For our Witch Week readalong this year, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, I wanted to jump start the discussion with some other bloggers, and I was so grateful that Chris of Calmgrove and Brian of Babbling Books agreed to join me. Their thoughts greatly enhanced my own enjoyment of the book, and I’m delighted to be able to share them with you.
What follows is an edited version of our nine pages of commentary — you can view the full discussion here if you want more!
If you’ve read the book, please join the conversation in the comments, or link up your own reviews on the Master Post.
What were your first impressions?
Lory: At first, I was afraid this would be one of those books where I was not sure what was going on. And I did not make an immediate connection to the boys, finding it a bit hard to get into what was evidently a “boy’s book.”
Chris: I started to read this once in the past but stalled after a few chapters. This time, I’m going with the flow rather than straining to get at the narrative. As with a lot of magic realism I find I have to forget a factual reflection of everyday things and accept any dreamlike images. This is also at times pure prose poetry, wonderful metaphors and language (the train comparisons for example are quite striking).
Brian: I continue to love the prose and the imagery. Though I am able to follow most of what is going on in many places, like Lory, some passages baffle me. The woman in the coffin is a good example of this.
As for relatability, this is a major aspect to this story for me. The first time I read this book I think that I was around the boys’ age. Their lives so reminded me of my own. I lived in a semi-rural area, spent much of my time outside mostly socializing with a single friend. I also was very much into books and could also be found at the library.
This is now my third reading. I am three years short of Charles Halloway’s age. Wow!
Lory: As I got more into the story, I found that the fantastical images seemed to be playing with themes of time and decay and death. Adults who want to go back in time, children who grow up too fast. The intellectually driven wish to avoid death is what ends up creating everlasting death. “For whoever wants to save his life shall lose it.” Jim and Will, polar opposites who are also inseparable friends, are drawn into this struggle.
I do find this a very masculine book. I do not say this as a criticism, but the “lens” Bradbury looks through is very much a male point of view. The feminine is portrayed as mysterious, inaccessible, unknowable; female characters are seen from outside while male characters are seen from the inside.
That said, as I continued reading I saw how Will and Jim represent two sides of human nature, regardless of gender.
Chris: I absolutely agree, Lory, with your analysis of Bradbury’s portrayal of the feminine mystique, perhaps unsurprising for many males in an early 60s context.
Granted that this is a take on his boyhood experiences — as Bradbury’s 1999 afterword makes clear — perhaps it’s vain hoping for anything different? I think your ability to relate to the boys’ experiences, Brian, probably back this up; my suburban upbringing in the UK only slightly overlapped yours and the boys’, though I also had only one or two ‘friends’ and spent inordinate time in the local library.
Brian: I think that Lory’s analysis of the themes of life and death contained in this book are spot on. It is helping me wrap my head around some of the imagery and plot developments which still seem puzzling in parts.
Without a doubt this is a masculine book, as is apparent in the experiences of the boys but also in Charles Halloway’s experiences. As Chris points out, this was emblematic of many writers of that era, and it was also characteristic of science fiction writers for decades. With that, in my opinion, as Lory points out, there are universal themes within this work that apply to everyone.
Chris: The more I read the more I realised that this isn’t just about Bradbury having a retrospective about his childhood self but also about his present and future self. He was 42 when the novel was first published, and perhaps starting to feel his age (hence the nostalgic feel to the boys’ experiences) and anticipating what it might be like to be an ‘old’ man — though with Charles only in his fifties, I, in my late 60s, feel that he’s still a stripling!
In the middle of the book, Charles Halloway starts to play a more important role. How did this change the dynamic of the story?
Lory: I was glad that Will and his dad were finally talking to one another. I felt that this coming together of the generations, of two sides of the young/old split, could be what’s needed to counteract the evil forces.
I appreciate that Bradbury writes with deeper philosophical questions underlying the story, but without definitive answers, only suggestions, directions, evocative phrases that make us ask our own questions.
Brian: I agree with you Lory, the father and son appear to be coming together and Bradbury is examining all kinds of similarities and contrasts. It seems that one thing that they are doing is delving into some of the mysteries of life. On one level I think that is what all three of the main characters are doing in this book.
I would add as a side note: As an adolescent, or an adult, I could not but help but love a serious book filled with philosophical musing, that also includes a passage where a teenager uses his archery set to shoot down a balloon piloted by an evil witch.
Chris: Let’s consider all those circular references — clock faces, air balloons, carousels, full moons — symbolic of time, eternity, no fixed starting or ending points, all possibly related back to what you, Lory, have already picked up on: “The intellectually driven wish to avoid death is what ends up creating everlasting death.” We can’t go back, but we fear what is to come and bewail our powerlessness to avoid it.
Lory: There are so many references to time and clocks in the book – it would be interesting to make a list. Books and libraries are another theme — books being one magnificent way to beat time.
Chris: I had great fun imagining the clockface of books Charles had drawn up, trying to work out what open books went where and in what relationship to each other. All the titles and subjects pick up on many of the themes and images that the novel is steeped in, and I couldn’t help wondering that one non-metropolitan town could have so many obscure — even occult – titles.
Lory: You are right, Chris, that is one interesting collection for a small town library in Illinois! It seems to be a sort of portal to the Library, the great repository of archetypal thoughts and images. A good example of how Bradbury mixes the mundane and fantastic in this book.
Brian: The entire library sounds magnificent! Definitely not typical of a small town.
It is also interesting how Charles has become the story’s philosopher. He seems to be the voice of Bradbury. I love his theories on the origins of good and evil.
Lory: Seeing the evil for what it is — trumpery that we give power through our own fear and self-doubt. Laughter restores perspective, helps us to stand outside a situation we were drowning in and see that we are more than that. Whatever we can smile at cannot really defeat us.
Chris: All those clichés — laughter is the best medicine, laughing in the face of death, laugh and the world laughs with you — epitomise one of the leitmotivs here: good humour, mirthfulness and optimism are the enemies of the forces that want to drag you down to despair and death.
Brian: I keep thinking how Ray Bradbury’s reverence for books and ideas, manifested in Fahrenheit 451, is also apparent in the library passages of this book. Not just in the collection and selection of books, but also in the dialog between Charles Halloway and Mr. Dark. Though Mr. Dark initially seems to triumph over the “ideas” contained in books, we see that it is ideas, and good humor, that are in the end, stronger.
Lory: There’s one of the most cinematic scenes of the book here, when the images disappear from the Illustrated Man and all of the tents are collapsing. It would make some wonderful visuals.
The ending seemed to me to express joy as the creative force in the world — which I found a refreshing conclusion after the scenes of suspense and horror. The joining of old and young at the end, trumping the chronological schemes of Mr. Dark, was also satisfying.
Brian: I agree, the ending was a great relief. Mr. Dark was so malicious, it was good to see him fall.
I liked Charles’s comment – “We got to watch out the rest of our lives. The fight’s just begun.” I cannot help wondering if Charles and the boys faced more perils in the future. I am generally against sequels to classic works so I think I am glad that Bradbury never wrote one. But I like to imagine.
Chris: The ending reminded me so much of how humour was used in Britain (and the States, no doubt) to lampoon the nightmare that was Hitler and the Nazi war machine. When you can sing songs and laugh at ridiculing cartoons during days that really are dark then you nurture hope and imagine a future that can be less bleak.
Of course the most obvious strand to the novel is Bradbury’s paean to the small town of his youth, with the library as the pagan temple that he worships at. As Lory points out, love and friendship are also the pillars that matter most where people are concerned. I’m so glad to have finally read this.
“Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did … This a factory of spies from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered.” —from Chapter 2, a description of the Library