Thursday, October 30, 2014

This is Halloween: Something Wicked This Way Comes

The gray, glowering skies of late October have arrived, along with sharp winds and falling leaves. The far-off rattle and thump of a high school band floats through the night, signifying a football game being battled out. Flyers and billboards flog a multitude of haunted houses horrifying their willing victims. Leering pumpkins, grinning scarecrows, and moldering zombies frozen mid-lurch haunt the yards of the suburbs. Still, cold nights have the faint, furtive sounds of leaves falling in darkened woods, evoking thoughts of skulking spirits. No other time of the year so readily offers such sinister imagery.

Few books I've ever read truly capture the mood of this time of year as thoroughly as Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Much of this comes from Bradbury's style: lush, moody, and evocative. He conjures a world of idyllic innocence, into which shadows creep almost unnoticed. Those shadows come from within, though, seeping up out of the depths of our souls, hidden fears and suppressed wishes that can be drawn forth by those who know, instinctively, our weaknesses that we dwell upon in the dark hours. They know them because they also have them, embracing them and gazing directly at them, becoming warped and hateful and manipulative, thriving on the negative energy that radiates forth. This is Bradbury's power, the ability to plumb the murk of nightmares and existential terror, while still retaining a faith in our essential strengths.

Bradbury's writing in this book clutches at my heart. It's like looking back at my own youth, viewing the past through nostalgia's soft-focus lens, with a darkening of that lens casting a sinister light on memories. I've read the book a few times throughout my life, the first time when I was the age of the two protagonists, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, and most recently as I now approach the age of Will's father. While my perspective has changed, the same sense of melancholy, the same feeling of fighting, at best, a holding action against time, has persisted with each reading, growing more acute and clear as I've aged. Bradbury was able to touch upon something even more terrifying than the undead and unstoppable slashers: the unavoidable and ever-approaching reality of our mortality.

This is a story of life and aging. Will and Jim, born minutes apart, with Will born just before Halloween, and Jim born just after it had arrived, are polar opposites. Will is the light and Jim the dark. Jim is always looking to the future, wishing away his years to gain an adulthood he most desires to experience. Will is content to live his years as they are given him, experiencing the now, perhaps in order to create memories, but most importantly, to live life as it is meant to be lived: in the present. Charles Halloway, Will's father, lives in the past, longing for the youth his son owns now, prowling the library at which he is a custodian, searching among the stacks for some bit of wisdom that forever eludes him. It is the story of the eternal conflict within us all: when young, we race to get older, to finally become the adult we know will finally unlock the secrets we felt were hidden from us; when older, we reach for the youth we once had, finally realizing that the secrets were never really secret, but held within us all along.

The plot here is of secondary importance. A dark carnival train arrives in a small Illinois town in the middle of the night, just prior to Halloween. Jim and Will begin to see the truth of the traveling show as more and more people fall prey to the promising lies of Dark and Cooger, owners of the carnival. There is a swirl of nightmares made manifest, with unsettling parades and chilling sideshow performers and an evilly enticing midway drawing in more and more townsfolk. Mr. Dark is a menacing presence, with a hidden fury barely suppressed as he threatens Jim and Will and Will's father. Dark is, essentially, a bully, intimidating those who allow themselves to be intimidated...much like the real dark. The struggle here is with our own doubts and fears, our propensity to surrender to false hopes in order to stave off the always-encroaching ultimate darkness.

This is a book that is experienced more than it is read. Bradbury's lyrical prose leads us down an evening path, his words like guiding stars, a comforting beauty through a looming horror laying just at the edge of our awareness. This is Halloween to me, a more adult, somber Halloween, that sits with me long after the book is read and the day has passed.

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