Book Review: "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury
(For my daughter)
I write this article at the request of my sixth-grade daughter, who recently finished reading Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. She asked that I review the book in light of the Catholic faith.
“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.”
I confess that I had not read this particular book of Bradbury’s until after my daughter picked it up, but I had watched the movie adaptation countless times as a child. It always held such a deep fascination for me. Bradbury’s seldom mentioned Something Wicked This Way Comes is a must-read for anyone, young adults or otherwise. While not a Catholic, Bradbury touches on our innate human sense of Good and evil, the nature of temptation, and the spiritual struggle within the human heart. The story is rich with poignant symbolism, chilling but not too terrifying, and hopeful while cautionary. There is not a paragraph, conversation, character, situation, or setting that is arbitrary in this tale. All are expertly woven together, some obvious and some covert, resulting in a story that delights readers with its depth and intelligence. Its crowning achievement, in my opinion, is the fact that it is told in such a way as to deliver the message to a young audience so that they can begin to understand the mechanism of evil while they are still young and can bolster their defenses sooner rather than later in life.
From the outset, we know that the story will be rich in symbolism by the introduction of the two main characters--two carefree young boys, best friends, living in a small town. The boy we have concern for is Jim Nightshade, who has an overtly symbolic name. He is good at heart, but stands on the edge of darkness, enticed by it and feeling as if there is no reason not to embrace it. Contrasting Jim is Will Halloway, the good will who follows a holy way and whose name is also clearly symbolic. One is lured by temptation while the other is forced to look at temptation and resist the urge to give in to it so that he can save his friend. We are not faced with one ‘bad’ boy who leans into temptation, and one ‘good’ boy who shields himself from all things evil. We are instead faced with two normal boys, neither of whom avoid looking at evil, but rather react to it in a different way. The difference between the two boys is further highlighted by the symbol of the lightning rod and their interaction with it throughout the story. The boys are in contrast to their parents (except for Will’s father) who make a point to stay away from anything sinful, even avoiding a glance at it, and who thus remain unable to help the boys when evil does appear, since they are oblivious. It is a testament to the fact that we should not avoid facing evil but instead remain strong enough to walk in the middle of it without giving in to it, look it in the eye, and help those who are caught in its snares.
Our antagonist is Mr. Dark and his collection of ‘freaks’. Again, his name is symbolic, and further into the story, we find that the condition of each of the ‘freaks’ also contains symbolism. We notice that Mr. Dark has the inability to force or control anyone in the story (save for the ‘freaks’ who have already given themselves to him), but simply sets up temptations for the characters to craft their own demise. Traps are set, but the characters walk into them willingly. None of the ‘freaks’ have a Good Will to intervene on their behalf. Only Jim has the possibility of being saved, because his fellow man has recognized the danger and takes action to face evil on his behalf. Many are lost in this world because of a lack of intervention on the part of good men. If we do not help our neighbor and claim souls for the Good, then evil is at the door to claim those souls for its own.
Interestingly, Mr. Dark first appears in the story while singing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” singing, in particular, a line about how good will prevail over evil. Later in the book, it is revealed that Mr. Dark knows Scripture very well, as he simultaneously tosses the Bible in a trash can. These two incidents reveal to us the idea that evil often speaks truthfully of God, but mockingly. Evil knows that it has no power over Good and simply discards it and continues on in malevolence.
It is also interesting to note Bradbury’s choice to use young men as the main characters. They are not yet old enough nor affected by the world enough to be blinded to the reality of good and evil, seen and unseen. Their senses are still innocent enough that they recognize unseen forces acting upon men in the world. They are at the cusp of becoming men themselves and must solidify their standing in the world as a force for good or a puppet of evil. While being good involves freedom, immense difficulty and suffering, giving in to evil involves loss of control and a giving over of the will to a sort of puppet master. It involves a much worse kind of suffering.
The main theme of the book seems to be that we should recognize that evil does, in fact, exist as an unseen force in the world, brought to fruition by the use of man as its puppets. Mr. Dark is not the devil, per se, but he is a man who was so consumed by evil and power that he became the embodiment of malevolence. Quite rightly, Bradbury inserts an interesting dialogue near the end of the book in which our heroes face a final internal temptation to seize the power that Mr. Dark held, showing us that human nature is never far from temptations that could consume our souls, no matter how good we are.
In another interesting dialogue, Will’s father asks, “...since when did you think being good meant being happy?”1 This is also an important underlying theme of the book. At no time are we to believe that the suffering of the heroes is any less than the suffering of the ‘freaks.’ The only difference is that the suffering of the ‘freaks’ is complete slavery, while the suffering of the heroes is in pursuit of a higher good. This also ties in with some of the characters that operate mainly in the background of the story. There is the general population, such as the police, who seem to discount the idea of evil altogether, and are therefore blind to its influence in their lives, rendering them unable to help their fellow man. There are also the church-going mothers who isolate themselves in a bubble of holiness so that they cannot be touched or tempted by sin, which also renders them useless to save their children, since they are unwilling to face evil. Even the father, at a critical moment, chooses to physically close his eyes against the evil that is attacking him and his sons—and then emerges victorious when he opens his eyes to face it and invokes the name of God.
The message seems to be that we should be able to walk where darkness lies, remain in the light of our own holy pursuits, and pull our fellow man from the clutches of evil, both seen and unseen. Turning a blind eye to our neighbor’s struggles only creates a vacuum of goodness—a void that evil is all too ready to fill. But in order to achieve this, we must have our own foundation in goodness, a good will and a holy way as Will Halloway does, that can guide us and protect us from the wickedness and snares of the devil as we walk through his shadowy valley. Can you sit among your gossiping friends and not gossip? Can you attend a party with alcohol and refrain from drunkenness? Can you save yourselves for marriage when your friends are dating? Can you defend and not disparage your parents? Can you be proudly Christian among non-believers? Can you hold your own values and beliefs among those who do not agree? Can you remain yourself and steadfast, being a light among darkness? Can you escape your bubble of safety and light to take the light with you and enter into any situation instead of avoiding it? What merit is it to you to remain among the good people? Does that make you good? Isn’t goodness attained through thwarting evil and saving your neighbor?
It is not easy, and much suffering is taken on in this pursuit. Bradbury describes the effect of temptation in this way: “That carnival, boy, do they know how to punish you so you can’t hit back. They just shake you up and change you so no one ever knows you again and let you run free.”2 The carnival comes to town, looking bright and happy and inviting, trumpeting loudly, overwhelming the senses and making no attempt to hide itself, in turn completely consuming souls and spitting out empty shells that are slaves of evil. This is the ultimate end of giving in to temptations. And how did our heroes successfully run this evil out of town? I will leave that up to you to discover. It is in the most perfect and highly effective way. Once this evil is faced, the reader should notice that it was not defeated, but temporarily banished. It will come again. This is our human struggle.
I encourage you to read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I also hope that many young adults read this book. It is a hidden gem among Bradbury’s works that will create a dialogue about evil, its nature, its tactics, and our role in fighting it in our own lives and on behalf of our neighbor. The more times you read it, the more you appreciate its symbolism, nuances, and craftsmanship.
Copyright 2022 Jessica Tucker
Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, (London: Fantasy Masterworks, 2015), p.184.
Ibid., p. 161.