Not only was he one of the kings of science fiction, Ray Bradbury wrote horror. There is no better example of that than his short novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show rolls into town late one October night, long after the carnivals and circuses have packed it in for the year. Two boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who think nothing of sneaking out and running around at 3 in the morning, hear a godawful eerie train whistle in the wee hours. They slip down their respective downspouts, dash across a meadow, and witness a demonic carnival setting up at the edge of town. This might not go so well.
The next day, flyers go up for Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. The carnival in the daylight is not the carnival they saw going up. Nor are the attractions what they seem. Particularly creepy is a hall of mirrors, which shows visitors frightening versions of themselves that are more than just distorted reflections. What scares the boys the most, though, is their encounter with Mr. Dark, who runs the show. They watch Dark run a merry-go-round backwards, completely with Chopin’s funeral march played in reverse, as Cooger rides it and ages backwards.
Most frightening is a dwarf they encounter. At the story’s beginning, the boys run into a lightning rod salesman. When they see the dwarf, they realize he’s actually the lightning rod salesman, who seems to have disappeared. They also witness Cooger accidentally riding the merry-go-round in the other direction, aging too far forward to where he’s alive, yet mummified. Dark keeps him alive by putting him in an electric chair.
Dark soon realizes the boys, and Mr. Halloway, Will’s father, are a threat. He does not confront them in a church, where you would expect an incarnation of evil to do battle. They do it in Mr. Halloway’s place of worship: A library. But Dark’s power lies in seduction coupled with sucking all the joy out of the town. While chasing the boys, he and his menagerie of captive freaks march into town, their revelry only thinly concealing their malevolence. But if it’s fear and despair that Dark thrives on, it’s unmitigated joy that causes him extreme pain. Laughter – genuine laughter, not the wicked laugh Dark indulges in – is kryptonite to this ancient creature.
Something Wicked is about a Midwest that long since vanished by the time Bradbury brought this to press in 1961. It seems the story takes place at the tail end of the Depression, when World War II was little more than a rumor, but the economic upheaval of the past decade was slowly fading, a brief lull between the storms. But Bradbury is tipping his hat to Lovecraft. One supposes that Mr. Dark, he of the living tattoos, could take his place among Lovecraft’s elder gods. But it’s also a transitional story from the damp dark of Lovecraft’s obsession with madness to Stephen King’s horror as a backdrop to the real monsters already in people’s lives. There’s a little bit of this story in “The Body”/Stand By Me and Salem’s Lot. There even exists a thread of Something Wicked in Harry Potter as past evil returns periodically, like Voldermort did after succeeding Grindelwald as the creeping evil within the wizarding world.
But there’s a certain innocence to this story the later stories aren’t capable of. King’s work all exists in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, continuing through America’s industrial fade and the War on Terror. Rowling writes her stories in a Britain that’s become jaded since the Cold War, less sure than the two superpowers as to what its role is.
Bradbury gives us fear and loathing in a time that ironically makes us feel young again, and without the benefit of that Satanic merry-go-round.