The Plot

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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...

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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,” begins with Mr. Dark pursuing the boys. Will and his father grow closer as they discuss the nature of goodness, happiness, and evil, and each person’s free will to choose among them. After foiling various attempts by Mr. Dark to locate them, the boys join Charles Halloway one night in the library. His research has revealed that the carnival people are embodiments of evil—“autumn people”—drawn to and energized by people’s pain, meanness, and dissatisfactions. Mr. Dark enters the library, wounds Charles Halloway, and abducts the boys. He leaves a minion, the Dust Witch, to stop Halloway’s heart. Expecting death, Halloway laughs at the meaningless joke his life has been. Surprisingly, his laughter drives the witch away. Part 2 ends with Halloway heading for the carnival; the pursued is becoming the pursuer.

In part 3, “Departures,” Mr. Dark temporarily places the entranced boys in his wax museum, accessed only through the Mirror Maze. Preparing to perform a “Bullet Trick,” he asks for a volunteer from the small, late-night audience. Charles Halloway steps forward and calls out to Will for assistance. Will’s appearance indicates that in this battle of wills, Will’s father is winning. After routing Mr. Dark, Halloway and his son search for Jim. On entering the Mirror Maze, Halloway is sorely tempted, but Will’s cry of love enables him to reject the temptation to be young again; his joyful laughter shatters the mirrors. Mr. Dark’s remaining influence is undone, and Jim is saved from the carousel by the combined love and laughter of father and son.

Tempted one last time to ride the sinister carousel, Charles Halloway and the boys control the “autumn” within themselves. They head home with happy hearts and a feeling of oneness—aware, however, that some future day, another dark carnival might appear.

Form and Content

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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 and Jim follow the boy. (Later, when Cooger is being transformed by the carousel back into his adult self, they damage the carousel’s machinery and make it spin faster and faster, transforming Cooger into an ancient, feeble man on the brink of death.) Jim becomes secretly obsessed with the carousel’s ability to add or subtract years, seeing it as a way of instantly making himself the grown man he longs to be.

Mr. Dark begins a methodical search of the town for the two boys. He first sends the Dust Witch, a blind crone who navigates by sense of smell, over the town’s rooftops in a balloon. When that plan fails, he begins a physical search of the town, in the guise of a parade, but Will’s father intervenes to protect the boys. The boys tell him about their predicament. By searching old newspapers and books in the library, Charles Halloway discovers that the carnival has visited the town many times over the centuries, tempting people with the fulfillment of their most secret wishes and feeding off their corrupted souls. When Mr. Dark confronts Charles in the library, where the boys are hiding, he tempts the older man by promising to make him young if he will only betray the two boys. The boys are abducted by Mr. Dark, but Charles rescues them when he discovers that the evil of the carnival can be overcome when humans find the strength to laugh at what they most fear.

Setting

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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.

Literary Qualities

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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.

Social Sensitivity

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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.

For Further Reference

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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.

Bibliography

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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.

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