The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade have been psychologically complementary pals since they were born, within minutes of each other, almost fourteen years ago. Light-haired Will is a good boy who avoids risks and possible hurts; he fears growing up. Dark-haired Jim is more instinctive and daring; he wants desperately to be adult. Will feels alienated from his father, Charles Halloway, an intelligent but dissatisfied man in his fifties who is a janitor at the town library and who desperately fears growing old. Jim’s father is dead.
One fine October day, an itinerant lightning rod salesman warns the boys that a “beast” of a storm is coming, one especially threatening to Jim. At 3:00 a.m. on October 24, the beast arrives in the form of Cooger and Dark’s Carnival. Secretly watching the carnival set up, the boys sense that something ominous and important is happening. A feature attraction is the Mirror Maze, a place of temptation for dissatisfied dreamers like Charles Halloway; the mirrors exaggerate discontents and promise the possibility of being young again. There is also a carousel; riding it makes one older or younger, depending on its direction. Will feels threatened by these discoveries, but Jim is tempted by the carousel. Increasingly, the boys grow apart. The first of the book’s three parts, “Arrivals,” ends when the boys accidentally age Cooger to death on the carousel.
Part 2, “Pursuits,”...
(The entire section is 535 words.)
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Something Wicked This Way Comes is a richly imaginative story of good overcoming evil. Will Halloway and his next-door neighbor, Jim Nightshade, see themselves almost as twins. Born only minutes apart in the same hospital on Halloween, they have grown up like brothers, but now, at the age of thirteen, personality differences have begun to emerge. Will is naïve and almost reluctant to let go of each moment. Jim, whose father is dead, is much more streetwise and curious; he is anxious to become the man he never knew in his father. Will’s aloof and world-weary father, Charles Halloway, at fifty-four, feels too old to be a suitable father for a teenage boy. He senses that he has failed as a father and fears death and the effects of age.
Late one October night, a mysterious carnival, Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, sets up on the edge of town. The carnival is peopled by menacing freaks and is run by G. M. Dark, a heavily tattooed ringmaster, and J. C. Cooger, a huge, red-haired man. With a mirror maze, a carousel, and sinister sideshows, the carnival seduces the weak-willed and vain by catering to their human cravings and frailties.
Will and Jim watch secretly as Mr. Cooger rides the carnival carousel backward. With each revolution, Cooger becomes a year younger. When the carousel finally stops, he emerges as a twelve-year-old boy and enters the town, posing as the nephew of Miss Foley, one of the town’s teachers. Will...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Something Wicked This Way Comes takes place in Green Town, Illinois, in October. Against the backdrop of a "normal" American small town, Jim and Will discover that not everything is as it seems. The carnival, which changes the atmosphere of the town soon after its arrival, is filled with familiar sideshows—the Freak Tent, the merry-go-round, and the mirror maze. By juxtaposing the mundane and the fantastic, Bradbury gives the reader the opportunity to relate to the setting before he introduces the "wicked" elements into his plot.
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Bradbury's use of ornate, elaborately metaphoric language reaches its extreme in Something Wicked This Way Comes and, as in many of his stories, those metaphors are required to carry a heavily allegorical freight. Characters with last names like Nightshade, Dark, and Halloway move through a realistically detailed, but frequently symbolic landscape. Jungian archetypes and Gothic transformations abound. Nothing is quite what it seems. Critics who appreciate the novel have argued that it is much more complex, and much more complexly structured, than its denigrators realize.
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Something Wicked This Way Comes is Gothic fantasy at an extreme. It may be frightening to some young adults; the novel takes place at a carnival, however, which tends to be somewhat surreal on its own. Bradbury comments on realistic issues, as well. He expresses an understanding of the family. Will's father questions the nature of childbirth and the responsibility that is placed on the mother. More than anything, the novel relates the positive aspects of friendship and the often difficult process of growing-up.
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Topics for Discussion
1. What is the significance of the salesman who comes to sell Jim and Will a lightning rod at the beginning of the novel?
2. Jim and Will realize the wicked nature of the carnival. Why is Charlie, Will's father, the only other character who understands the danger?
3. Some of the characters are named for traits which they embrace. List some of these people and explain why they are named as they are.
4. What is the significance of the lightning rod? Why is it "finely scratched and etched with strange languages, names that could tie the tongue or break the jaw, numerals that added to incomprehensible sums, pictographs of insectanimals all bristle, chaff, and claw?"
5. Discuss Will's relationship with his father.
6. Why are Will and Jim such close friends? Is this purely a small-town phenomenon?
7. What first convinces you that the carnival has an underlying wicked element to it?
8. Jim and Will get accused of robbery by Miss Foley. Will thinks, "No one'll believe anything we say from now on! Not about carnivals, not about carousels, not about mirrors or evil nephews, not about nothing!" How do Jim and Will convince people that they are telling the truth?
9. What is a calliope? What is its significance in the novel?
10. Church bells are mentioned more than once in the novel. Why are they important? Discuss their role in the plot.
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Bradbury places three epigraphs in the front of his book—a line from the poet W. B. Yeats, a proverb, and a line from Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Why are they there? How are they relevant to the novel?
2. Time is an issue in this novel. Charlie Halloway says, when he cannot sleep, "We are blind to continuity, all breaks down, falls, melts, stops, rots, or runs away." Read chapter 14, and explain what Charlie means by this.
3. Read Dandelion Wine and comment on the novels' similarities. What does each have to say about childhood?
4. In chapter 22, Robert, Will, and Jim are running from Miss Foley. The narrator comments, "And so they ran, three animals in starlight. A black otter. A tomcat. A rabbit." Why are these three boys characterized in such terms. Where else in the novel do animal motifs appear?
5. Charles Halloway hears a Christmas carol in October:
Then pealed the bells more loud and
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right Prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to
What is the significance of the verse and why is it appropriate that it should appear at the beginning of the novel? Does it give you a sense of what is to come?
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A film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes was made in 1983. Directed by Jack Clayton from Bradbury's own screenplay and starring Jason Robards, it received generally poor reviews. The sets and special effects were excellent but critics found the plot confusing and overly sentimental. Indeed, Bradbury's stories are so dependent on language and metaphor for their effect that it might well be argued that the successful transference of much of his work to the screen should be nearly impossible. It is probably not coincidental that Fahrenheit 451, the Bradbury story which has been filmed with the greatest success, is also one of the author's most restrained works in terms of language use.
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For Further Reference
Greenberg, Martin Harry, and Joseph D. Olander, eds. Ray Bradbury. New York: Taplinger, 1980. An anthology of critical essays; part of the Writers of the 21st Century Series.
Johnson, Wayne L. Ray Bradbury. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Solid, book-length introduction to Bradbury's work.
Nicholls, Peter. "Ray Bradbury." In The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. New York: Doubleday, 1979. General summary of Bradbury's life and career into the mid-1970s.
Nolan, William F. The Ray Bradbury Companion. Detroit: Gale, 1975. Fascinating hodgepodge of material gathered together by a fellow author, friend, and admirer of Bradbury.
Wolfe, Gary K. "Ray Bradbury." In Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers. New York: St. Martin's, 1981. General Summary of Bradbury's life and career to 1980. Includes a detailed bibliography of both fantasy and nonfantasy work.
(The entire section is 122 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Greenberg, Martin Harry, and Joseph D. Olander. Ray Bradbury. New York: Taplinger, 1980. An insightful collection of critical essays that addresses various aspects of Bradbury’s writing, including his use of the frontier myth. Features a helpful index and bibliography.
Mogen, David. Ray Bradbury. Boston: Twayne, 1986. An excellent collection of critical essays on Bradbury’s novels, including Something Wicked This Way Comes. Includes a selected bibliography and index.
Nolan, William. The Ray Bradbury Companion. Detroit: Gale Research, 1975. A classic reference that includes critical essays, a brief biography, a comprehensive bibliography, and facsimiles of Bradbury’s unpublished and uncollected works on all media. Features an introduction by Bradbury.
Touponce, William F. Ray Bradbury and the Poetics of Reverie: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Reader. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Press, 1984. Written from a reader-response critical perspective, Touponce’s study offers keen insight into Bradbury’s works. Includes a bibliography and index.
(The entire section is 148 words.)