Something Wicked This Way Comes is a 1962 novel by Ray Bradbury. It is about two thirteen-year-old boys, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, who have a harrowing experience with a nightmarish carnival that comes to their Midwestern town one October. The carnival's leader is the mysterious "Mr. Dark" who bears a tattoo for each person who, lured by the offer to live out their secret fantasies, has become bound in service to the carnival. Mr. Dark's malevolent presence is countered by that of Will's father, Charles Halloway, who harbors his own secret desire to regain his youth.
The novel combines elements of fantasy and horror, analyzing the conflicting natures of good and evil, and on how they come into play between the characters and the carnival. Unlike many of Bradbury's other works, including the tangentially related Dandelion Wine, which are collections of loosely related short stories, Something Wicked This Way Comes can be considered a full-length novel with a consistent plot.
The novel originated in 1955 when Bradbury suggested to his friend Gene Kelly that they collaborate on a movie for Kelly to direct. He offered his 1948 short story The Black Ferris as an 80-page outline treatment. When Kelly was unable to obtain financial backing for the movie, Bradbury expanded the treatment to novel length. He converted the benign presence of Mr. Electrico into a more sinister one and incorporated several members he met at the same carnival with Mr. Electrico, including the Illustrated Man and the Skeleton Man.
Something Wicked This Way Comes can be interpreted as an autumn sequel to the summer of Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. The two works are set in the fictitious Green Town (based on Bradbury's hometown, Waukegan, Illinois), but have different tones, with Something Wicked having an emphasis on the more serious side of the transition from childhood to adulthood. While none of the characters in Dandelion Wine make an appearance in Something Wicked, William Halloway and Jim Nightshade can be viewed as one-year older representations of Dandelion Wine's Douglas Spaulding and John Huff, respectively. These two novels, coupled with Bradbury's official 2006 sequel to Dandelion Wine, Farewell Summer, make up the Green Town trilogy.
Later on in the night, Will and Jim discover a flier advertising the coming of "Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show," a traveling carnival with many wonders and delights. At exactly 3 a.m. (the supposed anti-hour of Christ's birth, and a sign of evil), the boys hear an old train rolling past their homes, and they follow it to watch the carnival being silently assembled.
When the sun has risen, Will and Jim head to the carnival. It appears to be an ordinary carnival — until Miss Foley, their grade school teacher, gets lost in a Mirror Maze, and claims that she saw a girl in there that looked just like her when she was young. The mystery surrounding the carnival deepens when, at sunset, the boys meet the flame-haired Cooger and Mr. Dark, an illustrated man covered in tattoos, in person next to an apparently broken-down carousel. When the boys hide in a tree to spy on them, they witness Cooger riding the carousel backwards 28, growing a year younger with each revolution, until he becomes a twelve-year-old child.
The boys learn that the twelve-year-old Cooger is posing as Miss Foley's nephew, trying to get her to ride the carousel. That night, Will begins to fear that Jim will attempt to ally with Cooger, realizing that if he rides the carousel forward, he can become an adult. His suspicions prove true; Cooger invites Jim to ride the carousel with him, but Will stops Jim by starting a fight with him. He also causes the carousel to spin madly forward, so that when it stops, Cooger becomes an extremely old and withered man.
Frightened, the boys tell the police what happened, but Dark at the carnival convinces them that Cooger's aging was an elaborate stunt of "Mr. Electrico." Will becomes frustrated when he realizes that Jim still hasn't completely renounced the carnival yet. When they get home, they learn that they have been accused by Miss Foley of stealing her jewelry, thanks to Cooger's scheming — a plot by the carnival to ensure that nobody will listen to them if they attempt to warn anybody about its dangers.
During that same night, a hot air balloon with the Dust Witch, a fortune-telling carnival member, is sent to find out and mark the location of the boys' homes. Will and Jim see the Witch leaving a huge splotch on the roof of Jim's house. After the Witch leaves, Will and Jim hastily wash the mark off. After Jim has returned to his bedroom, Will takes the initiative and lures the Witch to an abandoned house, puncturing her balloon with an arrow to ensure that she will not be able to scout them out for a while.
The next day, Will and Jim, while walking the streets, hear the sound of a little girl crying under a tree. Will recognizes the girl as a more youthful form of Miss Foley, and appears to be confirmed when he and Jim check her home and find it deserted. However, when they come back, they find that the girl has been picked up by the other carnival freaks, presumably after promising to restore her to her original age.
Aware that Dark and his followers are seeking them out, Will and Jim decide to hide from the carnival in town, so that the freaks will not follow them to their families. Charles Halloway, watching the carnival superficially parade (while in actuality scouting for Will and Jim), happens upon their hiding place in a gutter and manages to prevent Dark and the Dust Witch from finding them. After the freaks leave, Charles tells the boys to meet him in the library where he works, to discuss their plan on dealing with the carnival.
When they meet, Charles explains his views on the nature of the carnival, and how it preys on weak, sinful souls for energy. He says that the carnival was created by the "autumn people" to feed on the greediness and unhappiness of people; they entice people to ride the carousel by exploiting their fear of death. When the newly young (and miserable) people realize that they want to return back to their normal age, the carnival employs them to their line of freaks, probably for eternity.
In the middle of their discussion, they suddenly hear someone enter the library. The boys hide, and Charles finds that the visitor is Dark. Dark first attempts to seduce Charles into helping him in exchange for becoming young again. When Charles refuses, Dark crushes his left hand, and locates the boys at the back of the library. The Dust Witch comes in to "slow down" Charles' heart. She almost succeeds, but Charles suddenly laughs at the sight of her "tickling" him, and the Witch flees.
Charles chases after Dark who is leading the boys to the carnival. He volunteers to participate in a magic bullet catch act with the Witch, where he takes advantage of the freaks' fear of others' happiness by carving a smile on the wax bullet and shocking the Witch to death by firing it with Will standing by as his "good left hand."
As the carnival closes, Charles and Will run after Jim in the Mirror Maze. Charles almost gives way when he sees progressively older versions of himself in the mirrors, but when Will tells him that he doesn't care if he's old, he suddenly understands who he is, and professes his acceptance with a laugh, which shatters the Mirror Maze. In addition Mr. Cooger crumbles to dust when the Freaks attempt to rejuvinate him on the carousel.
The carnival is in disarray now, but Jim is successfully lured into stepping on the carousel. Will tries to pull him from the carousel, but ends up knocking Jim unconscious. Meanwhile, Charles is led away by a boy who claims that Dark frightened him, until Charles realizes that the boy himself is Dark, age-regressed by a carousel ride. He kills Dark by embracing him, knowing that he cannot endure love, and revives Jim by having Will and himself sing and dance away all misery, experiencing only pure joy. The novel ends with the two boys and Charles walking away in the night together as comrades, Charles having found self-acceptance.
As in Dandelion Wine, Bradbury infuses the novel with nostalgia for his childhood. However, Dandelion Wine better represents the idyllic days, whereas Something Wicked explores the darker nights, combining folk-tale characters with supernatural elements to relate otherwise fantastical and gothic-themed motifs to American daily life.
Charles, however, quickly sees that a ride on the carousel can have unforeseen circumstances, because changing age instantly would not change the mind. "If I made you twenty-five tomorrow, Jim, your thoughts would still be boy thoughts, and it'd show! Or if they turned me into a boy of ten this instant, my brain would still be fifty and that boy would act funnier and older and weirder than any boy ever. Because of this, a person who rode the carousel would be reformed only physically, with the same sins and emotions contained inside. Moreover, his new physical form, created unnaturally, would alienate him from his family and peers, leaving him with nowhere to turn to except for the carnival.
Charles best personifies this theme; while he is middle-aged in body, he is still youthful in mind and spirit. At first, he sees the two conflicting personas within him as irreconcilable and longs to be physically young too, but his active participation in toppling the carnival proves to him that mental fitness and perception of one's age is more important than physical health.
Ironically, Will and Jim can be said to have aged prematurely in the novel; the horrors of the carnival force them to grow up fast to be able to deal with its tricks on a knowledgeable level. Furthermore, Will and Jim do take a brief ride on the carousel before Will pulls Jim off, and they are never shown reversing this process before Charles destroys its machinations. Thus, it can be stated that they in fact grow up slightly. In this case, though, Will and Jim have also matured emotionally too, having had their first encounter with evil. This enables them to grow more proportionally in both physical and emotional status.
Charles Halloway is the character who learns the most about this; he initially views death as unpleasant and it thus becomes a sinister force to him that the Mirror Maze magnifies. However, Will's words of love help him to see that age does not matter if one focuses instead on the knowledge and affections gained with it, and as his fear vanishes, so does the Mirror Maze. He also is able to defeat the Dust Witch once he realizes that she does not have ultimate control over him. With his belief in her powers gone, he turns the tables on the Witch by instilling the same fear in her of his smile that he used to have of her magic.
It is implied that the counter force against this is acceptance of one's faults and an enthusiastic pursuit of the everyday joys of life, signified by Charles' simultaneous running with Jim and Will at the end of the novel. The fact that he is nearly forty years older than them pales in comparison to the pleasure he gets in partaking in simple human companionship.
The magazine Science Fiction Weekly published a review of the novel, an excerpt of it going as thus:
"A dark fantasy set in a small town, its people are brought to life so expertly readers feel very much like citizens ... even when their adopted hometown is menaced by outside forces against which it is helpless. Bradbury's prose is musical and hypnotic, fully engaging the senses and emotions. This is a book, once opened, that truly makes the real world disappear.
Science Fiction Crowsnest, another science fiction magazine and also one of the most popular European sci-fi websites, reviewed it with high praise, referring to it as a "Masterwork" with "a suitably fantastic and scary plot around colourful description...with hidden meanings, mysteries and symbols adding to the layers of tension.
The Denver Rocky Mountain News said in 1999, "If rational beings had created the 100 best books of the century list, this one would surely have been on it.
Something Wicked has influenced several fantasy and horror authors, the most prominent being Stephen King. The motif of ordinary people up against sinister, supernatural forces appears in many of King's works, including It and Dreamcatcher.
Bradbury's Pandemonium Theatre Company also debuted a play based on the novel in Los Angeles on October 1, 2003, directed by Alan Neal Hubbs, also associated with the 1970 stage adaptation of Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. The main cast was Grady Hutt as Will Halloway, J. Skylar Testa as Jim Nightshade, Jay Gerber as Charles Halloway, and Mark Aaron as Mr. Dark.
Critics gave the play generally favorable reviews, stating that it captured the lyricism and dark tone of the novel. They also praised its special effects, which included a carousel constructed of mirrors with actors as the horses, and Jay Gerber's effective performance as the aging Charles Halloway. Sharon Perlmutter of Talkin' Broadway, though, said that the bland performances of Hutt and Tests as the two lead characters detracted from the otherwise impressive acting and staging.
Something Wicked This Way Comes was produced as a full-cast radio play by the Colonial Radio Theatre on the Air, and released by Blackstone Audio on October 1, 2007. Ray Bradbury wrote the script, modified for audio from his stage play. The cast includes Jerry Robbins as Mr. Halloway, J.T. Turner as Mr. Dark, Anastas Varinos as Will Halloway, and Matthew Scott Robertson as Jim Nightshade. This production was directed by Nancy Curran Willis, music was by Jeffrey Gage, and post-production was by Chris Snyder.
Stephen King's novel Needful Things takes most of its plot from Something Wicked, transposing Mr. Dark and his carnival into Leland Gaunt and his antique store, the titular Needful Things. Gaunt sells people items that they have been secretly desiring for what they see as ridiculously low prices — only to pay the ultimate price with their souls.
King also mentions the novel in his The Dead Zone as an acknowledgment of Bradbury's contribution to his genre, and even echoes the beginning scene of Something Wicked by referring to a lightning-rod salesman in a chapter titled "Dark Carnival" after another Bradbury work.
An adaption of Something Wicked This Way Comes was the main feature of a Halloween-themed The Simpsons comic.
The Thief Lord (Both the book and the movie) by Cornelia Funke focuses on a magical carousel that age a person forwards or backwards depending of whether they ride a sea or land animal.
Jakob Dylan recorded a song called "Something Good This Way Comes" on his 2008 album "Seeing Things."
The first episode of the tv-series Charmed is called "Something Wicca this way comes".
The phrase "Something wicked, this way comes," was used in a chorus/hook for the Tupac Shakur (2Pac) song called "Something Wicked" on the album 2Pacalypse Now released in 1991.
The 1994 concept album The Last Temptation by shock rocker Alice Cooper as well as the accompanying 4 part comic series by Neil Gaiman borrow several elements from the novel, something that is referenced by Gaiman as the novel is being studied in Steven's class at school in the days just before Halloween.
British rock band Barclay James Harvest also use the phrase "Something wicked this way comes" on the song Lady Macbeth, which appears on their 1990 album Welcome to the Show.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as the students return to school for the fall the Hogwart's choir ends their welcome concert with "Something Wicked This Way Comes."