Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989
“By the pricking of my thumbs,! something wicked this way comes.” In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1605), the witches speak these lines as Macbeth approaches for his second meeting with them. He has come because he has found his ill-gotten power empty and insecure. The witches speak out of sympathy for the evil they have cultivated in him. When Charles Holloway quotes these lines in Something Wicked This Way Comes, he is also speaking of the sympathy of the evil that lurks always in the hearts of the good for the greater evil in the hearts of those who have given in—who have agreed to trade something for nothing, thus converting themselves into grotesques who feed on the pain and fear of others.
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Quasi-allegorical in form, this novel, like Dandelion Wine, is set in Green Town and seems aimed at young readers. Two boys deal with the temptations of evil presented by Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade are best friends and neighbors. Will, son of Charles, was born just before midnight, Jim, just after midnight on Halloween Day. Will seems the natural child of reason and goodness, but fatherless Jim finds in himself an attraction to danger, to power, and to evil. Their friendship binds them together in mutual dependence and defense.
The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, “Arrivals,” the Cooger and Dark carnival comes to Green Town at 3 a.m. on a Friday, the week before Halloween. No sooner does it arrive than impossible things begin to occur. Miss Foley, a teacher, is terrified upon seeing her treasured little-girl identity eaten away by age in the maze of mirrors. The boys meet a boy who is revealed to be Cooger, having somehow returned to the age of 12, and through their accidental interference with the magical carousel that changes people’s ages, they age him to 120.
The mirror maze and the carousel are the main instruments that the carnival uses to capture those lonely people who dream of gaining power by transforming themselves. The mirror maze shows them what they want to be and makes them fear old age and death. The carousel, by carrying them backward or forward, makes them the age they believe they wish to be. However, Dark, the show’s proprietor, a version of the illustrated man from Bradbury’s second story collection, always cheats, never giving people exactly what they believe they want but rather some extreme version of it. As a result, they tend to become his slaves, wanting another ride on his machine, and so they become part of his traveling freak show.
In Jim, Dark sees a potential partner, one who might help him carry on the show. Jim’s desire is to become instantly older and more powerful. Bradbury does not explore this desire; rather, Jim seems to be a projection of the otherwise invisible dark side of Will. By the end of the first part, Will and Jim have gained enough knowledge of Dark’s work to realize that he will catch and destroy them to use them if he can. In the second part, “Pursuits,” the boys hide from him and try to discover a way to deal with him. By themselves, they find they cannot, though they are resourceful in their opposition. They enlist the help of Charles, Will’s father.
Charles Holloway combines elements of both Jim and Will in his own past. He married late, after trying to make himself into his own ideal for thirty-nine years. He found eventually that life is not simple and fine, that one never becomes the ideal one dreams. Instead, as he tells Will, a person makes choices from one moment to the next, living into the future in a constant struggle against the temptations of nonbeing. There is no final arrival, only pursuit. Will’s struggle to stay with Jim and protect him is parallel to Charles’s struggle to come to terms with himself. Charles’s main regret is that he took so long to begin his life, so he is susceptible to the carousel’s temptation to roll back the years.
Charles is janitor at the Green Town library. There the most intense phase of the struggle begins. The second part ends when Dark makes his way into the library early Sunday evening, disables Charles, and captures Will and Jim. Charles almost gives in to death in this scene, to the power of the Dust Witch, one of Dark’s accomplices, to stop one’s heart. In the face of death, Charles realizes that human life is a bleak and meaningless joke. This nihilism leads him not to despair, however, but to laughter, for in the face of mortality, desire and temptation appear ridiculous. His laughter repels the witch and becomes the weapon by which he defeats Dark in the last part, “Departures.”
Charles rescues Will and, together, they finally recover Jim from Dark’s power, using the forces of laughter, kindness, and joy. With Dark’s death, the freaks become free of their magic prison, represented by the tattoos that cover Dark’s body. The carnival dissipates. Charles points out, however, that humanity is not free of temptation, for the desire for empty impossibilities is in them all, and there will be many other attempts to exploit this desire in their long lives.
Critical reaction to Bradbury’s second traditional novel was mixed. Those who disliked it found it overwritten. There are many passages in the novel that remind one of Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855), with sentences of many clauses celebrating and elaborating a scene or realization. As a result, the novel is not efficient in its development and, to some readers, seems inflated with unnecessary poetic prose. Others, however, respond positively to the fast pace of the action and to the marshaling of fantasy elements that produce an entertaining adventure/allegory.