I am trying to work out if this is a Young Adult book or not, and would appreciate any advice anyone can offer. Because if it is I clearly shouldn’t have read it. Only kidding of course – just pointing out that putting labels on novels is sometimes not helpful.
‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ (and what a wonderful title by the way) tells the dark, macabre story of Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, two appropriately named 13 year old small-town American boys, and their visits to ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’, a distinctly 1950’s American carnival. Sneaking into the carnival after it closes, they witness the proprietors using a spectral merry-go-round with supernatural powers, specifically the ability to age, or reduce the age of, anyone who rides it. Discovered, they are pursued by the carnival owners and their enslaved exhibits (the Dust Witch, the Skeleton, the Dwarf, and Mr Electrico). The rest of the novel tells the story of their pursuit and their struggles with the malevolent carnival characters.
There are a number of themes here that have gone on to become standard features of gothic horror novels. I can’t be sure to what extent Bradbury simply developed these traditions, or originated them, but he without doubt had a significant influence on writers such as Stephen King, (who wrote his own coming of age novel, Stand by Me) and Neil Gaiman, both of whom have acknowledged their debt to Bradbury. Characters bewitched into different, powerless, forms appear here, as does the idea of a community that mysteriously reappears every generation, once every thirty years. The novel even has the idea of a library as a supposedly safe space from which a fight-back against the forces of the night can be launched (Buffy, anyone?).
Carnivals are inherently spooky, particularly those with freak-shows. They come to life at night, appear overnight and disappear as quickly. They are not the kind of place you want to get lost in. Bradbury uses this carnival as a potent symbol of sin and evil – “(it) survives living off the poison of the sins we do each other, and the ferment of our most terrible regrets“(chapter 40).
The ‘however’ you have been expecting is now overdue. The element of genuine suspense, the belief that Will and Jim might actually come to harm, is missing. The dust-witch is killed with a smile, and laughter is used to make the night recede. Evil melts away in the face of a chuckle. The freaks and their puppet masters are conquered far too easily. The blurb to this edition quotes a Washington Post review which refers to this text as a “timeless rite of passage” novel. More specifically it is a coming of age story – in the course of the few hours span of the novel, Jim and Will quite literally grow up, taking an inadvertent circuit on the time-travelling merry go round. Which brings us back to the Young Adult question. Evil that is defeated without too much stress, and teenagers growing up – these are classic ingredients of the YA genre. If further proof were needed, the film of the book was made by Disney! But I still liked it.