October is my favorite month of the year. The month where the blast-furnace heat of summer has finally departed, where the days are shorter, the air crisper, the autumnal colors exploding everywhere. Where I can wear that jacket that makes me look cool.
And of course, October is Halloween month. Not day – month. That’s when I turn my personal preferences in media – film, TV, books – changes to the strange, the dark, the unusual. Halloween is the one holiday-that-isn’t that everyone is free to celebrate in his/her/their own way.
I would argue that to know the truly inherent kindness of people, look to Halloween. That one night of the year where people will decorate their homes and give out candy to children with promise of nothing in return other than spreading about a little bit of magic and wonder before the long, dark onset of winter. Unlike Christmas and Easter and the religious holidays Halloween is for everyone. There’s no agenda, no moralizing – well, except for the religulous (NOT a typo) types who loudly – always loudly – proclaim we’re going to hell for giving some snack-size M&Ms to a kid dressed as Peppa Pig.
Halloween month for me is always a magical time. It always has been, from when I was a young tyke in a home-made Darth Vader costume cobbled together from Glad trash bags and a store-bought mask, to a teenager whose Halloween night meant watching horror movies with friends, to the now parent of a child who anticipates Trick or Treating with almost as much delight as his father does.
Yet October represents another seasonal moment in my life, recurrent since I was around twelve going on thirteen, as October is the month I will inevitably drag out my old paperback copy of this book for an annual reread:
Something Wicked This Way Comes is the book I’ve read more than any other. Something Wicked may be my favorite book solely because it’s had an outsized influence on my own writing. Not directly (though it is referenced in Magicians Impossible) but thematically.
Looking at my work (Mixtape in particular), Something Wicked is the one that’s left the deepest mark. Not for the magic and mystery, nor the terrors of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, its hall of mirrors, its Dust Witch, its cursed carousel.
No, it’s for the central relationships in the novel.
I’ve been thinking of Something Wicked a lot lately for many reasons, not the least of which was a trip back home over the summer that saw us driving through the small town where I lived out my teenage years (the same town that became basis for Garrison Creek – the town where Mixtape is set). There’s something about revisiting the places of your youth; the places you couldn’t wait to leave, only to now wish, in some small way, you could return to. As Teo Stone in Magicians Impossible described, “You spend half your life trying to run away from home and the rest of your life trying to run back to it.”
Seeing my old stomping grounds was an experience. A sad one in some ways. The old town hasn’t done so well in the years since I lived there. Factories closed, people moved. Indeed it is one of a select number of small-to-mid-sized towns in that part of the country that experienced negative population growth. When I lived there in the late 80s and early 90s its population sat at around 21,000 people. Today in 2022 its population sits at … around 22,000 people. That’s thirty years of negative growth. People grew up, they moved away, and the aging population just … left. Some relocated, some moved, some passed away.
In a way I wish I hadn’t visited it at all. I wanted to preserve the memory of what it was, not what it had become. The same feeling carried itself with me when I was able to reconnect with some high school friends during that same holiday, the six of us convening at a patio in Toronto’s west end. It had been years since I’d seen any of them – one I hadn’t seen or spoken to in nearly 25 years. The last time that group had all been together at the same time in the same place would have been the night before we all left that small-town for the big city, for college, for the beginnings of our adult lives. THAT particular night had occurred almost 30 years earlier to the date we met again on the Danforth.
It was a fun gathering but again, a little sad. Thirty years ago we were all teenagers at the beginning of our adult lives. Thirty years from now, well, the odds are good we won’t all be here anymore. Hard and sad but true. The fact that over the past year a good half-dozen people I’ve known or known of have passed away really hits hard. People I went to school with. Spouses and parents of friends and colleagues, and people even closer than that
Something Wicked is about that impulse as stated by Teo Stone – that we spend half our lives trying to run away from home and the rest of those lives trying to run back to it in some fashion, right down to those childhood touchstones – the movies, the books, the music – that got us through those sometimes difficult times. It’s about looking past the borders of your home, your neighborhood, your small little piece of the world, anxiously stepping over that threshold, only to look back and see that single step has carried you miles from there. In distance. In years. In experience.
On the surface, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story principally of two thirteen year-old friends, Jim and Will, and their harrowing experiences with the mysterious and enigmatic Mr. Dark of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. However, the novel also touches on several of the townsfolk of Green Town, Illinois, who all must struggle with one of the oldest conflicts known to humankind; a deal too good to be true. A devil’s bargain. It’s the story of Faust, set in Depression-era America. A place that, at the time of Something Wicked‘s publication in 1962 was as far removed from that present day as the 1990s are today. No doubt there were some in the early years of the space age who looked back on the 1930s with a wistfully golden nostalgia; Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone in particular demonstrated this in stories like “Walking Distance” (my personal favorite TZ story) and “A Stop In Willoughby”. The shanty-towns, dustbowl, and Hoovervilles of the dirty thirties never made an appearance. In Bradbury’s case he both looks back at those childhood years with fondness but also acknowledges the darkness of an insular small-town upbringing. It’s the flip-side to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and the current waves of nostalgia masquerading as content we see today on Disney Plus.
That’s the premise. The story, however, is of these two friends, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, both thirteen, both unaware that life is already pulling them apart. Will (whose last name – Halloway, recalls both Halloween and “away” meaning he’s destined for greater things) born just before midnight on October 30. Jim, born just after 12:01am on October 31st is the Nightshade; the Dionysian opposite of his friend. the troubled kid. The kid who’ll never amount to anything but trouble (and yes, the kid knows this). Yet these two are friends for life, but life is, as always, far too fleeting and much too brief.
Second, more importantly, is the relationship between Will Halloway and his by then middle-age father Charles. The book is written as a reflection from an adult Will, meaning by the time of its telling Charles is no doubt long in his grave. Charles is old for a parent to a thirteen year-old and knows it, like Will knows himself. He’s janitor at the local library (the so-so 1984 film adaptation starring Jason Robards – a movie which led me to seek out the book – re-cast him as the town librarian, presumably because janitors couldn’t be heroes in the 1980s). Charles mourns his youth, and fears the coming years of his health failing while his only son is still young. Charles of course, is the real hero of the tale, which becomes as much about defeating the insidious Mr. Dark as it is in Will saving Charles, and Charles saving everyone else. Something Wicked is about the end of childhood, and the realization that not every friendship stays with you. It’s also about the realization that your parents will someday pass on and make you truly an orphan.
I think of this book at this time of year, every year. But this year in particular its bite is a little deeper. Death has been making more frequent appearances in my life. This year in particular has reminded me of autumn, of final goodbyes before winter’s onset. The older generation, my parents generation, the Baby Boomers passing away.
It echoes what I wrote about back in August, about the movie Stand By Me and the novella it’s based on. Stephen King’s work is full of Bradbury’s influence – note the blurb on the book cover further up – though perhaps a little less whimsical; the depression era Green Town Illinois, replaced by the vampiric ‘Salem’s Lot and the haunted Overlook Hotel. King, that master of horror, made a career of charting childhood innocence and the loss of it, in Gordy, Chris, Vern, and Teddy from The Body but also Danny Torrance from The Shining and the Losers Club from It. I started reading King because I was a fan of horror. I became a fan of King because of his writing so succinctly captured life’s little triumphs and tragedies. Of being young, and seeing the adult world encroaching like a freight train on a railway trestle. Of those four friends – Gordie and Chris, Teddy and Vern – and that one fateful weekend in 1959 and how it represented the beginning of the end of that once close friendship.
Something Wicked now reminds me of myself and my relationship with my son, who’s at that age now where he’s able to take his bike and go riding with his friends, to have adventures in our little suburban corner of the world. I watch him ride off and hope he’s careful and mindful of traffic, but also that he not ride his bike too quickly. To not make those wheels spin so fast that sooner than either of us realizes it he’s left home. The carousel at the heart of Bradbury’s novel can make the old young and the young old, but only on the outside; the mind remains the same. A child could age into an adult but posses none of the wisdom of adulthood. An elderly woman can return to their youthful self, though plagued by the loss of memory, the slowing of thought, the onset of dementia and senility. Bradbury’s warning here is to enjoy where you were in life, be you child, middle-aged, or elderly.
Being the older-than-the-average parent to a child still in his single digits weighs heavy on those 3am wakeups. At the same time I think of all the experiences yet to come and realize the key to remaining young at heart is to be in the presence of the young. The ones who still taking delight at the sight of a bird, or an inch-worm, who still believes in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, that this heartbreaking world of ours can still contain some magic.
I often wondered what became of Will and Jim. Will was clearly not long for Green Town. You could sense he was destined for greater things, and the fact that the book is written as a recollection an older Will is making of that fateful October many years before. Jim, however, probably stayed. Living, working, aging, and dying in that little patch of rural Illinois. Maybe he lived a long life, certainly long enough to see his town, his world change. Maybe he met someone, married, and started a family of his own. Maybe he lived old enough to see his children and their friends grow up, grow older, and move away. Left behind as one of those people who just stayed there, to age and watch the town he knew change, and the people he loved pass on and pass away. Living in a town and a time rapidly becoming another phantom, another shade of what once was.
And Will? Well, he clearly became a writer. He became Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, A Sound of Thunder, The Halloween Tree, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451. But I wonder if Ray too, in his later years, thought back to the friends he had, the people he knew, that small town of his that grew and changed so much it wasn’t his anymore. Just a place occupied by shades of memory.
It’s the same reason my old hometown still holds a piece of mental real estate for me. Not a grave, but a memory of what once was. It was shocking and a little sad to see and hear second-hand through an old acquaintance how the town had fallen on hard times after we all left. This friends’ mother was a teacher who witnessed first-hand generational poverty, in the faces of the kids she taught before her retirement, the off-spring of the children she’d taught at the start of her career. Still trapped in that vicious circle.
There’s a song by the Kinks (naturally) I keep coming back to, called “Do You Remember, Walter?” In the song Ray Davies’ narrator recalls an old school friend, wondering what became of him. Ray wrote the song at age twenty-three; quite prescient for a rock and roll song. But the lyric that jumps out at me is the one that goes —
Do you remember, Walter, how we said we’d fight the world so we’d be free?
We’d save up all our money and we’d buy a boat and sail away to sea
But it was not to be
I knew you then but do I know you now?
Walter. Jim and Will. The Losers Club. Gordy and Chris, Teddy and Vern.
My old friends. Some still here, still friends in the day-to-day, but many more of them forgotten. Some not here at all.
The people you share that ride on the carousel with for a time, but eventually they climb off and resume their lives, the common experience of being together fading as you move off and move on with your life.
But memories still remain, whispers in the night reminding you that we’re all on the same journey. Unlike Cooger and Dark’s carousel there’s but one way forward; a journey every one of us takes. But what we do on that ride … that’s up to us.
So a commenter – hi Bailey – asked if I was doing the “31 Days of Halloween” Movie-TV challenge (in which you attempt to watch one movie or horror-themed TV show a day for the 31 days of October. As it happens this year was the first year I attempted it. But to make things more challenging I decided to watch only horror-spooky movies and TV I had NEVER seen before so it was all new. I did all of that, my reward would be a viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing on Halloween night (a movie I have seen and numerous times). As of this writing I did it – 30 never-before seen spooky entertainments in 30 days:
- Old (2021)
- Candyman (2021)
- Firestarter (2022)
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- Little Monsters (2018)
- Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (2022)
- X (2022)
- Hellraiser (2022)
- Carrie (2013)
- Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2021)
- Hotel Transylvania (2013)
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)
- In The Tall Grass (2019)
- My Best Friends Exorcism (2022)
- XX (2017)
- Dead Calm (1989)
- Dracula Untold (2014)
- Halloween Kills (2021)
- The Sandman (Netflix Series)
- Dahmer (Netflix Series)
- Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)
- Monster House (2006)
- My Friend Dahmer (2017)
- A Monster Calls (2021)
- The Midnight Hour (1985)
- Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
- Willard (2003)
- Peninsula (2020)
- The Black Phone (2021)
- Boo! (1980)
- The Thing (1982)
I saw the movie version of Something Wicked but never read the book. I think I’m goin to do just that, Brad.
Agreed about Halloween being the best. How “into” Halloween do you get anyway? Spooky books, spooky movies?
Great writing, Brad! While I don’t enjoy autumn as much as summer I find I appreciate it more now than I did previously. Obviously when you’re a child the magic of Halloween is the first big thing you look forward to after school resumes and I think we adults tend to forget that. Maybe we would all benefit by embracing that inner child if only for a night.
Something Wicked is one of my favorite stories too. A perfect October read!
I caught the Something Wicked reference in Magicians Impossible and remember saying to myself ‘this guy is a Ray Bradbury fan’ same as me. His work is unparalleled and I worry with each year fewer people read him. Something Wicked is definitely his most accessible work though, and I enjoyed reading your take on what happened after. Fun to think about.
Nice story as always. Do you do the 31 days of Halloween movies like a lot of others are doing? I haven’t yet but someday …
I am this year, Bailey – 31 Halloween-themed entertainments in 31 days. This year though I decided to make it extra challenging and watch only movies or Tv that I have never seen before, culminating in a Halloween night screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing (which I have seen numerous times).
Yeah it’s pretty obvious Tim – maybe a little too obvious in places but it’s thematic so I can live with it.
Lisa – while some like Halloween to be a year-round thing I enjoy it more through October alone as it seems more akin to how Halloween and October were when I was a child. I enjoy horror/halloween/spooky content year-round but October gives the best flavor.
Mike – The movie and book are quite different – apparently Gene Kelly (!) and Bradbury tried to get it off the ground as a movie back in the 50s but when that fell through Bradbury took the idea and turned it into a novel instead. I think of the movie as a different version of the same story – one from Jim Nighthade’s POV versus Will Halloway’s.
31 you haven’t seen before seems like a fun challenge. If I may ask any standouts so far?
Lovely read, Brad. I’m not too familiar with the book but I may have to check it out. My daughter is nearing that age so it’d probably be her thing too.
A few, Bailey Once I’m done I’ll post my list as an addendum to this blog post
Between this Bradbury piece and the Harlan Ellison one from earlier this year can Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont be far behind?
Marty – very possible. Matheson is a big influence on my and my writing and Charles Beaumont is my favorite short-story writer – “The Howling Man” and “Miss Gentilbelle” in particular.
I love Bradbury, Matheson, Ellison – all those great SFF writers from the post-war years as you do. But as before in your Ellison piece I wonder if they’re slipping away from us as time marches on. or is there an appeal to the stories of yesteryear we sometimes forget? I find reading books from earlier eras gives us an insight into how people thought and lived much more so than in a history book. Or is that just me? I mean, we remember the giants of the field but the lesser known ones are definitely a rarer breed to remember.
Bill – I agree that a lot of the giants of my youthful years are passing on and being forgotten. I think Matheson and Bradbury endure though because their “best works” had already stood the tests of time by the time people of my generation discovered them. I think that’s also why the pop culture of the 70s, 80s, and 90s are proving popular amongst the generation born after 2000. The BIG ones either had their legacy ensured at the time – Back to the Future, E.T. – or were beneficiary of critical reassessment – John Carpenter’s The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China respectively – so we’re only getting “the good stuff”. The lesser known artists and writers and films though, I have less confidence they will endure. Thinking of the pop culture of the 50s and 60s, they’re starting to move out and off as the people who experienced them firsthand and “kept the fire burning” are themselves passing away. This is actually in part the subject of next month’s update so stay tuned there.
I look forward to reading that, Brad!
Love Bradbury and Something Wicked. Have you read Dandelion Wine? It’s set in Green Town as well though I think it takes place before SW.
Rian – I have never read Dandelion Wine but in a weird little twist I recently scored a copy on a book-trading website that’s making its way to me. Lookin forward to reading it.