The Saga of Ray Bradbury -- Something Wicked This Way Comes -- LIVE FOREVER!
Like any kid I was first introduced to Ray Bradbury via the TV series Ray Bradbury theater. No surprise, it was my mother who loved the show. If you’ve been reading these articles by now you know she loved to watch her boys getting scared by watching all things creepy and then laughing like the Wicked Witch. Good times.
By the time I was in high school I knew the name Bradbury but, I’m ashamed to admit, I had not yet read his work. The Martian Chronicles was having a resurgence in popularity due in part to the television mini-series, but at that time in my life what informed my sense of all things sci-fi was (yes, of course) Star Wars. And to a lesser degree Star Trek.
I don’t want to confuse the reader, as I am all about books, but let’s be honest. Books and television (and movies) have always had a close relation. Today people no longer ask the question that if a book is successful will it be adapted for film. The question is, “When can I see the movie?”
As a kid, for a sci-fi book to grab my attention it had to compete with Star Wars. It’s weird, I know. But that’s how strong an influence George Lucas had on a generation. He’s been blamed for much less.
I was not a good student in school. At any level. I struggled with every class. Not because I lacked scruples. No. My problem was the lack of ambition to please others in doing what they told me to do. For me classes were boring and unimaginative. Nothing honestly challenged me. I learned well enough. I scraped by. And so, when I was first met with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and its controversial history, I refused to read it and failed the class.
That’s a hard truth for me to admit. It’s now one of my all-time favorite books. Tied with Something Wicked This Way Comes for the top spot.
I don’t want to go too far off track but I feel the need to let you know that my love for Something Wicked started with the Walt Disney film, when a teacher played us VHS movies (often based on books -- such as Tuck Everlasting) instead of teaching the curriculum. I so wish I could write that I saw the movie in the theaters after I read the book, but no. In fact, I probably watched it on cable every time it was broadcast in a month.
It wasn’t until many years after school that I fell in love with Bradbury. And when I read Something Wicked This Way Comes, as a grown adult-type-person, I did so in one sitting. If you count from the bookstore to the bus stop, to the bus ride to the walk home, to the living-room couch as one sitting.
There was nothing like it in literature then and nothing now. When I read an author who is influenced by Bradbury, and Something Wicked directly, it is obvious. Its structure and poetic rhythm is unmistakable. Not to make an accusation, but Stephen King himself often lets its influence bleed through in his work. No, it’s not an exact model, and I can’t say that King has done this intentionally (I don’t believe he has), but it’s there.
It bleeds through in my own work. If I had to analyze my own writing style I would guess my main influences are Bradbury, King, and Rice. Possibly others. When I was much younger Robert E. Howard’s style worked as my own style structure.
Let me give you an example of how effective the book’s poetic structure is:
The boys slept.
Those three words are an entire chapter. Should that work as a chapter? Anyone teaching classes on creative writing may tell you no. Does it work as an entire chapter? In that book, yes. Absolutely.
I could go on praising the book. Better writers have already done so and I encourage you to seek them out. Better yet, read the damn book. There’s a good reason it’s mandatory.
Of all his works Ray Bradbury may be remembered best for Fahrenheit 451, but Something Wicked This Way Comes is an underappreciated masterwork of horror. To understand why we need to take a look back at the author’s life. Specifically, a certain event that occured in his boyhood*.
Bradbury was born in 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois. He was given the middle name "Douglas" after the actor Douglas Fairbanks. Bradbury was related to the U.S. Shakespeare scholar Douglas Spaulding and descended from Mary Bradbury, who was tried at one of the Salem witch trials in 1692. Yes, really.
Bradbury was surrounded by an extended family during his early childhood and formative years in Waukegan. An aunt read him short stories when he was a child. This period provided foundations for both the author and his stories. In Bradbury's works of fiction, 1920s Waukegan becomes "Green Town", Illinois.
The Bradbury family lived in Tucson, Arizona, during 1926–1927 and 1932–1933 while their father pursued employment, each time returning to Waukegan. They eventually settled in Los Angeles in 1934 when Bradbury was 14 years old. The family arrived with only $40 (equivalent to $764 in 2019), which paid for rent and food until his father finally found a job making wire at a cable company for $14 a week (equivalent to $268 in 2019). This meant that they could stay, and Bradbury, who was in love with Hollywood, was ecstatic.
Bradbury attended Los Angeles High School and was active in the drama club. He often roller-skated through Hollywood in hopes of meeting celebrities. Among the creative and talented people Bradbury met were special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen and radio star George Burns. Bradbury's first pay as a writer, at age 14, was for a joke he sold to George Burns to use on the Burns and Allen radio show.
Throughout his youth Bradbury was an avid reader and writer and knew at a young age that he was "going into one of the arts." Bradbury began writing his own stories at age 11 (1931), during the Great Depression — sometimes writing on the only available paper, butcher paper.
In his youth he spent much time in the Carnegie library in Waukegan, reading such authors as H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. At 12 Bradbury began writing traditional horror stories and said he tried to imitate Poe until he was about 18. Not a bad model to aspire to. In addition to comics he loved Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan of the Apes, especially Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series. The Warlord of Mars impressed him so much that at the age of 12 he wrote his own sequel. The young Bradbury was also a cartoonist and loved to illustrate. He wrote about Tarzan and drew his own Sunday panels. He listened to the radio show Chandu the Magician, and every night when the show went off the air, he would sit and write the entire script from memory.
As a teen in Beverly Hills he often visited his mentor and friend science-fiction writer Bob Olsen, sharing ideas and maintaining contact. In 1936, at a secondhand bookstore in Hollywood, Bradbury discovered a handbill promoting meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. Excited to find there were others sharing his interest Bradbury joined a weekly Thursday-night conclave at age 16.
Bradbury cited H. G. Wells and Jules Verne as his primary science-fiction influences. Bradbury identified with Verne, saying, "He believes the human being is in a strange situation in a very strange world, and he believes that we can triumph by behaving morally". Bradbury admitted that he stopped reading science-fiction books in his 20s and embraced a broad field of literature that included Alexander Pope and poet John Donne. Bradbury had just graduated from high school when he met Robert Heinlein, then 31 years old. Bradbury recalled, "He was well known, and he wrote humanistic science fiction, which influenced me to dare to be human instead of mechanical."
In young adulthood Bradbury read stories published in Astounding Science Fiction, and read everything by Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and the early writings of Theodore Sturgeon and A. E. van Vogt.
The family lived about four blocks from the Fox Uptown Theatre on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, the flagship theater for MGM and Fox. There Bradbury learned how to sneak in and watched previews almost every week. He rollerskated there, as well as all over town, as he put it, "hell-bent on getting autographs from glamorous stars. It was glorious." Among stars the young Bradbury was thrilled to encounter were Norma Shearer, Laurel and Hardy, and Ronald Colman. Sometimes he spent all day in front of Paramount Pictures or Columbia Pictures and then skated to the Brown Derby to watch the stars who came and went for meals. He recounted seeing Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, whom he learned made a regular appearance every Friday night, bodyguard in tow.
Bradbury relates the following meeting with Sergei Bondarchuk, director of Soviet epic film series War and Peace, at a Hollywood award ceremony in Bondarchuk's honor:
They formed a long queue and as Bondarchuk was walking along it he recognized several people: "Oh Mr. Ford, I like your film." He recognized the director, Greta Garbo, and someone else. I was standing at the very end of the queue and silently watched this. Bondarchuk shouted to me; "Ray Bradbury, is that you?" He rushed up to me, embraced me, dragged me inside, grabbed a bottle of Stolichnaya, sat down at his table where his closest friends were sitting. All the famous Hollywood directors in the queue were bewildered. They stared at me and asked each other "Who is this Bradbury?" And, swearing, they left, leaving me alone with Bondarchuk.
Bradbury's first published story was "Hollerbochen's Dilemma", which appeared in the January 1938 issue of Forrest J. Ackerman's fanzine Imagination!. In July 1939 Ackerman and his then-girlfriend Morojo gave 19-year-old Bradbury the money to head to New York for the First World Science Fiction Convention in New York City and funded Bradbury's fanzine titled Futuria Fantasia. Bradbury wrote most of its four issues, each limited to under 100 copies. Between 1940 and 1947 he was a contributor to Rob Wagner's film magazine Script.
Bradbury was free to start a career in writing when, owing to his bad eyesight, he was rejected for admission into the military during World War II. Having been inspired by science-fiction heroes such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Bradbury began to publish science-fiction stories in fanzines in 1938. Bradbury was invited by Forrest J. Ackerman to attend the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, which at the time met at Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles. This was where he met the writers Robert A. Heinlein, Emil Petaja, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, and Jack Williamson.
In 1939 Bradbury joined Laraine Day's Wilshire Players Guild, where for two years, he wrote and acted in several plays. They were, as Bradbury later described, "so incredibly bad" that he gave up playwriting for two decades. Bradbury's first paid piece, "Pendulum", written with Henry Hasse, was published in the pulp magazine Super Science Stories in November 1941, for which he earned $15.
Bradbury sold his first story, "The Lake", for $13.75 at 22, and became a full-time writer by 24. His first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival, was published in 1947 by Arkham House, a small press in Sauk City, Wisconsin, owned by writer August Derleth. Reviewing Dark Carnival for the New York Herald Tribune, Will Cuppy proclaimed Bradbury "suitable for general consumption" and predicted that he would become a writer of the caliber of British fantasy author John Collier.
After a rejection notice from the pulp Weird Tales, Bradbury submitted "Homecoming" to Mademoiselle, which was spotted by a young editorial assistant named Truman Capote. Capote picked the Bradbury manuscript from a slush pile, which led to its publication. Homecoming won a place in the O. Henry Award Stories of 1947. And it’s every author’s wish to be saved from the slush pile.
In UCLA's Powell Library, in a study room with typewriters for rent, Bradbury wrote his classic story of a book burning future, The Fireman, which was about 25,000 words long. It was later published at about 50,000 words under the name Fahrenheit 451, for a total cost of $9.80, due to the library's typewriter-rental fees of ten cents per half-hour. No one knows whatever became of that book. Right.
A chance encounter in a Los Angeles bookstore with the British expatriate writer Christopher Isherwood gave Bradbury the opportunity to put The Martian Chronicles into the hands of a respected critic. Isherwood's glowing review followed.
Bradbury claimed a wide variety of influences and described discussions he might have with his favorite poets and writers Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, and Thomas Wolfe. From Steinbeck he said he learned "how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment". He studied Eudora Welty for her "remarkable ability to give you atmosphere, character, and motion in a single line". Bradbury's favorite writers growing up included Katherine Anne Porter, who wrote about the American South, Edith Wharton, and Jessamyn West.
Bradbury was once described as a "Midwest surrealist" and is often labeled a science-fiction writer, which he described as "the art of the possible." Bradbury resisted that categorization, however:
First of all, I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see? That's the reason it's going to be around a long time—because it's a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.
Bradbury recounted when he came into his own as a writer the afternoon he wrote a short story about his first encounter with death. When he was a boy he met a young girl at the beach and she went out into the water and never came back. Years later, as he wrote about it, tears flowed from him. He recognized he had taken the leap from emulating the many writers he admired to connecting with his voice as a writer.
When later asked about the lyrical power of his prose, Bradbury replied, "From reading so much poetry every day of my life. My favorite writers have been those who've said things well." He is quoted, "If you're reluctant to weep, you won't live a full and complete life."
In high school Bradbury was active in both the poetry club and the drama club, continuing plans to become an actor, but becoming serious about his writing as his high school years progressed. Bradbury graduated from Los Angeles High School, where he took poetry classes with Snow Longley Housh, and short-story writing courses taught by Jeannet Johnson. The teachers recognized his talent and furthered his interest in writing, but he did not attend college. Instead, he sold newspapers at the corner of South Norton Avenue and Olympic Boulevard. In regard to his education, Bradbury said:
Libraries raised me. I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.
He told The Paris Review, "You can't learn to write in college. It's a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do – and they don't." And he’s right.
Bradbury described his inspiration as, "My stories run up and bite me in the leg—I respond by writing them down—everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off".
A reinvention of Waukegan, Green Town is a symbol of safety and home, which is often juxtaposed as a contrasting backdrop to tales of fantasy or menace. It serves as the setting of his semi-autobiographical classics Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer, as well as in many of his short stories. In Green Town, Bradbury's favorite uncle sprouts wings, traveling carnivals conceal supernatural powers, and his grandparents provide room and board to Charles Dickens. Perhaps the most definitive usage of the pseudonym for his hometown, in Summer Morning, Summer Night, a collection of short stories and vignettes exclusively about Green Town, Bradbury returns to the signature locale as a look back at the rapidly disappearing small-town world of the American heartland, which was the foundation of his roots.
Personal note: if there are any producers looking to make the next big Netflix series Green Town is it.
Late in life Bradbury retained his dedication and passion despite what he described as the "devastation of illnesses and deaths of many good friends." Among the losses that deeply grieved Bradbury was the death of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who was an intimate friend for many years. They remained close friends for nearly three decades after Roddenberry asked him to write for Star Trek, which Bradbury never did, objecting that he "never had the ability to adapt other people's ideas into any sensible form."
Bradbury suffered a stroke in 1999 that left him partially dependent on a wheelchair for mobility. Despite this he continued to write, and had even written an essay for The New Yorker about his inspiration for writing, published only a week prior to his death. Bradbury made regular appearances at science-fiction conventions until 2009, when he retired from the circuit.
Bradbury died in Los Angeles, California, on June 5, 2012, at the age of 91, after a lengthy illness. Bradbury's personal library was willed to the Waukegan Public Library, where he had many of his formative reading experiences.
The New York Times called Bradbury "the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream." The Los Angeles Times credited Bradbury with the ability "to write lyrically and evocatively of lands an imagination away, worlds he anchored in the here and now with a sense of visual clarity and small-town familiarity". Bradbury's grandson, Danny Karapetian, said Bradbury's works had "influenced so many artists, writers, teachers, scientists, and it's always really touching and comforting to hear their stories". The Washington Post noted several modern day technologies that Bradbury had envisioned much earlier in his writing, such as the idea of banking ATMs and earbuds and Bluetooth headsets from Fahrenheit 451, and the concepts of artificial intelligence within I Sing the Body Electric.
On June 6, 2012, in an official public statement from the White House Press Office, President Barack Obama said:
For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury's death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age. His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world. But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values. There is no doubt that Ray will continue to inspire many more generations with his writing, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.
Numerous Bradbury fans paid tribute to the author, noting the influence of his works on their own careers and creations. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg stated that Bradbury was "[his] muse for the better part of [his] sci-fi career.... On the world of science fiction and fantasy and imagination he is immortal". Writer Neil Gaiman felt that "the landscape of the world we live in would have been diminished if we had not had him in our world".
Author Stephen King released a statement on his website saying:
Ray Bradbury wrote three great novels and three hundred great stories. One of the latter was called 'A Sound of Thunder'. The sound I hear today is the thunder of a giant's footsteps fading away. But the novels and stories remain, in all their resonance and strange beauty.
*Bradbury attributed his lifelong habit of writing every day to two incidents. The first of these, occurring when he was three years old, was his mother's taking him to see Lon Chaney's performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The second incident occurred in 1932, when a carnival entertainer, one Mr. Electrico, touched the young man on the nose with an electrified sword, made his hair stand on end, and shouted, "Live forever!" Bradbury remarked, "I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me because of my encounter with Mr. Electrico...[he] gave me a future...I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day 69 years ago." At that age Bradbury first started to do magic, which was his first great love. If he had not discovered writing, he would have become a magician.
After Bradbury’s encounter with Mr. Electro he 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 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."
And now we come to the finale. Writing for this series has been pure joy for me. This is at the top of my list of favorite horror books of all-time, and I’ve been fortunate to know a few people with connections to one of the most beloved authors in American history.
The film was shot in Vermont and at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. It had a troubled production. Jack Clayton, the director, fell out with Bradbury over an uncredited script rewrite, and after test screenings of the director's cut failed to meet the studio's expectations, Disney sidelined Clayton, fired the original editor, and scrapped the original score, spending some $5 million and many months re-shooting, re-editing and re-scoring the film before its eventual release. And you can tell! In the scene in which the Dust Witch infiltrates the boys’ homes and torments them with large spiders, it is obvious the actors grew from boys to awkward teenagers.
Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay in 1958, intended as a directorial vehicle for Gene Kelly. Financing for the project never came, and Bradbury converted the screenplay into a novel, published in 1962. For my money, this was for the better. Books are always better, yes. But Bradbury had been vocal many years over his complaints about “writing in Hollywood”. He just wasn’t happy with the process. There could be any number of reasons for this. We’ll never know. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to speculate that the author was a one-man creative team. That’s not to say he wasn’t a good screenwriter. Let’s not forget all the screenplays he wrote for Ray Bradbury Theater. The problem here was the relationship with the studio and the director and the producers, who all had their hands on Bradbury’s script, thereby hindering the writer.
In 1977, Bradbury sold the film rights to Something Wicked This Way Comes to Paramount Pictures. He and director Jack Clayton, who Bradbury had previously worked with on Moby Dick, produced a completed script. The movie was intended to be produced by Kirk Douglas' Bryna Productions, and Douglas was to have starred in it. However, production never began and the film was eventually put into turnaround. At various times Sam Peckinpah and Steven Spielberg expressed interest in making the film. Oh, what could have been!
At this time Walt Disney Pictures was concentrating on films with more mature themes in an attempt to break free from their stereotype as an animation and family film studio. Remember The Black Cauldron?
The studio sought Bradbury's input on selecting a cast and director and he suggested Clayton, feeling they had worked well together at Paramount. In a 1981 issue of Cinefantastique Bradbury stated that his top choices to play Mr. Dark were Peter O'Toole and Christopher Lee (who would have been perfect!). However, Disney decided to go with a relatively unknown actor instead in order to keep the budget down, and Jonathan Pryce (who was great) was eventually cast. As the film progressed, two differing visions emerged for the film, with Bradbury and Clayton wishing to stay as faithful to the novel as possible, while Disney wanted to make a more accessible and family-friendly film. Bradbury and Clayton fell out during production after Bradbury discovered that Clayton had hired writer John Mortimer to do an uncredited revision of Bradbury's screenplay at the studio's insistence. And there’s a legitimate complaint, right there. Bradbury had every right to feel undermined because he was. The work is Ray Bradbury’s Something This Wicked This Way Comes, not Walt Disney’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was an unethical move to say the least.
At a Q&A session following a 2012 screening of the film, actor Shawn Carson explained that he originally read some ten times for the part of Will, but after a request from Bradbury he read for, and was cast, in the part of Jim Nightshade instead. Although he had blond hair at the time and co-star Vidal Petersen had dark hair, Carson's hair was dyed jet black and Petersen's was dyed blond to fit the new casting.
For the original score Clayton picked Georges Delerue who had scored his films The Pumpkin Eater and Our Mother's House, but his score (considered "too dark" by Disney) was later removed and replaced at short notice with a score by James Horner. A soundtrack album of Delerue's unused score was released by Intrada Records in 2015. Horner's replacement score was previously released by the same label in 1998.
Editor Barry Gordon was hired as assistant to the film's original editor, Argyle Nelson Jr. He recalled in 2012 that after Clayton submitted his original cut, Disney expressed concerns about the film's length, pacing and commercial appeal. The studio then took the project out of Clayton's hands and undertook an expensive six-month reshoot and re-edit. Nelson was let go for budgetary reasons, and although Gordon was originally prepared to follow Nelson and leave the production, Nelson encouraged him to stay and Gordon edited the final cut, which resulted in the film's dual editor credits.
Disney spent an additional $5 million on re-filming, re-editing, and re-scoring the film and Gordon was required to make a number of changes to Clayton and Nelson's original cut, removing several major special-effects scenes and incorporating the new material (directed by Leo Dyer), including a new spoken prologue narrated by Arthur Hill. Among the casualties was a groundbreaking animation scene, which would have been one of the first major uses of computer-generated imaging in a Hollywood film; combining the then new technology of CGI with traditional animation, it depicted Dark's circus train rolling into town, and the carnival magically materialising – the smoke from the locomotive becomes the ropes and tents, tree limbs grow together to form a ferris wheel, and a spider web morphs into a wheel of fortune. The deleted scene was previewed in detail in the May–June 1983 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine, but in the event the re-edit retained only a few seconds of the sequence. Another cut sequence depicted Mr. Dark using his sinister powers to send a huge disembodied hand to reach into the house to grab the boys – this mechanical effect was deemed not realistic enough by Disney executives, and was replaced by a new scene in which the room is invaded by hundreds of spiders. This was shot using real spiders (mentioned above), and years later Shawn Carson recalled the considerable discomfort he and Vidal Petersen experienced as a result of being exposed to the irritating urticating hairs of the 200 tarantulas used in the sequence. Some reading this are thinking, Why didn’t they burn down the house?
The original themes of Bradbury's novel, the suggestion of menace, the autumn atmosphere of an American Midwest township and the human relationships between characters that attracted Clayton escaped preview audiences completely, with Clayton heavily criticized. New special effects sequences were shot and a hastily composed new score by composer James Horner replaced Delerue's original music. Initial test screenings did not fare well with audiences and Disney re-commissioned Bradbury to write an opening narration sequence and new ending.
Bradbury referred to the film's final cut as "not a great film, no, but a decently nice one."
The film grossed $8.4 million at the domestic box office against its $19 million budget. Not a box office smash.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars and said: "It's one of the few literary adaptations I've seen in which the film not only captures the mood and tone of the novel, but also the novel's style. Bradbury's prose is a strange hybrid of craftsmanship and lyricism. He builds his stories and novels in a straightforward way, with strong plotting, but his sentences owe more to Thomas Wolfe than to the pulp tradition, and the lyricism isn't missed in this movie. In its descriptions of autumn days, in its heartfelt conversations between a father and a son, in the unabashed romanticism of its evil carnival and even in the perfect rhythm of its title, this is a horror movie with elegance."
Janet Maslin of The New York Times said the film "begins on such an overworked Norman Rockwell note that there seems little chance that anything exciting or unexpected will happen. So it's a happy surprise when the film ... turns into a lively, entertaining tale combining boyishness and grown-up horror in equal measure;" according to Maslin, "The gee-whiz quality to this adventure is far more excessive in Mr. Bradbury's novel than it is here, as directed by Jack Clayton. Mr. Clayton, who directed a widely admired version of The Turn of the Screw some years ago, gives the film a tension that transcends even its purplest prose." Conversely, Variety wrote that the film "must be chalked up as something of a disappointment. Possibilities for a dark, child's view fantasy set in rural America of yore are visible throughout, but various elements have not entirely congealed into a unified achievement ... Clayton has done a fine job visualizing the screenplay by Bradbury himself, but has missed really connecting with the heart of the material and bringing it satisfyingly alive." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 2 stars out of 4 and wrote that it "opens promisingly" but has a script which "tries to cram too much material into one story" and a climax that "couldn't be more disappointing," with "neon special effects that overwhelm the last half hour of the movie. The result is an oddball combination of a 'Twilight Zone' episode with the climactic, zapping-the-Nazis scene from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.'" Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times praised the film as "one of Walt Disney's best efforts in recent years—a film that actually has something to offer adults and adolescents alike." Richard Harrington of The Washington Post criticized the "lethargic" pace, "stolid acting," and special effects that "are shockingly poor for 1983 (a time-machine carousel is the only effective sequence on that front)." Tom Milne of The Monthly Film Bulletin lamented that "the novel's texture has been thinned out so ruthlessly that little is left but the bare bones; and all they add up to, shorn of the slightly self-conscious Faulknerian poetics of Bradbury's style, is a dismayingly schoolmarmish moral tale about fathers and sons, the vanity of illusions, and homespun recipes for dealing with demons ('Happiness makes them run')."
As of September 2019 the film holds a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 30 reviews. Of course, had the movie met with Bradbury’s true vision, or if someone could adapt the film correctly today, that may be quite different. In 2014 Disney announced a remake of Something Wicked This Way Comes with Seth Grahame-Smith writing the script, making his directorial debut, and producing with David Katzenberg from their producing banner KatzSmith Productions. Reportedly, Grahame-Smith wants to focus mostly on Ray Bradbury's source material from the book. That was six years ago and it has since stalled. I’m not sure how I personally feel about it. Potentially it could be great. Or it could be a great disaster.
Despite the production difficulties and the author’s position on the film (and poor box office reception), it wasn’t all bad. There are many who love it, myself included. The movie won the 1984 Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film and Saturn Award for Best Writing; it was nominated for five others, including best music for James Horner and best supporting actor for Jonathan Pryce. The film was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and Grand Jury Prize at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival.
In Memory of