The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 8: SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury

As the years pile on, I am sad to find myself less and less of a holiday person.  Independence Day is just a chance for everyone to get drunk.  Mother’s Day and Father’s Day just feel like inconvenient distractions.  Thanksgiving serves to emphasize one’s loneliness.  Christmas pushes that a bit further and adds a glum reminder of the joy one used to take in the end of the year, and how fresh and real that vanished joy feels compared to the murky complaints and regrets that have replaced it.  Don’t even get me started on New Year’s.  Everything I dislike about all the other holidays is present in that, magnified times ten.  My process is to barricade myself in my bedroom till it’s out of the way.  I say none of this with satisfied cynicism.  The holidays should be wonderful.  Yes, they have become far too materialistic and over-hyped, but I think they serve a vital role in society and in people’s lives, and I want to enjoy them.  I just can’t.

The one big exception to this for me is Halloween.  I have always loved Halloween and my affection never stops growing.  Of course, it’s not a real holiday and I think that’s part of its magic.  It really is more of an anti-holiday, not designed to celebrate some worthy (and therefore potentially cloying, hypocritical, or tedious) principle, but to fly in the face of decorum and order.  It is a day that encourages us to play tricks, to eat food that’s bad for us, to frighten each other.  It is reviled by many religious leaders and school officials.  While parents usually tolerate it, they are naturally uneasy about a day that seems to contradict much of what they fight to instill in their children.  For crying out loud, one of the pillars of Halloween is to stay out after dark!  So yes, I adore Halloween.  No disappointments in life can shake my love for this day of sanctioned heresy and madness.  I have often wondered if my passion for the horror genre came from my enjoyment of Halloween as a child, or if it was the other way round.  Either way, Halloween holds a very special place in my heart, as it did in the heart of Ray Bradbury.

I’m not sure why I’ve come to Bradbury’s work so late.  Growing up, I certainly knew of him, and immensely enjoyed one or two of his short stories.  However, it is only since graduate school that I have to come to really get into his work in depth.  I’m definitely overdue.  One of the reasons I’m coming to feel that Bradbury will remain a very important author for me is how central October and Halloween were to his work.  He associated them with some of the things he valued most: magic, wonder, and youth.  As such, they apparently turn up constantly in his works, sometimes in unexpected ways.  His seminal short story collection was titled The October Country.  The Martian Chronicles, one of my favorites, ends in October.  There are probably numerous other examples I am not familiar with yet.  Bradbury also wrote two major works focused closely on Halloween.  One is a young adult novel called The Halloween Tree, which I have not had the chance to read yet.  Then there is Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I acquired earlier in the year, and held  in reserve to make it my October read for 2015.

If one knows any of Bradbury’s work, there are certain things one will come to expect.  They are mostly present in Something Wicked This Way Comes.  First off, we have the lilting, almost bewitching prose style, the result (if I recall correctly) Bradbury said of reading poetry almost every day.  Next up, there is the feeling of nostalgia for times gone by, charmingly punctuated by moments of wry humor.  Finally, the reader gets plenty of warm celebrations of small towns (often represented, as in this novel, by the fictional Green Town), and affection for the young people growing up in them.  All of these virtues can be found in this story about a mysterious carnival that arrives in Green Town just in time for Halloween, bringing genuine mischief with it.

One familiar Bradbury trait not present in this novel is a fragmentary structure.  Bradbury often pieced together books slowly from short stories.  Many of his most famous works began life in this disconnected way.  Something Wicked This Way Comes, on the contrary, is a single, unified narrative.  Surprisingly, I think this works to its disadvantage at times.  Unusually for Bradbury, there are some passages that drag.  Much as it might infuriate creative writing teachers, I think the haphazard way Bradbury often brought his works together aided him as a writer.  It seemed to enable him to zero in on key moments of the story he wanted to tell in ways that endowed those moments with incredible power.  Walking through a traditional novel structure, Bradbury sometimes seems in a hurry to move on, and confused about where to place the emphasis.

None of this should imply that Something Wicked This Way Comes is a poor book.  It is easy to see why it is so beloved among Bradbury’s works.  I just feel it may not show him at his ABSOLUTE best.  That being said, there are passages that rank with his best.  My favorite is his description Green Town’s public library.  Bradbury was a great believer in libraries, and his passion makes a relatively brief chapter stand out beautifully.  It is also a great example of his ability to evoke things in just a few, almost casual lines of prose.  There are many writers that would (and probably even more that should) give anything for that power.  I should add, however, that Bradbury’s vision of libraries as places of quiet mystery and beautiful decay, places where much is left forgotten, only to be rediscovered and brought to wonderful new life by random seekers, is totally out of step with the present day’s lust for noise, efficiency, and convenience.  I have long been of the opinion that these fixations (along with money) constitute the only real religion of the modern age.  If you are such a devotee, you may be offended by Bradbury’s heathenism.  It just makes me love him all the more.

Another major plus is the character of Charles Halloway, father of one of the young protagonists.  Charles is a good reminder that, for all Bradbury’s nostalgia for youth, his worldview was more complex than a simple yearning for the past.  Charles copes with the aging he dreads in some appealing and fascinating ways.  Honestly, I think he would have made a better central character, but there is plenty of him throughout the novel.

At the risk of sounding disrespectful to a writer I’ve come to admire so much, I must record one last gripe.  While Halloween does form the background to the story (and there are some stunning descriptions of October weather), it is not really dwelt on that much in the story.  That’s not Bradbury’s fault.  It’s my fault for reading with too rigid an expectation.  All the same, I was disappointed.  I’ll absolutely have to read The Halloween Tree at some point soon.  Halloween is actually in the title of that one!

 

 

 

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