It's always hard reviewing something that has the word "classic" firmly attached to it. After all, what can be said now that forty years of precedent hasn't already covered? Ray Bradbury's dark tale of gothic intrigue set against a background of nostalgic American life was first published over four decades ago, and since then has re-emerged countless times, most notably as a 1983 Disney movie and now as this, the latest in the excellent Fantasy Masterworks series.
Ray Bradbury is perhaps most famous for stories about burning books and killing butterflies in primordial jungles, but Something Wicked This Way Comes is very different. More horror than fantasy, it tells the story of Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, two friends born just minutes apart, the former on Halloween, the latter on All Saint's Day. Will is good natured and naïve; Jim is surly and withdrawn. The pair are inseparable and each is utterly dependent upon the other.
This unshakable friendship is challenged when, a few days before Halloween, a surprise carnival comes to town: Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show. Everything seems normal until Will and Jim come across a carousel that has the ability to make whoever rides it become either younger or older depending on the direction it is ridden in. After witnessing one of the carnival's owners, Mr Cooger, use the carousal to make himself sixteen years younger, the two boys realise that this is no ordinary carnival, and the freaks that run it are no ordinary freaks. Will is adamant that they should leave it well alone and get help, but Jim secretly longs to use the carousel himself to grow older and leave the awkwardness of his youth behind.
Their debate over this matter has disastrous consequences when they end up accidentally killing Mr Cooger after leaving him on the carousel for too long. The boys find themselves on the run, fleeing from the freaks and their strange assortment of powers. Amongst them are Mr Dark, the "Illustrated Man," who can control people via the tattoos on his body; the blind "dust witch" who can "see" with her acute sense of smell; and a maniacal dwarf who seems oddly familiar to the boys. In the midst of it all, Will must find a way to rescue his friend before it's too late, before Jim loses himself in the carnival for good.
In many ways, there is nothing particularly special about this novel. The plot, in particular, is ridiculous, hinging on the sort of premise that R L Stine used to churn out on a monthly basis in the popular Goosebumps series a few years ago. Certainly, all sense of logic needs to be thrown out the window before turning the first page. Carousels just happen to be able to master age, people can be brought back to life by the power of electricity, and smiles and laughter can overcome even the most pressing evil. If you need an explanation to accept things like this, stay away from this book, because you'll still be left wanting at the end.
What makes this novel special, however, is Bradbury's use of characterisation and his unique writing style—on which much has been written. And with good reason. Bradbury writes in a deceptively simple, darkly misleading style. It carries a tone delicately balanced between sombre and nostalgic so that, even if you've never visited Illinois in your life, you find yourself feeling sentimental about the things that he describes. He can raise your hairs with a single, well-placed word and make you laugh with the deliberate omission of others. It's not perfect, of course, and it has some problems, chief amongst them being an obsession with certain words. The word "tremble," for example, appears so often, I'm stunned no editor has ever picked him up over it. The children "tremble" on the brink of adulthood. A man's heart "trembles" in his chest. The wind "trembles" against the window pane. It's all very tiresome.
Despite these slips however, the writing style is consistently one of the best things about this novel. I would perhaps question how appropriate it is in places. After all, if the book is intended for people the same age as Jim and Will (around 13-14) then why have a writing style that is so dense? On the other hand, if the book is meant for older readers, then why have such a contrived plot? There's a discrepancy there, between the story and the style, that severely hampers the book's effectiveness. It feels as though it's undergoing a mildly schizophrenic identity crisis, which can be off-putting.
For all these problems though, Something Wicked This Way Comes is an excellent novel if only for the issues it raises. The real story here is about the coming together of father and son, the ties of friendship through the passing of years, and the nature good and evil. It's a coming of age story told in reverse—the older characters in the book longing to be younger and the younger to be older. Around this core, the events in the book seem often silly and superfluous, but it doesn't matter. No matter how far removed from the realms of plausibility the book gets (and it does become very implausible by the end), the emotional core of the book holds true, offering an immensely powerful display of human behaviour to be drawn from and savoured. Bradbury understands people; he understands human behaviour and he writes about the passing of time and the bonds of fatherhood and friendship in an intensely personal way.
Something about this novel feels right somehow, resonating with that part within us all that wishes we were just a little older or a little younger, and wonders about the ethics involved in harbouring such a wish. It is this, if nothing else, that has earned the novel its title as a masterpiece of fantasy. Long may that accolade be repeated.
R J Burgess is from Crawley, West Sussex and has wanted to be a writer for most of his life. A recent graduate of a Creative Writing degree from Middlesex University, he is still relatively new to sf but is quickly finding his feet.