Bradbury and the Autumn People: An Appreciation and an Epitaph
I already addressed the loss of Ray Bradbury on both my personal and professional Facebook pages. But, since I decided to get this blog started and I needed something to comment upon, I’ve taken this opportunity to offer a final, personal appreciation for Mr. Bradbury and my favorite book of his: Something Wicked This Way Comes…
Ray Bradbury, like the picturesque old libraries or city halls found in many a marginalized American small town, was so ubiquitous that I often felt he was taken for granted. He was such a fixture of the literary landscape for so long, lauded as one of our great prose stylists and narrative dreamers so often, that it was easy to forget he was there (indeed, I saw a number of crass talk-backers responding to news of his death yesterday with statements like, “I thought he died ten years ago”). Comfy old chair-like ubiquity aside, Mr. Bradbury’s work remained moving, vital, and fresh right until the very end.
I’ve loved Mr. Bradbury’s fiction—especially his short stories—since high school, but Something Wicked This Way Comes has been a favorite novel of mine since my early twenties, when I finally got around to reading it. On the surface, Bradbury’s nostalgiac Middle American nightmare is simply a dark and evocative fable of childhood; a precursor to every evil-threatens-a-small-town novel written by Stephen King or Dean Koontz or anyone who followed in their footsteps. It is the story of two boys—Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade—twelve years old, on the cusp of adulthood, suddenly faced with temptation and damnation when a devilish autumn carnival invades their picturesque little Midwest town. Little by little, Will and Jim discover that the delights promised by the carnival (led by the sinister Mr. Dark, covered in moving tattoos representing the many souls he’s dragged to perdition) are thorny roses to say the least, wishes granted with terrible fine print folded into their infernal contracts. I used to love it because it reminded me to stay young; I now love it because it gives me hope and courage in the face of growing old (or, older at least; I suppose thirty-seven isn’t exactly old).
In deft, evocative, poetic prose, Bradbury paints a vivid and memorable portrait of a serene if static world invaded by a malign and alien influence, insidious precisely because it uses the all-too-human frailties of the townsfolk against them. Perhaps most impressive is the master’s ability to entice the reader with nostalgia, then use those very objects of nostalgia to instill pity and terror equal to any Greek tragedy. For a man renowned for his love of autumn, carnivals, and Halloween with all its funhouse trappings, Bradbury succeeds magnificently in turning the objects of his affection (and ours) into vessels of fear. This is, perhaps, a central aspect of Something Wicked’s success: by turning the objects of nostalgia and affection into devil’s snares for our fragile, aging souls, Bradbury reminds us that what we love can damn us as well as redeem us. The difference between one and the other often balances on a knife’s edge between ecstatic self-destruction and ascetic, self-punishing virtuousness.
Once upon a time—even in my twenties—I read this wonderful little chiller and identified with the boys at its heart. I understood the bonds of friendship between them (“That’s friendship,” Bradbury muses, “each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of the other.”); the ways in which their seemingly opposite personalities draw them together, rather than forcing them apart (Will, described time and again as wholly good, for its own sake, is offset by the melancholy Jim, who “looked at the world and could not look away”); and the terrible realizations they face when threatened by the dark minions of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show—not simply physical threat, but a threat to their very conceptions of reality. The carnival forces each boy to recognize his own mortality, as well as the moral fragility of the grown-ups they are subject to. Those simultaneous realizations—that you, yourself, will age and die, and that grown-ups are not, and never were, perfect–seldom leave a young heart unscathed.
But on my recent re-visitation of Something Wicked, I found myself identifying instead with Charles Halloway, Will’s 53 year-old father. Here is a small-town librarian, more than halfway through his life, who has seemingly accomplished little and ventured less. His greatest joy and deepest pain both live in the person of his son: nothing gives Charles greater pleasure than to bask in Will’s youth, goodness, and zest for life… and yet, nothing pains him more deeply than the sneaking suspicion that he, Charles, is somehow less of a father than Will deserves. “No man’s a hero to himself,” Charles tells his son. “I’ve lived with me a lifetime, Will. I know everything worth knowing about myself…” Charles fears that he is too old to be a good father to such a young and lively boy; he fears that he is too sad and compromised; he fears that he has nothing to give his son but good wishes. Throughout the book, Charles Halloway looks at his son (and his friend, Jim Nightshade) with envy and sadness, because he can’t figure out where that young and hopeful part of himself went, or how to recover it.
Being thirty-seven now, with a new son of my own (my first and only), I see myself in Charles Halloway. Someday, when my boy is twelve, I’ll be pushing fifty. And as a writer who has yet to find any worldly, material success in his chosen vocation, I, too, often ask myself if my child doesn’t deserve a better father than the one he’s getting. One with less fear; one with more daring; one with fewer unrealized dreams and more palpable, material successes. In just a few short years between readings, I’ve moved from one side of Bradbury’s looking glass to the other, and find the view from both sides equally moving. I, too, remember the joys of boyhood, and I, too, often wonder where those joys went, and struggle with how to muddle on with nothing but the memory of them.
Folded into Bradbury’s meditation on childhood fears and adult regrets, one also finds a simple, elegant consideration of how goodness and happiness rarely walk hand in hand. Telling his father that he considers him a good man, and learning that Charles sees himself that way as well, Will is forced to ask, “Then, Dad, why aren’t you happy?”
Charles’s response: “Since when did you think being good meant being happy?”
Seeing that his son doesn’t understand, Charles tries to elaborate on just what trying to be good has cost him. “I was so busy wrestling myself two falls out of three,” Charles says, “I figured I couldn’t marry until I had licked myself good and forever… Too late, I found you can’t wait to become perfect, you got to go out and fall down and get up with everybody else… [but] you take a man half-bad and a woman half-bad and put their two good halves together and you got one human all good to share between. That’s you, Will…”
If anyone’s ever written a better paen to marriage and child-rearing, I don’t know what it is. Will’s conversation with his father, and the revelations both share, struck me on this reading as beautiful and true.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Ray Bradbury was a national treasure. Although he created a vast and beautiful body of work, in this simple, lovely, spooky little novel, made up of barely 80,000 words, he not only encapsulated the terrible moments that portend adulthood—the realization that grown-ups are fragile and flawed; the reality of one’s own, eventual death—but also their obverse: the moment in our adulthood when we finally realize just how far behind us childhood, safety, and dreams without regrets lie. Two boys realize that a world of compromise and moral hazard awaits them, followed by death; an old man realizes that death is nearer than ever before, and that the compromises and moral hazards left in his wake make its approach all the more tragic.
And yet, in the midst of all this darkness, hope endures. That it never comes across as a cloying, false, or flashy hope is further evidence of the late master’s genius. The silver lining to Bradbury’s thunderclouds is simple laughter; a willful outpouring of joy and delight, to light the darkness and defy the doldrums of inexorable time and lurking mortality. “Everything that happens before Death is what counts” Bradbury tells us, and we can only believe him. From the realization that we’re all in the same boat—that we all suffer the same doubts, the same regrets, the same self-deceptions—we draw some small measure of strength, and find some small measure of hope, even in the face of oblivion. As the book’s Moby Dick-derived epigraph proclaims: “I know not what lies ahead, but whatever it is, I’ll go to it laughing.”
Good night, Mr. Bradbury, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest…