The first time I visited America was as a guest at the grandiose twentieth anniversary Doctor Who convention in Chicago in 1983. One of my vague hopes on accepting this invitation was that I might get to visit the nearby town of Waukegan, Illinois, where the writer Ray Bradbury spent his childhood and which was fictionalized as Greentown in his novels ‘Dandelion Wine’ and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. Needless to say no such visit came about. Someone told me that in fact Bradbury’s Waukegan no longer existed, the modern town being just another suburb with a highway and a McDonalds. Ah well.
At that time I was very, very, very into Ray Bradbury’s work, and had been for several years. I first came to him at about fifteen, which is the perfect age to make his acquaintance if you happen to be a dreamy and impractical lad with somewhat gothic propensities. And if you take to him you will vacuum up his work in great quantities: you never meet a person who has read only one of his books. He is likely to be a lastingly important writer for his readers in one key respect: he is often the first writer they fall in love with not only for his characters or settings or ideas but for his voice: everyone who loves him loves him for the way he writes. This is a transition from the bald narrative of popular escapism to something subtler, more suggestive, more magical, more imagistic, more – I hesitate to use the word – more literary. It is not only the meat of the stories, it is (as the old comedian puts it) the way he tells them. If when you were a kid your parents grumbled that you only read rubbish, you would give them Bradbury to demonstrate that science fiction writers could really write.
And I liked ‘the way he told them’ so much I read everything I could get my hands on. The major works of the fifties. ‘The Martian Chronicles’, ‘Dandelion Wine’, ‘The Small Assassin’. Oh, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ of course. The then newish books too: ‘The Halloween Tree’, ‘The Machineries of Joy’, ‘Long After Midnight’.
And, perhaps with the greatest pleasure of all, his most personal work, ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, the unique novel of a small town visited at dead of night by a ghostly carnival, ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’:
“First of all it was October, a rare month for boys… And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
“But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early…”
At the heart of the novel are two thirteen-year old boys, “touching towards fourteen,” Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, but Will is still a child and Jim is reaching for adulthood, women, sex. Will knows that when this happens he will lose Jim, fears he is already beginning to do so.
Into the lives of these children and into the lives of all the town comes a weird carnival, appearing by train out of the blue late at night, and magically building itself in the meadow outside town without human help. Late October is beyond the usual season for carnivals, which come in summer, but this one brings ‘the Autumn people’, freaks and witches and a magical carousel which, run backwards, can make old women young again and, run forwards, will make children of thirteen older…
For British children, the carnivals which so fired Bradbury’s imagination were foreign and exotic and spooky. The Carnival of Monsters notwithstanding, we had no such thing. By the time I was reading about them, Americans probably didn’t either but I could not be sure. We had fairs, where we ate candy floss and rode bumper cars and went on roundabouts. We had circuses, where clowns in long shoes and make-up threw pies at each other and acrobats leapt from rope ladder to rope ladder high up near the roof of the tent. There were even lion tamers. At seaside towns there were piers with roller coasters and fortune tellers in gypsy caravans. But a carnival, with its freaks and its mirror maze and Mr Electrico and its Illustrated Man was, to us, much more bizarre and suggestive. ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’: Bloody hell, that sounds cool. No one would bother sliding down ivy to go to a fair, but the idea of climbing out your bedroom window and shucking down ivy to sneak off to a carnival savours of adventure .
‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is a book to which I have returned many times, picking it up again every few years. I have read it in different frames of mind. I have read it day by day, one chapter at a time, lingering over paragraphs. I have read all fifty-five brief chapters in a day. I read it first as a story of the supernatural, I have read it as a metaphor of the pleasure/terror boys have on the cusp of puberty and adulthood. I have read it as a fable of frustrated lives in small towns, of the inability of different generations to understand each other, alternately of the possibility that they might. I have read it as a fable of the fear of death and also of acceptance of it.
The first time I read it I loved and believed every poetic word, every evocative sentence. It gave me the illusion that all my senses were operating. When there is a ghostly whisper, you the reader hear the whisper, you smell the bonfire smoke, you see the garish carousel horses.it is this quality of sensual conjuring I admire most in fiction and towards which I aim in my own writing. If you spoke Bradbury’s phrases aloud they sounded great, even felt great as you shaped them.
I do not think in all my many revisits to the book that I have ever failed to enjoy it but I did begin to wonder whether it was overwrought, whether it would have been even better if more stylistically disciplined. I have just read it again after ten years – the longest gap I’ve had between rereadings – and I see I was wrong about this. ‘Something Wicked’ has a sort of idiosyncratic perfection because its imperfections are so much a part of its fabric and texture that, without them, not only would it be a completely different book, it would be a smaller one, a more ordinary one. Bradbury is so intoxicated by his own word drunkenness that the reader is intoxicated too. It makes the book feel monumental. It is in the manner of the writing that much of the energy, the madness, the shadowiness, come. Call it poetic if you want, call it purple if you want. If you are open to it, it works. It is by encasing him in such whirligig prose that Mr. Dark, The Illustrated Man, becomes such a convincing embodiment of Autumn and evil and death.
In 1983 a film version appeared. This had been a long time coming. ‘Something Wicked’ has its origins in a short story of the 40s called ‘The Black Ferris’ but it really came to life in the fifties as a film treatment for Gene Kelly. Kelly was unable to raise money to make it, which is why Bradbury turned it into a novel. But he continued to tinker with a film version: he produced a screenplay in the mid 1970s. It finally got made when Disney, trying in the early eighties to break into grown-up films, decided this dark fantasy would do the trick.
The making of it was by all accounts chaos. The director Jack Clayton, under pressure from Disney, hired John ‘Rumpole’ Mortimer to do a rewrite job on Bradbury’s script and this didn’t sit well with Bradbury. After some bad previews major re-editing occurred, the cutting of whole scenes and the shooting of new ones, and the scrapping of the entire original score by Georges Delerue, a new, more straightforward score – at Bradbury’s instigation, apparently – being commissioned from James Horner. The impression I have is that Jack Clayton had produced an art house film with Disney money and there were pretty desperate attempts to turn it into something Multiplex cinema goers could cope with. They didn’t achieve this: the existing work is a very odd piece of cinema indeed. Hollywood is all about cookie cutter material: see what is making money and reproduce it over and over again. It is very rare for a visitor to a Hollywood film to say they’ve never seen anything like it before because they have, countless times. Of ‘Something Wicked’ it can truly be said, you’ve never seen anything like it. It got pretty tepid, sometimes hostile reviews. Not every critic got it wrong: I remember a guy on radio Four’s arts programme Kaleidoscope being tremendously enthusiastic and expressing his hope that it would not get lost. But it withered at the box office. (Recently, a brilliant, literate film rendering of one of Bradbury’s childhood heroes, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, died a similarly unjust critical and commercial death. Summer audiences sat through The Avengers instead, which was silly of them. Ironically John Carter was also a Disney production.)
Me, I loved Clayton’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. If I was the kind of person who makes lists I’m sure it would be in my top ten favourite movies. I saw it eight or ten times during the few weeks it was in cinemas.
For me, it captures, not all the narrative details of course, but the essence of the book beautifully. A number of changes are made. The Dust Witch, in the novel an old hag of the classic type, in the film is a beautiful if creepy woman in black. The key scene in the novel where the witch in a wicker balloon basket flies over Jim’s house to mark it so it can be located by Mr. Dark is replaced by a more orthodox but effective nightmare sequence featuring two hundred tarantulas. The ending is quite different and, it must be said, much simplified and less interesting, but climactically effective in movie terms.
But I am not the kind of audience member who gets into a stew about faithfulness to the source. No adaptation can be merely a reworking into another medium of the object it is adapted from. It must be a new piece, it must stand as a work of art in its own right, and to my mind ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ does. One of the challenges of a story where the central characters are children is that, on film, it is likely to become an entertainment for children, which is a very different thing. Anybody who has seen any of the numerous movie versions of ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ knows this. Jack Clayton had already avoided this pitfall with his version of Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’, and there’s nothing in ‘Something Wicked’ of the children’s film. I’m sure a twelve year old could enjoy it but it doesn’t condescend to him.
Its rhythms are unusual. It manages to be simultaneously leisurely and tight, coming in at hardly more than ninety minutes, packed with incident and yet with the contours of dream as much as of adventure. Its reliance on atmospherics and suggestion – an empty town square, papers caught by the wind – at a time when horror and gothic films were becoming increasingly graphic succeeds because it actually is so bracingly atmospheric. It damn near achieves a visual equivalent of Bradbury’s prose style.
It has the quietness one imagines of small town American life of the thirties with its undercurrents of frustration and darkness, about which the film is unflinching. It is straight-forward about Jim’s yearning for adulthood, his curiosity about sex, his desire for it and fear of it.
The film is sublimely well played. Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark is brilliant, chilling and alien and haunting, his tremulous voice with its undercurrent of threat stranger still for its eerie, elegant classical intonation. Mr. Dark’s repellant vividity comes partly from the odd gentleness of Jonathan Pryce’s reading. Jason Robards is terrific as Will’s unhappy father, mildly depressed, prematurely aged, passing his time alone in the library. Shawn Carson and Vidal Peterson as the boys Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway are absolutely real kids.
There are stunning set pieces throughout: the opening sequence of the empty, driverless train whistling through the night, the discovery by the seller of lightning rods of the Dust Witch in a coffin of ice in a closed down store. The eerie parade of the carnival through the town, searching out the two hiding children. Mr. Dark and the witch stalking the children through the town library at three in the morning, the time more people die than any other, their black magic slowing Mr Halloway’s heart to near death. The shallowness of the towns folk’s apparent contentment, the ex-ball player barman, the aging school teacher, the greedy owner of the cigar store, and their pockets of obsession: women, money, youth, beauty, eventually paying the price of their come true dreams.
Just as there is no book quite like the novel, there is no other film quite like this.
I must say, though, that I wish it was possible to see the film Jack Clayton originally made, not to substitute it for this film, which I love, but as an alternative. We are not talking here of the cynical ‘director’s cut’, bonus scenes, the detritus of DVD extras. We are talking about a different, completed film. I wonder if the vast amount of cut footage still exists? At the moment there is no evidence of sufficient interest in the piece to warrant such a reconstruction, but one pleasing recent development is the release on CD of Delerue’s abandoned film score, which it turns out is magnificent, darker, more complex, more intense, less Hollywood.
It’s common for writers of fantasy fiction to do their best work when comparatively young, and after the fifties masterpieces and 1962’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ Bradbury had essentially said what he had to say. Being the outstanding professional writer that he was, he continued to produce books regularly for 40 years, many of them beautiful, pleasurable, memorable, but they veer sometimes into a depressing American sugariness. One of his earliest and best story collections was titled, after a line of Yeats, ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun,’ and it is hard not to feel sympathy for the writer who described his late collection ‘The Toynbee Convector’ as ‘The Golden Delicious Apples of the Sun.’ Also, he took a sideways step into poetry. I can’t decide whether I think this was brave of him or foolish, but it wasn’t his natural mode of expression.
Young, imaginative readers will I’m certain continue to be enthralled by the books of the fifties, but will probably not in big numbers gobble up the detective novels of the eighties, ‘Death is a Lonely Business’ and ‘A Graveyard for Lunatics’, much as I like them. Bradbury spent a good part of the eighties and early nineties adapting 65 of his stories into TV plays for a series on HBO called ‘The Ray Bradbury Theatre’. The entire run is easily found on DVD, and it’s variable but well worth seeing, not least for the utterly breathtaking performance by Mary Morris in ‘There Was an Old Woman.’ In the last decade or so of his life a kind of stocktaking took place, perfectly reasonable for an aging writer of Ray Bradbury’s quality, whereby small presses produced incredibly expensive, luxurious limited editions, leather-bound and tray-cased, pleasing to look at but sometimes consisting of barrel-scrapings.
But none of this matters, because, if you are the right reader, once Bradbury has captured your imagination his distinctive and intense vision will never quite leave it. Even if you have not opened his books for many years, or you have opened them again and found them purpler than suits your taste, he will, at odd moments, cross your mind. Maybe just because it’s a windy October day, because you hear some calliope music in the distance or you see boys swimming in a lake, or you see an old-fashioned barber shop pole.
Or a Jack o’Lantern will do it. I make good Jack o’Lanterns and I always think of Bradbury while carving.
Or maybe there’s a reference to Mars on the news.
Any of these can bring this marvelous writer back to you.