Thursday, August 28, 2014

"Something Wicked This Way Comes," by Ray Bradbury

Young people want to be older. Older people want to be young.

It's an old story. It's life. Every teenager knows it well. They feel it in their bones, the constant rage at a world where everyone is trying to tell them what to do; the hunger for that seemingly-infinitely-distant day when they'll be able to drive a car, buy alcohol, vote, move out, make decisions, be happy. But teenagers see the other side of it: the adults who ache to be young again, who are trapped in miserable lives and punish young people for their youth and freedom and the possibility that maybe they'll be able to make their own dreams come true.

Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes is a masterpiece of dark fantasy, about a mysterious carnival that comes to town, run by a man named Dark, who can give you what you most want - at a terrible price. If you're old, a ride on his magic carousel can make you young again.Young... and monstrous. And if you're young, the carousel can make you older.

It's the story of two boys, best friends, thirteen years old - inches away from fourteen - who are poised at the perilous brink of becoming men. Will Halloway is a bookworm, fond of reading about the big wide world but not in too much of a hurry to get there. His friend Jim Nightshade, on the other hand, already has his heart set on grown-up things. There's a darkness in Jim, and that's what the carnival calls out to.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is a scary book, full of eerie scenes and unwholesome imagery and breath-stopping suspense. It's a beautiful book, written in stark raving nonstop poetry, like this moment where Will finally figures out what Jim wants:

"He heard the merry-go-round motioning, gliding on black night waters around, around, and Jim on a black stallion riding off and about, circling in tree-shadow and he wanted to cry out, Look! the merry-go-round! You want it to go forward, don't you, Jim? forward instead of back! And you on it, around once and you're fifteen, circling and you're sixteen, three times more and nineteen! music! and you're twenty and off, standing tall! not Jim any more, still thirteen, almost fourteen on the empty midway, with me small, me young, me scared!

The story of the evil man who comes to town promising to make dreams come true but only ends up making nightmares has been done since, in books like Stephen King's Needful Things - and even in episodes of South Park ("Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes") and Rick & Morty ("Something Ricked this way comes"). But the story has never been told this beautifully, and has never felt so raw and mythic.

Mostly, this is a story all teen readers can relate to, because it's about growing apart from your childhood best friend. It's about the process of realizing that the purest and fiercest friendship, strong enough to survive any trauma, might perish simply because you're both growing into different people.

While its protagonists are thirteen/fourteen, Something Wicked This Way Comes will have the deepest impact on readers of fifteen or sixteen. Because they've already taken a turn or two on the carousel, and stand on the far side of the gulf between Will and Jim, and can identify both with Jim's lust for experience and Will's appreciation of the innocence and freedom that only children enjoy. The true heartbreaking poignancy of Something Wicked This Way Comes can only be experienced by young people old enough to know that there are no magic carousels, and once they've left childhood behind they can never go back.

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