Book Excerpt: On the Potent Fear of ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

In the introduction to Folio Society's new edition of Ray Bradbury's classic, writer Frank Skinner contemplates what exactly makes this story so scary.

There’s just something about the work of Ray Bradbury that makes for a good match with our friends over at Folio Society — the richness of his worlds, the intensity of his descriptions, and the vividness of his scenes lend themselves to the evocative illustrations of their handsome volumes. Following up on last year’s excellent edition of Fahrenheit 451, their latest Bradbury project is particularly juicy. The menacing traveling carnival of Something Wicked This Way Comes — and the tableaux of horror and fright it brings with it — are brought to stirring, disturbing life by artist Tim McDonagh, while the introduction by English comedian and actor Frank Skinner keenly pinpoints the tools Bradbury so effectively deploys. We’re pleased to bring you a taste of both; for more, pick up a copy of the book at Folio Society’s site.

(Illustrations by Tim McDonagh for The Folio Society’s edition of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes.’)


From the new introduction to ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

This is a story about two boys, two best friends, both thirteen years of age. They had to be thirteen. Something Wicked This Way Comesis a book where ill omen is a constant companion. Given the level of supernatural angst Ray Bradbury constantly stirs up in this novel, he probably considered making both characters six-hundred-and-sixty-six but finally rejected it as too restrictive during the action scenes. Everything here – numbers, surnames, even October – drips with dark significance…

The boys are in pre-choice flux. They each seem to wear one hat whilst half hankering for the other. What a time for them to bump into Tom Fury, an example of that ever-popular small business genre, the lightning-rod salesman. ‘Storm’s coming,’ Tom tells them. It’s a catch-all phrase that covers most impending-menace possibilities. These must, for Jim and Will, include adulthood, the battle of innocence and experience, the choosing of the hat. In one episode, Jim and Will set off on the classic childhood pastime of climbing for apples – the apple being, of course, forever associated with temptation and lost innocence. From the high branches of the tree they see a half-dressed couple in a bedroom; an uncurtained window provides a proscenium arch for the brightly lit scene, a sort of theatre of adulthood. Jim, of course, is transfixed by the image. Will also stares but silently wishes for the stage-lights to go out…

(Illustrations by Tim McDonagh for The Folio Society’s edition of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes.’)

 

The carnival is coming. When you read Bradbury you realise you’ve always been a little bit unsettled by fairs and carnivals and circuses. It’s something to do with the garish folk-art façades, that weird genre of rictus-grin faces, angst-raddled ghouls and very approximate renditions of popular cartoon characters not, it transpires, as protected by international copyright laws as we non-carny types thought they were. We squeeze past the throbbing generators that growl like they might not have been safety-checked for a decade…

Bradbury, it seems, is something of a student of fear. It is, he suggests, much more complex than we might think. It is certainly not just one thing. I once lived in an apartment overlooking the Thames. Seeing so much of the old river made me realise how different it could be from day to day, from hour to hour. It swirled and settled, it grew darker, it sparkled, it seemed, sometimes, almost to stop flowing. It feels as if Bradbury, through his writings, has similarly studied fear on a daily basis, noting its ebbs and flows, recognising its surprising variety. Thirteen-year-old boys can be a strange mix of high energy and deep languor. Their fear, Bradbury shows us, is subject to similar peaks and troughs. Having been near-paralysed with foreboding for a sustained period, Will and Jim become ‘starchy with boredom and fatigued with sameness’ and consider giving themselves up to the carnival just for something to do. Will and his dad experience a similar fear, dappled with tiredness, when they sit up into the early hours, ‘one second their thoughts all brambled airedale, the next all silken slumbering cat’. Our fear, as readers, feeds on imminent arrival: ‘Storm’s coming’, ‘something wicked this way comes’. It’s fear induced less by events than by portent. It is a periphery fear, unfocused, slightly out of reach, but it drifts in on the twisted church music of the carnival’s steam organ and lingers till the very end. We are soon drawn into a world where a phrase like ‘beware the autumn people’ can somehow chill us to the bone. The core of this fear is, I think, its timelessness. The deep past, recognisable but unknowable, informs much of this book. The boys are young and vibrant individuals but we see them very gradually swamped by a dark, alternative tradition – a then that becomes their now – too deeply rooted to be supplanted by progress or fashion. They have, it seems, encountered a sort of underground stream of occult murmuring unaffected by the bright and bustling surface world.

(Illustrations by Tim McDonagh for The Folio Society’s edition of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes.’)

 

For all the twists and turns of the narrative, the main reason I love this book is Bradbury’s prose. It is so rich, so ornate, so perfect for this macabre tale. I hope the short quotes embedded in this introduction give you a glimpse of the eerie poetry that suffuses the work. The style reminds me, somehow, of Jack Kerouac’s. It’s always on the verge of flight. They both, for example, explore the possibilities of prose raised up and reassembled by hyphenation. This can be a light touch, like Bradbury’s description of the character who yearns for a ‘lovely gliding ride-around summer’, or it can be more baroque, as when we meet the carnival dwarf, ‘his eyes like broken splinters of brown marble now bright-on-the-surface mad, now deeply mournfully forever-lost-and-gone-buried-away mad’. If I spend an hour reading this book, I notice, afterwards, the distinctive prose style informing my speech patterns, colouring my vocabulary, Bradbury-ing my sentence structure in some subtle way. Even my text messages become like fragments of ancient prophecy. More and more, they remain unanswered.

The truth is, generally speaking, I don’t see the point in telling, or reading, stories devoid of mystery and magic or intimations of magic, or future worlds or super powers. I need an alien, a dragon or an enigmatic lightning-rod salesman, bare minimum. If you want everyday life, go to the laundrette. I’ll stick with the carnival.

Frank Skinner

From The Folio Society’s edition of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ (available now), all rights reserved.