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June 24, 2015

Let's Get Classic - Post 4


At Teenreads, we love to review the latest and greatest YA books to hit the shelves. However, we recognize that older books --- sometimes much older books --- have plenty of value, too. In this blog series, Teen Board member Alison S. is writing about some of her favorites and how they remain relevant today. Read below for her fourth post about SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury. You can also read her earlier posts on THE HITCHKIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, FRANKENSTEIN and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.

First of all, I just want to say how glad I am to have read Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES when I did. Okay, so perhaps the night before my math final wasn’t the ideal time for free reading, but I can’t help but think I read this novel at the perfect age; despite the horrific carnival gracing the book’s cover, Bradbury’s classic concerns itself more with the loss of childish idealism than loss of life. And as a 17-year-old high school senior (you wouldn’t believe how terrifying that is to write), I feel just young enough to share in the adolescent thrills --- and fears --- of the novel’s 13-year-old protagonists. But, I also feel just old enough to relate to their parents’ craving for the world --- or the sheltered, idealized world they’ve created for their children --- to remain exactly as it is.

The novel begins as most coming-of-age novels do, with two boys lounging in someone’s front yard. Savor that idyllic opening scene, because it’s the book’s last semblance of normalcy --- before you can say “Norman Rockwell,” an enigmatic lightning rod salesman has scurried into the boy’s small country town, a sack of inscribed lightning rods clanking at his side, and warned the boys of the storm lurking just beyond the horizon. By the end of the first chapter, a lightning rod inscribed with all the world’s languages (“Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm?”) stands guard over 13-year-old Jim Nightshade’s house --- but by the end of the second, Jim has ripped the protective rod from his roof, almost daring lightening to strike.

And that’s Jim Nightshade in a nutshell. A human lightning rod, Jim rejects the quaint, complacent, Hidden-Valley-Ranch-Commercial of a life his mom struggles to preserve day after day, as if any amount of home cooking or maternal smothering could patch over the death of Jim’s father. But Jim has no interest in synthesized domestic bliss. Instead, he longs to sneak out after curfew, to challenge authority, and to defy every No Trespassing sign his tiny speck of a town dares to put up. In other words, Jim wants to confront danger and win. That’s how Jim copes with his father’s death: not by retreating into manufactured suburban contentment, but rather by asserting his dominance over the big, bad, dangerous world that killed his old man. This big, bad, dangerous world may have defeated his father, but --- as he proves to himself whenever his rule-breaking goes unapprehended --- Jim Nightshade won’t succumb to the dangers of adulthood so easily.

Then there’s Jim’s best friend, Will Halloway. The big, bad, dangerous world might not have physically killed Will’s dad, but the demands of adulthood --- not to mention his devastating fear of failure --- have left Charles Halloway, 54 year old library janitor, isolated from his family, wistful of his past and indifferent to his future. Will doesn’t share Jim’s deluded view of the “real” world; instead, recognizing in his father the disappointment and disillusionment of growing up, Will clings to what remains of his childhood like a shipwreck survivor clings to what remains of the boat’s hull.

But the most striking aspect of this novel --- for me, anyway --- has to be Charles Halloway’s unique take on good and evil. Morality, claims Halloway, arises from mortality; in other words, every good thing about the human race exists because of death. How positively uplifting. According to Bradbury, human altruism, human compassion and, in short, humanity, stem from our shared mortality. After all, what’s more common of a common enemy than death? We humans share a deep-seated, almost primal longing to see each other survive, because, really, what’s survival if not victory over death? And if one single human being triumphs over death, we all do --- that’s the beauty of common enemies.

That’s why Jim --- not Will --- entangles the boys in the evil carnival. After the death of his father, Jim stopped viewing death as a “common enemy.” Instead, he began regarding the big, bad, dangerous world as a challenge you either meet or you don’t. Jim doesn’t see the human race as a united front against death; he sees himself as a would-be single-handed conqueror of all things dangerous and terrifying. And according to Bradbury, that’s when evil happens --- when you stop identifying as a small and, to be frank, insignificant fraction of the human race, and start thinking of yourself as someone who needs to vanquish the world’s literal and metaphorical monsters single-handedly. According to Bradbury, this desire for total mastery over the big, bad, dangerous world leads to an insatiable craving for power. And this mad lust for power is when --- and why --- evil happens.

Even without the meditations on good and evil, the rich symbolism or the deeply relatable, deeply human characters, the novel’s lyrical prose, vivid imagery and imaginative plotline would still delight and disturb you.

But don’t let my ramblings about “why evil happens” and “human morality” and “coming of age” scare you away from SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. Even without the meditations on good and evil, the rich symbolism or the deeply relatable, deeply human characters, the novel’s lyrical prose, vivid imagery and imaginative plotline would still delight and disturb you. After all, this is the evil circus-novel that made evil-circus novels a subgenre. If I were a book sommelier (which isn’t an actual job, no matter how much I wish it were), I would suggest you read SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES at night, in a tree, by the light of a full moon. I’d also recommend you read this novel on October 24th, the night when, according to Bradbury, Halloween came a week early. Then again, why wait to read a book this good?