression and my sense from reading this story is Bradbury lacked that compassion in his encounters with it.
I admit that I could be reading something into the story that isn’t there but I don’t think so. Even if I am, that is what reading is about. We bring our own personal experiences into a novel with us. Because of who we are, what we’ve encountered, what we’ve overcome, what we yet struggle to overcome we see the events in a story and the behavior of characters different than another reader might.
On its technical merits the story comes across as a bit overwritten. I kept waiting for the story to develop an edge that it never quite acquired and I feel this is because of the overly poetic nature of the narrative. The dialog comes across sharp and honed but the phrasing in the prose is much overwritten, at times heavily philosophical, and often maudlin in its sentimentality. It is like a child trying on her mother’s clothes. No matter how many pretty things she puts on she never looks grown up. At times I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a novel for adults or if was intended for a pre-teen audience.
This experience was overall a disappointing one though I stayed with it to the end. The hook never quite sank. It was only because of the parallels I saw to the battle with depression that I stayed to the end and then ended up disappointed with the “don’t worry be happy” wrap up.
When the Journey of One Hundred Books is over this is one that will go to the used book store to trade for something better.
©2014 M. Romeo LaFlamme