Something Wicked, Something Holy: Light and Darkness in Something Wicked This Way Comes
Evil grows in the dark. And, sometimes, Halloween comes to town.
Horror, as a genre, works in strange ways. There are killer clowns and gruesome torture to test teenage mettle. Then, there’s the quiet, searching silence. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is the latter. Its poetry stands apart, a stately manor all creaks and cobwebs, timeless and terrifying. It’s a story about growing up and growing old—Something Wicked is a story about living forever.
When Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show blows into town, it comes with a lesson for thirteen-year-olds Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. The carnival master, Dark, oldest of all, holds out the solution; another man, old but not without hope, will drag the problem into the light.
I won’t rehearse the entire plot, but it’s enough to say evil comes to town and its tools are terror. The shadow shows that arrive overnight and pitch their tents in our own lives may not bring a carousel or a calliope, yet they put on the same tired acts. People are as they’ve always been, on the coasts or in the heartland: the same fears, the same regrets, and the same dark desires. The most disturbing shadow, stalking behind and stretching before, is rooted at our own feet.
An appropriately dark thought for Halloween-time, or election season, I think.To participate in politics in 2020 seems to be an exercise in fear, like the call from Dark in Ray Bardbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
The thing about shadows, though, is, even when they shiver their danse macabre, light is never far away. What is regret but a wish to have done better, have been better? What is even the smallest ambition, but a wish to use what’s been given? Jim Nightshade wishes to be grown without growing. He hates the waiting, the in-between of becoming. Will Halloway doesn’t want his childhood to end, and Charles simply wants back the time he’s wasted. The Pandemonium Shadow Show makes promises to each.
Whether we pine for a gilded past or an imagined future, we are vulnerable.
To participate in politics in 2020 seems to be an exercise in fear. We fear decline and regression because we love growth and progress. We fear self-denial because we’ve position self-love as the greatest good, a right and responsibility that short-circuits common life. We cling to the promise of strength out of fear; we want what we had or simply want what we want.
It’s here, in the in-between space, the not-now space, where evil does its work. It divides to conquer, parceling out grievances so that the great mess of loves inside longing hearts fight for air. For every love, a corresponding fear.
Inside, it’s just us and everything we’ve ever wanted, whole worlds, but no earth to stand on. Alone, with every possibility. All of it there reflected endlessly in Cooger & Dark’s mirror maze. This fear, this terrible longing to linger but push forward, to find the next prize and the next, just to store them up until they rot, is what evil exploits. This is sin’s gambit, to whisper, “Did God really say?” and wink at whatever’s within reach.
At bottom, the temptation to build slap-dash kingdoms and elect pretender-kings is mistrust.
In Something Wicked, the dark carnival uses its curiosities to lure two friends and one too-old father into darkness. It blows through in autumn that clings to summer but is falling fast, always too fast, into cold dark winter. It does this by getting us alone; evil makes us fearful, and then it isolates us.
Although it’s a strategy with terrible power, ultimately, this isolation is an illusion. The desires in our heads, the encouraging words and unearned affirmation; the friends and lovers; the nameless, reaching wants and bottomless comforts; each one is a potential wrong turn in a mirror maze. Illusions to the last, until they’re not.
Jim Nightshade wants a good thing in the wrong way. He wants to be strong, to provide and protect; he wants to be grown, whole. But we, like Jim, don’t want the long road or the work of clearing the ground and caring for the soil. So we chase rootless fruits, the quick fixes. Every opportunity to rush toward a good thing is sought and exploited. Just one short ride on the carousel, only one more judge on the court, and it will all have been worth the price. We fool ourselves into thinking we can have the fruit without the vine.
The only vantage from which we see our desires rightly is at the foot of the cross—the bloody horror and wonder of Christianity. The ironclad truth of death, and the inevitable death-like losses of life, drives us to seek the dark promises of sin and the curiosities of the Shadow Show. But only the hope of resurrection and the love that bought it can push back the lonely darkness.
At 30 years old, I had the curious experience of identifying with the book’s father-son duo. The elder and the younger, Charles and Will, each with different fears that fit just right when I tried them on. Fears that past failures of omission or future surprises—both empty spaces—have permanently crippled my one life. That’s what the dark does. It gets you alone. Alone with selfish desires, or alone with fear.
Charles Halloway, nearing the climax of Something Wicked, is crippled by Dark and only just escapes death. But for the love of his son, he is buoyed by hope even at the edge of despair. Dark, with both boys under his spell, remains a showman and draws a crowd for his final act: The Bullet Trick. The carnival master calls for a volunteer, one last opportunity to make the townspeople cower before his power. He does not expect a dead man.
“Here! A volunteer!” The crowd turned. Mr. Dark recoiled, then asked: “Where?” “Here.” Far out at the edge of the crowd, a land lifted, a path opened. Mr. Dark could see very clearly the man standing there, alone. Charles Halloway, citizen, father, introspective husband, night-wanderer, and janitor of the town library.
The crippled old man, full of new life, stands defiant. He will shatter Dark’s illusions: “‘I’ll do it,’ he said. ‘With one hand.’ The crowd cheers. ‘Hoorah!’ cried a boy, below; ‘Go it, Charlie!’ a man called, out beyond.”
“Mr. Dark flushed as the crowd laughed and applauded even louder now. He lifted his hands to ward off the wave of refreshing sound, like rain that washed in from the people.”
The dark’s power exists in the dark, among the shadowy mirrors of fear and doubt. But outside in the light, when a soul refuses to be alone, something happens. Joy lights a candle, and even though hope falters in the wind, it is not extinguished. The Christian cross says our hope is not inside us. Hope goes before us and makes a way.
Christian hope is audacious and appears foolish to those who still fear the dark.
Like the believer, Charles Halloway does the unexpected; he doesn’t hide, and he won’t wallow. Wounded and suffering, he walks right up to the main stage. But he needs help, a volunteer. Charles Halloway calls for a boy, then he does one better: he calls out for his boy, Will Halloway. Having discovered joy, the hope of glory, Charles no longer fears death, and so he mocks the powers that stand against him. He calls for his captive son, and the crowd takes up his cause.
The Witch flung one hand up to feel the shape of this audacity which came off the fifty-four-year-old man like a fever. Mr. Dark spun round as if hit by a fast-traveling gunshot.
Charles and Will perform the Bullet Trick together, the elder leaning on the younger, and although the gun only holds a wax bullet, Charles marks it with joy, the hope so deadly to fear. It’s a dark story full of unhappy doings, and some are lost, never to be found. Something Wicked is a dark story for long nights, but it’s also a story for clear dawn skies. Will Halloway is saved, but Jim cannot resist the seductions of the carousel, to skip the pain of time and arrive without walking the road. Still, Jim is loved, and Will pulls his friend from the dark, but not before Jim tastes his desire. Some wounds will not heal within the bounds of time. A dark thought, yes, but only for so long.
“Because, sometimes good has weapons and evil none. Sometimes tricks fail. Sometimes people can’t be picked off, led to deadfalls. No divide-and-conquer tonight [!]” In the Christian story, the world’s darkest night was the crack where the light came through. Death swallowed up in life, but not immediately. The hope of resurrection remains an invitation to fearless love, as much on All Hallow’s Eve as on election night.
Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story about living an autumn life with a summer heart, shivering on the edge. Already, but not yet.