Fear, Evil, and Getting People Alone
Autumnal thoughts on Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes
Evil grows in the dark. And, sometimes Halloween comes to town.
Horror, as a genre, works in strange ways. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes may be tamer than most but its poetry stands impossibly, a stately manor all creaks and cobwebs; timeless, yet terrifying. It’s a story about growing up and growing old — it’s also a story about living forever.
When Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show blows into town, it comes with a lesson for thirteen year-olds Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. The carnival master, Dark, oldest of all, holds out the solution; another man, old but not without hope, will drag the problem into the light.
I won’t rehearse the plot but it’s enough to say evil comes to town and its tools are terror. The Shadow Shows that pitch their tents overnight in our lives may not bring a carousel or a calliope, yet they put on the same tired acts. People are much the same as they’ve always been, the same fears and dark desires. The most disturbing shadow, stalking behind and stretching before, is rooted at our own feet.
A dark thought, even for Halloween.
The thing about shadows though is, when they shiver their danse macabre, light is never far away. What is regret but a wish to have done better, been better? What is ambition, however small, but a wish to use what’s been given? Jim Nightshade wishes to be grown without growing; he hates the waiting: the in-between of becoming.
Whether we pine for a gilded past or an imagined future, we are vulnerable.
It’s here, in the in-between space, the not-now space, where evil does its work. It divides to conquer, parceling out grievances so that the great mess of loves inside fight for air. For every love, a corresponding fear.
Inside it’s just us and everything we’ve ever wanted, a world, but not an earth you can stand on. Alone with every possibility. All of it there, reflected endlessly. It’s this fear, this terrible longing to move forward but linger, to find the next prize just to store them up until they rot, that evil exploits.
In Something Wicked the dark carnival uses its curiosities to lure two friends and one too-old father into darkness. It blows through in autumn holding out summer but falling fast, always too fast, into cold dark winter. It does this by getting us alone; evil makes us fearful and then it isolates us.
Although it’s a strategy with terrible power, ultimately this isolation is an illusion. The desires in our heads, the encouraging words and un earned affirmation; the friends and lovers; the nameless, reaching wants and bottomless comforts; every one is a potential wrong turn in a mirror house. Illusions to the last, until they’re not.
But only when we step outside. Only when we reach out, ask, admit.
At 30 years-old, I had the curious experience of identifying with the book’s father-son duo. The elder and the younger, each with different fears which fit just right when I tried them on. Fears that past failures of omission, those empty spaces, have permanently crippled a future — my future.
“Here! A volunteer!” The crowd turned. Mr. Dark recoiled, then asked: “Where?” “Here.” Far out at the edge of the crowd, a land lifted, a path opened. Mr. Dark could see very clearly the man standing there, alone. Charles Halloway, citizen, father, introspective husband, night-wanderer, and janitor of the town library.
Mr. Dark, the carnival master, thought he’d crippled the old man and here he stands defiant: “I’ll do it,” he said. “With one hand.” The crowd cheers. “Hoorah!” cried a boy, below; “Go it, Charlie!” a man called, out beyond.
“Mr. Dark flushed as the crowd laughed and applauded even louder now. He lifted his hands to ward off the wave of refreshing sound, like rain that washed in from the people.”
The dark’s power exists in the dark, among the shadowy mirrors of doubt. But outside in the light, when a soul refuses to be alone, to be squashed down and hidden deep down, something happens. Laughter lights a candle, and even though it falters in the wind, it is not extinguished.
The old man does the unexpected; he doesn’t hide and he won’t wallow. Wounded, he walks right up to the main stage. But he needs help, a volunteer. Charles Halloway calls for a boy, then he does one better: he calls for his boy, Will.
The Witch flung one hand up to feel the shape of this audacity which came off the fifty-four-year-old man like a fever. Mr. Dark spun round as if hit by a fast-traveling gunshot.
It’s a dark story full of unhappy doings and some are lost, never to be found. Something Wicked is a dark story for long nights, but it’s also a story for clear dawn skies. Dark, yes, but only for so long because…
“Because, sometimes good has weapons and evil none. Sometimes tricks fail. Sometimes people can’t be picked off, led to deadfalls. No divide-and-conquer tonight [!]”