Something Wicked: A Haunting Must Read
Seth Grahame-Smith is the author of Unholy Night.
I know it's strange to be thinking about October right now, but whenever I write, in a way that's always where I am. Growing up in Connecticut, it always held a special place in my heart — "a rare month for boys," as Ray Bradbury begins Something Wicked This Way Comes.
It was everything: The way the dying leaves clung to tree branches and crunched underfoot. The first wisps of chimney smoke that wafted in the evening air. The promises of free candy and a good World Series. These were the miniature miracles of my 12-year-old life.
I worshiped at the altar of Stephen King in those days. (I still do, in a way that's unbecoming a grown man, but I make no apologies for my faith, no sir.) In fact — and this is the hand-on-the-Bible truth — I was holding a paperback copy of The Shining when I first laid eyes on a dead body. I was headed to sleep-away camp when our bus came upon the scene of an accident. A car had landed upside down in the water. Despite the panicked orders from our chaperones to "look away, look away," I watched as rescuers pulled one of the bodies out.
It was a year before I found the courage to finish that paperback.
Why am I telling you this?
Because while Stephen King frightened and thrilled me, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked haunted me. Spoke to me. Crawled under my skin and stayed there, like the face of that cold, graying corpse.
I first read Something Wicked in middle school. Not for class, but on the advice of my stepfather — a used- and rare-book dealer who kept some 5,000 volumes of horror and science fiction in our basement. I'd already tried my hand at Bradbury's other books, but he hadn't yet grabbed a hold of me with the sharp claws I'd hoped. But then, I was 12, and not quite ready. Something Wicked, however, was tailor-made.
I was nearly the same age as its young heroes, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway. Best friends born just two minutes apart — one a minute before the midnight stroke on Halloween, one a minute after. Darkness and light, baby.
I was part Jim — daring and brash. But I was also the cautious, calculating Will. I recognized some of Will's father, Charles Halloway, in my own stepfather. Charles was a lover of books. A lion in winter who, it turns out, never really was much of a lion at all.
Things get going for Jim and Will when a carnival rolls into their small Midwestern town on the heels of a thunderstorm. A carnival led by the aptly named Mr. Dark, who comes bearing promises for the town elders: restored youth, second chances and fulfilled dreams. These all come for a price, of course. Namely, their souls.
Bradbury's carnival is everything we fear. It's age and death and failure. It's a foreign body, invading the ideal small town the way a virus invades a cell.
But for me, the true horror of the book wasn't the carnival or its soul-swallowing ringmaster. It was a hard truth — the truth that our parents weren't always the heroes we needed them to be.
Bradbury's adults were weak with temptation and worn down by regrets. They were real, and that was the horror of it all.
If The Shining terrified me with the possibility that my own father might try to kill me, Something Wicked posited something much more frightening and much more likely — that he wouldn't be able to save me if someone else did.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Andrew Otis.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. We frequently tell you about the latest novels or works of nonfiction, but today, for our series You Must Read This, a book from the past. Writer Seth Grahame-Smith made his name with some twisted tales, including "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Here, he tells us about a novel that he fell in love with as a child.
SETH GRAHAME-SMITH: I worshipped at the altar of Stephen King in those days. In fact - and this is the hand-on-the-Bible truth - I was holding a copy of "The Shining" when I saw my first dead body. Why am I telling you this? Well, because Stephen King frightened and thrilled me, but he didn't haunt me. I didn't even know a book could do that, not until I read "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury. It crawled under my skin and stayed there, like the face of that corpse.
I read it in middle school, not for class, but on the advice of my stepfather. He was a used-book dealer, and we had around 5,000 horror and science fiction books in our basement. I'd already tried some other Bradbury books. They didn't grab hold of me with sharp claws. But then I was 12 and not quite ready. "Something Wicked," however, was tailor-made for me. I was almost the same age as its young heroes, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, best friends born just two minutes apart: one right before the midnight stroke on Halloween and one right after. Darkness and light, baby.
I was part Jim, daring and brash. But I also felt like the calculating Will. Things get going for the two boys when a thunderstorm rolls into their town, then a carnival. It's led by the aptly named Mr. Dark, who makes promises to the town elders - restored youth, second chances, fulfilled dreams - all for a price, of course - namely, their souls. Bradbury's carnival is everything we fear. It's age and death and failure. It's a foreign body invading the small town the way a virus invades a cell.
But for me, the real horror of the book was this: Our parents aren't always the heroes we need them to be. Bradbury's adults were weak with temptation, worn down by regrets. They were real, and that was the worst part.
SIEGEL: That's Seth Grahame-Smith. A movie version of his novel "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" comes out this summer. He was talking about Ray Bradbury's novel "Something Wicked This Way Comes." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.