The Saga of Ray Bradbury -- Something Wicked This Way Comes -- pt. 2
Previously I wrote about an event in Ray Bradbury's childhood that inspired him to become a writer; an encounter with a carnival magician named Mr. Electrico, who commanded him to "Live forever!" The 12-year-old Bradbury, intrigued at the concept of eternal life, revisited Mr. Electrico, who spurred his passion for life by heralding him as the reincarnation of a friend lost in World War I. After that Bradbury began writing nonstop. This is a well-known fact that Bradbury was often vocal about, and it seeded only one of the characters in his masterpiece SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.
The event had such an impression that it was featured in the author’s biopic LIVE FOREVER: THE RAY BRADBURY ODYSSEY, and the stage-show RAY BRADBURY LIVE FOREVER, both featuring art and special FX by Christopher Cooksey. I spoke with Bill Oberst Jr., who stars as Bradbury in the stage-show (which is receiving great reviews), and he offered some insight.
Q: Ray was very vocal about his Mr. Electro experience. Playing the author, putting yourself into his person, do you have a perspective on that experience?
A: Ray was a poet and a maker of metaphors, for us and for himself. The Mr. Electrico story is a metaphor; one of the founding metaphors; of his life. Some version of it surely occurred by the misty shore of Lake Michigan all those years ago, but I would submit that searching for the "real" Mr. Electrico, or cross-referencing the various versions of the story Ray told over the years with historical records, is entirely missing the point. The real Mr. Electrico is the one in the story, just as the real Mr. Dark is the one in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Truth is more important than fact in the world of Ray Bradbury the writer/magician. Ray encourages us to think poetically about the disordered fragments of our own lives and memories. He wants us to create metaphor, story and truth. I love him for that.
Q: How do you think his childhood framed the writer he would later become?
A: In the introduction to the 1975 edition of Dandelion Wine, Ray wrote:
"It what way was my town special? I was born there! It was my life. I had to write of it as I saw fit. Waukegan was Greentown was Byzantium, with all the happiness that that means, with all the sadness that those names imply. The people there were gods, and midgets."
Ray's beautiful sense of the fragility of our lives - perfectly encapsulated in the "I'm alive!" chapter of Dandelion Wine - made his sympathies warm and wide, not only to his family but to the family of man. That's a very midwestern sentiment, and he came by it genetically as well as culturally. His work ethic, writing every day for 60 years until his stroke, then dictating to his daughter Alexandra over the phone after typing became impossible, was also authentically midwestern. In fact, Ray was about as midwestern, in his values and morals and love of family, as one could get. Waukegan lived strong in him, long after he'd left it. I'd also say that much of the power of his best writing comes from taking those midwestern values to fantastic locations, like Mars. Reading Bradbury, the ordinary boy, girl, man or woman could think "Yes. I know these people." He is Mark Twain-like in that way. Ray's love of his place and people inspires us to love ours.
Q: When you were preparing for the role did you have contact with him? If so, what kinds of insights did he share with you?
A: No. I never met Ray, and now that I am doing this stage portrayal, I'm glad of it. All I can do is to offer a ghost of a suggestion of his ideas. To have known him would have, I'm sure, made me too terrified to attempt it (he was omnipresent in American culture when I was growing up.) So I've tried to approach him through his work; his ideas. Garrison Keillor, speaking of Mark Twain, said "He lived an amazing life, but his own writing is more interesting than his biography." So it is with Ray. I never knew him in life, but through his words, I know him in my heart, if that makes any sense. The show is meticulously researched, and is authorized by his estate and his literary agency but, in the end, it's just a grown-up-boy-reader who loved Ray Bradbury for saving his life, loving him all over again, and again. There's a lovely line from one of Ray's speeches which I put in the show. He holds out a book to the audience and says, "This is my flesh. This is me." So there he is. Still.
Q: Where has your show been performed?
A: We've played Off-Broadway, in Los Angeles, in Indianapolis, in Atlanta, in Charleston and a few other spots so far. I fit bookings for it in between my onscreen work.
Q: How have audiences reacted to it?
A: Just as they did to Ray's work: either "I love this passionately" or "I don't get it." I keep tweaking the material to move more of the second group over into the first! Ray's exuberance ("Do what you love and love what you do!") is not an easy pill to swallow if one is a confirmed pessimist. Enjoying Ray requires remembering who we were. But it is all Bradbury, and all in his own words. This is who he was. And like Ray, I dare to say of this work, "This is me. This is my flesh." I'm proud of it, and I'm amazed and humbled to have the approval of those who did know, and did love, this wonderful, brilliant, wild, passionate and oh-so-alive man.
Q: What can audiences expect to see if they attend a performance? And where can they go to see it next?
A: Ray Bradbury Live (forever) is a multi-media show, performed in one act of 85 minutes, with rear-screen projections by Christopher Cooksey and an original score by Brian Lee. Ray encourages us, he inspires us, he warns us, he remembers us, and he acts out excerpts from three landmark works: A Sound Of Thunder, The Martian Chronicles and (his, and my, personal favorite) Something Wicked This Way Comes. The official show website is https://www.raybradburyliveforever.com. This show is a labor of love. I hope I am still doing it when I'm 90. It means that much to me. Ray Bradbury saved my life - twice now.
The concept of the book started in 1955 when Bradbury suggested to his friend Gene Kelly that they collaborate on a movie for Kelly to direct. Kelly was encouraging of the idea, and Bradbury spent the next five weeks adapting his 1948 short story "The Black Ferris" into an 80-page treatment. Kelly shopped the project to various studios, but was unable to obtain financial backing for the movie. Bradbury then gradually expanded the treatment into the novel over a five-year period. He converted the benign presence of Mr. Electrico into a more sinister one and incorporated several members he met at the same carnival with Mr. Electrico, including the Illustrated Man and the Skeleton Man.
The book's autumn setting was intended as a thematic sequel to Bradbury's summer-tinged Dandelion Wine. Both works are set in the fictitious Green Town (based on Bradbury's hometown, Waukegan, Illinois) but have different tones, with the seasons in which they are set reflecting different aspects of the transition from childhood to adulthood. While none of the characters in Dandelion Wine reappear in Something Wicked This Way Comes, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade can be viewed as one-year older representations of Dandelion Wine's Douglas Spaulding and John Huff. These two novels, coupled with Bradbury's official 2006 sequel to Dandelion Wine, Farewell Summer, constitute what Bradbury has termed his "Green Town Trilogy". The 2008 short story collection Summer Morning, Summer Night is also set in Green Town, as are others. Not to be excluded is The Halloween Tree, which has often acted as a child’s introduction to Bradbury’s works.
The novel opens on an overcast October 23. Two friends - William "Will" Halloway and Jim Nightshade - both on the verge of their fourteenth birthdays, encounter a strange lightning rod salesman, Tom Fury. He announces that a storm is coming their way. The salesman gives Jim a lightning rod because he tells the boys that one of their houses is in danger and they do not have money to buy one. Throughout the night, Will and Jim meet up with townsfolk who also sense something in the air: The barber says that it smells of cotton candy and licorice. Among the townspeople is Will's 54-year-old father, Charles Halloway, who works in the local library, and who broods philosophically about life and the past. Both Mr. Halloway and the boys learn about the carnival that is to start the next day. Will's father sees a sign in a store window that advertises Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show, while Jim and Will find a similar handbill in the street. They are excited that a carnival has come so late in the year, but Charles Halloway has a bad feeling about it.
The boys run out to watch the carnival arrive at three in the morning. As the train pulls in, the smoke billows in circles and solidifies as the carnival. Mr. Halloway talks about this time of night as "soul's midnight", when men are closest to death, locked in the depths of despair. The boys go the next day to explore the carnival and encounter their seventh grade teacher, Miss Foley, who is dazed after visiting the Mirror Maze. Jim insists on coming back that night and Will agrees, but when they bump into the lightning-rod salesman's abandoned bag, they realize that they must stay to learn what happens after dark. After investigating all of the rides, they go up to a carousel, which has an out-of-order sign. Mr. Cooger suddenly grabs Will and Jim after they climb up on horses and he informs them the merry-go-round is broken. Another man arrives and tells him to put them down, introducing himself as Mr. Dark and says that the huge man's name is Mr. Cooger. Mr. Dark pays attention only to Jim, who is enthralled by what he sees. He then tells the boys to come back the next day and offers them passes to the carousel. They run away and then hide and wait. Both witness Mr. Cooger riding backwards on the carousel (as the music plays backwards), and when he steps off, to their shock, he is twelve years old.
They follow young Mr. Cooger to Miss Foley's house, where he pretends to be the nephew she was expecting. Jim tries to talk with him, because he wants to ride the carousel, but Will stops him. Jim takes off in the direction of the carnival. When Will catches up, Mr. Cooger is riding the carousel growing older, and Jim is about to join him. Will knocks the switch on the carousel and it flies out of control, spinning rapidly forward. Mr. Cooger ages over 100 years before it stops, and Jim and Will take off. They return with the police, but Mr. Cooger is nowhere to be found. Inside the tents they find him all set up as a new act, "Mr. Electrico", a man they run electricity through. Mr. Dark tells the boys to come back to the carnival the next day. Will tries to keep his father out of the situation, promising him that he will tell all soon. That night, the Dust Witch floats by in her balloon to find Jim and Will. Will lures her to an abandoned house and destroys her balloon with a bow and arrow. They later both dream of a bizarre funeral for the balloon, featuring a giant, misshapen coffin.
The next day the boys find a girl crying on the curb and realize she is the former Miss Foley made young again but also totally blind. They assist her to her house, but when they return they're cut off by a parade. The carnival is out searching the streets for the two of them. The boys hide, and Will's father spots them hiding under a storm drain in front of the cigar store. The boys convince him to keep quiet. Mr. Dark later arrives to talk to him. Mr. Halloway pretends not to know the two boys, whose faces are tattooed on the man's hand, but when the Witch comes and begins to sense the boys' presence he blows cigar smoke at her, choking her and forcing her to leave. Mr. Dark then asks Charles Halloway for his name, and Will's father tells him he is the town library's janitor. That night Will and Jim meet him at the library where he has done research into his own father's ministerial notes. The carnival arrives once a generation, and leaves in the midst of a giant storm. Mr. Dark appears, and the boys hide in the book stacks. He discovers both of them and crushes the janitor's hand when Mr. Halloway attempts to fight him. The tarot witch casts spells on the boys to mesmerize them and also tries to stop Mr. Halloway's heart. Just before he is about to die, Charles looks at the Witch and begins to laugh hysterically. His laughter wounds her deeply and drives her away. He then follows Mr. Dark to the carnival to rescue the boys.
At the carnival, Charles triumphs over Mr. Dark, finds his son in the mirror maze, kills the Witch with a smile on a bullet, and destroys all the mirrors in a matter of minutes, all through the use of laughter and cheer. Then he and Will search for Jim. Mr. Cooger turns to dust and blows away before he can be saved by the carousel. Jim runs to the merry-go-round and rides it forward. Will tries to stop him and grabs onto his leg. They both end up going for a ride before Will jumps off and rips Jim away from the machine. Jim falls into a stupor, close to death. A child comes begging them to help him, but Mr. Halloway recognizes the boy as Mr. Dark. He holds the boy tight and kills him with affection, because Mr. Dark cannot survive in such close contact with someone so happy. The carnival falls apart as Will tries to revive Jim. They save Jim by singing and dancing and laughing, their happiness bringing him back from the edge of death.
Something Wicked This Way Comes can be interpreted as an allegory of the struggle between good and evil, with the human characters Will, Jim, and Charles on the side of morality and Mr. Dark and his carnival on the side of sin and temptation. As in many other fictional works revolving around the same concept, good prevails in the end, not with supernatural or physical powers, but with purity of heart. Jim represents good that is always on the verge of giving into temptation, while Will, though he has crises and doubts, is the part of human nature that resists giving in.
As in Dandelion Wine, Bradbury infuses the novel with nostalgia for his childhood. However, Dandelion Wine embodies the idyllic memories of youth, whereas Something Wicked This Way Comes superimposes folk-tale and supernatural elements over a small-town Americana setting in order to explore the dark undercurrents that surround the transition to adulthood.
The carnival's main allure to its participants is its ability to change age easily against natural causes. Jim wants to become an adult by riding the carousel forward while Charles Halloway initially considers riding the carousel backwards. Even Will is somewhat tempted by the offer for a free trip to adulthood.
Charles, however, quickly sees that a ride on the carousel can have unforeseen consequences, because despite age being changed instantly, the carousel would not change the mind of its riders. "If I made you twenty-five tomorrow, Jim, your thoughts would still be boy thoughts, and it'd show! Or if they turned me into a boy of ten this instant, my brain would still be fifty and that boy would act funnier and older and weirder than any boy ever."
Because of this effect, a person who rode the carousel would be reformed only physically, with the same sins and emotions contained inside. Moreover, a carousel rider's new physical form, created unnaturally, would alienate them from his or her family and peers, leaving the person with nowhere to turn for acceptance except for the carnival itself.
Charles best personifies this theme; while he is middle-aged in body, he is still youthful in mind and spirit. At first, he sees the two conflicting personas within him as irreconcilable and longs to be physically young too, but his active participation in toppling the carnival proves to him that mental fitness and perception of one's age is more important than physical health.
Will and Jim can be said to have aged prematurely in the novel; the horrors of the carnival force them to grow up fast to be able to deal with its tricks on a knowledgeable level. Furthermore, Will and Jim do take a brief ride on the carousel before Will pulls Jim off, and they are never shown reversing this process before Charles destroys its machinations. Thus, it can be stated that they, in fact, grow up slightly. In this case, though, Will and Jim have also matured emotionally, too, having had their first encounter with evil. This enables them to grow more proportionally in both physical and emotional status.
The novel also conveys the theme that the power of people, objects, and ideas have over you depends on the power you instill in them with your own mind. Because of this, the carnival is able to easily take advantage of the common human fears of aging, death, and loneliness which everyone has or relates to.
Charles Halloway is the character who learns the most about this; he initially views death as unpleasant and it thus becomes a sinister force to him that the Mirror Maze magnifies. However, Will's words of love help him to see that age does not matter if one focuses instead on the knowledge and affections gained with it, and as his fear vanishes, so does the Mirror Maze. He also is able to defeat the Dust Witch once he realizes that she does not have ultimate control over him. With his belief in her powers gone, he turns the tables on the Witch by instilling the same fear in her of his smile that he used to have of her magic.
Self-centered desires and wishes are portrayed as the base of human malice and unhappiness because they blind people to the blessings of life with an unattainable dream. The novel's main example of this is Miss Foley's seduction by Cooger's promise of youth that causes her to fail to see his deception as her "nephew," and lose her rightful place in society.
It is implied that the counter-force against this is acceptance of one's faults and an enthusiastic pursuit of the everyday joys of life, signified by Charles' spontaneous running with Jim and Will at the end of the novel. The fact that he is nearly forty years older than them pales in comparison to the pleasure he gains from simple human companionship.
An Influential Legacy
Something Wicked This Way Comes has served as a direct influence on several fantasy and horror authors, including Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. Gaiman paid tribute to Bradbury's influence on him and many of his peers in a 2012 The Guardian article following Bradbury's death. Gaiman's novel American Gods can be read as a tribute to and attempt to surpass many of the "dark carnival" themes in Bradbury's work. The motif of ordinary people up against sinister, supernatural forces appears in many of King's works, including It and Dreamcatcher. King also discusses this novel at length in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre.
The book also influenced R. L. Stine, who said, "Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors. I always tell people that the scariest book I ever read was one of his books—Something Wicked This Way Comes."
NEXT: Pt. 3 -- THE MOVIE