Following yesterday’s major release day for SF Gateway, when we added over 100 titles to our offering, we have a special treat. Published today, all on its lonesome as befits one of the greatest works of fantasy of all time, is none other than Ray Bradbury’s wonderful, darkly nostalgic masterpiece, Something Wicked This Way Comes ! We’re thrilled to be publishing this modern classic in eBook; many of the Gollancz team have previously praised the book over at the Gollancz blog, so rather than subject you to a repeat, we thought we’d give you a double dose of our new SFX Book Club feature and allow the excellent Dan Abnett to sing its praises . . .
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES Ray Bradbury
Though it would be an unfair generalisation to suggest that the great SF authors of the mid 20th century tended to be grand masters of idea and imagination rather than written technique and prose style, any readers encountering Ray Bradbury’s work are immediately aware that they are in the hands of a writer whose talent would stand out in any genre. Ray Bradbury is a great writer, full stop. His vocabulary is static-charged and luminous, his pacing deft and theatrical, his tone vivid and intoxicating. Not for nothing, when it came to handing out the soubriquets, was Ray Bradbury dubbed the poet laureate of SF.
That’s not to say that a reader comes to Ray Bradbury for fine writing rather than good ideas. Genre-defining concepts fill Bradbury’s backlist – in such novels as The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, and short stories such as “A Sound Of Thunder” – despite the fact that Bradbury himself eschews the label “science fiction” for all his works (except Fahrenheit 451), preferring the term “fantasy”.
Something Wicked This Way Comes is undoubtedly fantasy, to which one would add the tags “horror”, “mystery” and “urban”. It is his most famous work thanks, perhaps, to the goose-bumping Macbeth quote it uses as a title, and while it might not be his very best (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 and Dandelion Wine surpass it, in my opinion), it nevertheless represents a perfect key text.
Unlike several of his other famous books, which are ingeniously engineered orchestrations of individual stories, Something Wicked was composed as a novel. Set in a small, midwestern town during one fulminous October, it tells the story of two 13-year-old boys and their nightmarish encounter with a travelling carnival. All of Bradbury’s fundamental themes are present, and deployed to maximum effect: Halloween, autumn, childhood, magic, books, electricity, showmanship, freaks and nostalgia. It is murky, gaudy and mysteriously sinister, an autumnal almost-sequel to the halcyon summer of his Dandelion Wine. It is about temptation and the loss of childhood, the effort of adolescence to achieve adulthood, and the struggle of maturity to recapture youth. It is filled with grotesque and macabre characters, none greater than Mr Dark, a carnival showman covered in tattoos. Dark is a rare, Faustian figure, a truly malevolent presence. Bradbury’s freakshow residents, grotesques and carny folk are often the most human and sympathetic characters in his stories.
Something Wicked is Norman Rockwell reflected by the distorting mirrors of a funfair. It is Edward Hopper and Grant Wood working on the same canvas. It is Walt Disney’s Freaks and Tod Browning’s Dumbo. It is an EC horror comic drawn by Charles M Schulz. It is an intense distillation of Bradbury’s trademark fiction, which is autobiographical, in as much as it celebrates and yearns for an imagined small-town Americana. The influence of his vision has permeated popular culture, from the midwestern childhood and magical funfair fascinations of Spielberg, and Stephen King in such places as It to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman cycle, movies like Big, and even the Pixar films. The subgenre of urban fantasy has Bradbury foursquare in the roots of its family tree, and Bradbury’s own dissatisfaction with genre labels might be appeased by thinking of him as a pioneer of North American magical realism.
Real magic underlies everything. Bradbury confesses that he would have been a magician if writing hadn’t worked out, though one wonders whether he means sideshow huckstering or true sorcery. He claims his writing career was jumpstarted when, at the age of 12, he was enjoined to “Live forever!” by a carnival entertainer called Mr Electrico, who wielded a sparking sword as a wand. It is hard to escape the feeling that one of the boys in Something Wicked is 12-year-old Ray himself, wide-eyed in simultaneous horror and exhilaration, his hair standing on end.
This piece was written by Dan Abnett and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.
Dan Abnett is an award-winning comic book writer and New York Times bestselling novelist. Find him at www.danabnett.com, follow him on twitter at @vincentabnett and read more about him at his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.