Friday, 31 October 2014

Review: 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' by Ray Bradbury

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

It's the week before Hallowe'en, and Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois. The siren song of the calliope entices all with promises of youth regained and dreams fulfilled... as two boys trembling on the brink of manhood set out to explore the mysteries of the dark carnival's smoke, mazes and mirrors, they will also discover the true price of innermost wishes...

Review

"Everything that happens before Death is what counts"

What a jolly coincidence that a book I finished listening to months ago has arrived to the top of my (very lengthy) “to review” list at the perfect time for you all to rush off and buy a copy and read it over the Hallowe’en weekend!

Something Wicked This Way Comes is perfect for anyone who (like me) spent much of their early reading life reading all of the Goosebumps and Point Horror titles that they could find.  Putting aside the fact that it was published some time before either R.L.Stine or the seemingly abundant Point Horror authors came on the scene, it was a complete throw-back for me and I really liked it, even if for no reason other than it reminded me of a time where throwing caution to the wind and staying up past my bedtime to finish a good story wouldn’t have a knock-on effect on the next three days of my life.

It isn't just that it embraces it's mild horror meets fantasy aspects without irony and without taking itself too seriously, the flow of the story felt so familiar.  Jim Nightshade and William Halloway are drifting their way through summer when some mysterious flyers blow across their path advertising a carnival that is coming to town.  “Circus freaks”, disturbing merry-go-round, sinister hall of mirrors and all.  When Mr Dark and his travelling companions arrive, the summer takes a turn for the creepy as William and Jim explore and uncover more of its secrets and terrors.  So far, so straight-forward.

And then Bradbury adds what I am coming to see as his hallmark twist.  Because this isn’t just a story about two boys and their experiences at a faintly demonic carnival.  It’s also about age and what it means to both the old and the young and plays really cleverly on the quirk of psychology that sees teenagers aching to grow older and adults yearning for youth.  It’s tricky to tell you more without spoiling the story but there are some lovely moments between William and his father, or just with his father mulling over whether he's too old to be a good father and whether his best years are behind him. 

“Dad," said Will, his voice very faint. "Are you a good person?"

"To you and your mother, yes, I try. But no man's a hero to himself. I've lived with me a lifetime, Will. I know everything worth knowing about myself-"

"And, adding it all up...?"

"The sum? As they come and go, and I mostly sit very still and tight, yes, I'm all right.”

It isn't particularly subtle, admittedly, but the writing is really fantastic and the story is so charming that I was perfectly happy to overlook the fact that I was almost bludgeoned with a Message on occasion.  Probably because the moments where the characters were musing in a slightly obvious manner did fit in a lot of ways.  The twilight hours see Jim and William facing up to the horrors of the fair but see adults alone in the dark questioning themselves and their motives.  It works.  I only wish that there'd been more book blogs around when I was a teenager to point me in the direction of classics like this that aren't only accessible in that it's easy to read (or listen to), it's just easy to enjoy.  It has dated a little but not in a way that stops it from being enjoyable.  A lot of the tension comes from the fact that the teenagers don't have mobile phones and can only rely on the odd pay-phone call to keep in touch with their family. The story doesn't have to try too hard to keep characters isolated with grand reasons for blips in cellular coverage - they already are.

I don't feel as though I've really described well enough why you should get Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It was a throw-back, sure, but it also turned out to be more than enjoyable in its own right.  Mr Dark and his minions are awfully creepy, there's suspense, there's chills, the slightly mysterious and the outright fantastical.  In short, it's the best way to get some light goosebumps this Hallowe'en without giving yourself nightmares until Christmas.

Overall:  Another hit from the Bradbury back catalogue for me.  If you’re looking for a relatively light Halloween/RIP IX type read, Something Wicked This Way Comes should be pretty much spot on.  It isn’t as memorable as Fahrenheit 451 and doesn’t pack as much of a moral punch but it’s well written and does have a strong coming of age thread that’s delivered in a completely charming (if utterly transparent) way. 

A note on the audio:  I listened to the Tantor Media audiobook of this and it was excellent.  The narrator has a really engaging and slightly whimsical tone that fitted the story perfectly.  The story lends itself particularly well to audio, with it's eerie monologues and introspective characters, so if you're not overly keen on long, rambly audios or you don't have much experience with audios and are looking for an easy in, this is a great place to start.

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Date finished: April 2014
Format: Audiobook
Source:  Borrowed from local library
Genre: Fantasy; Horror
Pictured Edition Published:  by Gollancz in August 2008
Originally Published:  January 1962

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