Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
I've been meaning to read this book for a while. It's being reviewed by Dan Abnett as part of the SFX Book Club next month, so I thought I'd read it before Issue 204 is out.
The book starts in late October with a lightening rod salesman racing through a small-town in advance of a storm. He meets two 13 year old boys -neighbours, best friends, born a few minutes apart, totally different. Will Halloway - blond, pale, patient and uncertain about the world, and Jim Nightshade - dark in complexion, impetuous and impatient with life. The salesman, with his years of experience, predicts a storm will strike Jim's house. But what arrives is not rain or thunder, but a supernatural torrent in the form of a sinister carnival. Arriving in the dead of night, in the wake of eerie calliope music, it brings rides and freak-filled side shows. Only the boys, spying from bushes and trees, see the true nature of the carnival freaks and their unnatural rides. While the townsfolk enjoy the rides and entertainment there are those among them that will be forever changed.
Age is a major theme of the story, and is the subject of the only blatant supernatural element. The journey from childhood to adulthood is exemplified by the two boys, while an adult's nostalgia for childhood is embodied by Will's father, Charles Halloway.
The book was written in the 60s when 13 year olds were probably expected to behave more childishly than today. The boys race each other down the streets and sneak out at night to steal fruit or explore the town. They are on the cusp of adulthood, something that is hinted at as both promising and scary. The sinister side of adulthood is seen in the Theatre. A house a few streets away where the boys peer through the window to see naked performances of animal nature. Jim is enthralled by this, but Will unsure about these illicit sights.
Charles Halloway is described as being a particularly old father, although again I reckon this is a standard that's changed in the decades since the book was published. As far as I can tell he's 41 years older than his son, which is not unheard of nowadays.While Will and Jim are divided over whether childhood is something to be enjoyed or endured, Mr. Halloway feels regret for his lost youth and for starting a family later in life. There's a definite sense of distance between father and son, the age gap has become the excuse for a gap in understanding between them. Jim is keen to cast off childish things, and could be tempted by what the supernatural has to offer. However when they have to face the mysterious and elusive 'autumn people' all three unite and must put away their regrets, fears and temptations to triumph.
This book is gothic, melodic and lyrical. Written almost like poetry the book describes how places, characters and events feel rather than exactly how they are. It's writing that goes straight for your emotions spending little time in the logical part of your brain. There is a lot of symbolism here -age is a more obvious theme- most of which I probably missed as this was my first reading. The pace is not particularly quick and the plot -in terms of action- can be summed up fairly quickly. That said, there are some pretty cool moments (including a boy killing a hot air balloon and a witch being attacked by laughter), but the story is about a sense of place, the feelings of the characters (their hopes, fears and regrets), and the creeping fear that comes when the sinister invades the mundane.
I recommend this book for its sense of atmosphere and Bradbury's ability to bring out the hidden qualities -both sinister and hopeful- in everyday life.