Author: Ray Bradbury
UK Publisher: Gollancz
Genre: Horror, fantasy
It’s the week before Hallowe’en, and Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois. The siren song of the calliope entices all with promices of youth regained and dreams fulfilled…
And as two boys trembling on the bring of manhood set out to explore the mysteries of the dark carnival’s smoke, mazes and mirrors, they will also discover the true price of innermost wishes…
Shamefully, I hadn’t actually read any Ray Bradbury before picking up this book. In fact, while I knew the titles of some of his works, unlike Stephen King I didn’t have any real knowledge of the content of any of his book either. Most of what I knew about him came from the Rachel Bloom novelty video (don’t watch this in public, or around people who don’t like the word “fuck”). My husband actually bought this for himself, but I poached it immediately afterwards to try out myself.
The opening for this story sets it up as a coming-of-age novel, two boys, Will and Jim, on the cusp of 14 and a strange carnival that arrives in town overnight. They find themselves both fascinated and repulsed by it, and end up being targeted by the sinister carnival owners with intentions that are less than benevolent. Around this is the development of Will’s father who has found himself disconnected from his son as he thinks he is too old to be able to understand him.
I found this subplot particularly interesting. Will’s father is only in his early 50s, but he is so convinced that he is too old to be any use, too old to really connect with his son. This felt jarring at the beginning, when the wildness of the boys was being explored instead, but as the book progresses Charles becomes a more prominent character and he develops beyond his obsession with ageing and instead connects with his son on a personal level. However, this sort of takes over from the character development from the two boys.
As the book opens, we’re introduced to Will and Jim as a study in contrasts. Born a minute either side of midnight on the 30th and 31st October, Will is fair and good and risk-averse, while Jim is dark and wild and constantly pushing the boundaries. The sinister feeling of the carnival intrigues him, draws him towards it, to the point that he’s disappointed when they return during the day and find it apparently free from anything otherworldly. For the bulk of the book, it’s Jim charging towards things and Will trying to pull him back. They’re a balancing act of impulse and control, although for the most part it seems like Jim’s is the stronger force. As the carnival arrives in the town, Will’s influence begins to have no effect on Jim, and even as Will pulls away, Jim continues to draw towards the darkness there. From the halfway point, however, their relationship and the examination thereof takes something of a backseat to the adventure, and while we see Jim facing some consequences for his actions, it’s not put into context how this changes their relationship with each other. By contrast, Will’s relationship with his Dad is clearly and explicitly changed and we see that. At the beginning of the book they are almost strangers, a gulf between them formed entirely of Charles’ own issues with his age. It’s almost a bait-and-switch, as you start reading thinking the book will be about Jim and Will, but instead Jim almost becomes a catalyst to tell the story of Will and Charles.
It’s a dark story, with some sinister and very creepy imagery. Things happen which are horrifying in that way that makes you deeply sad, and it gives the whole book a melancholic, lurking feeling that fits with the idea of October nights creeping slowly earlier into the day, and drawing all things closer to the darkness. Written as it was in 1962, there are some ideals and language in the book that haven’t necessarily aged as well as they could have. There are only really three women mentioned in the book, and only one of them is given a direct rather than reported speaking role. She’s also narratively thrown under the bus a little, while the other two women – the boys’ mothers – are purposefully kept in the dark to save them fretting. It feels a bit galling. There are other women mentioned as being part of the carnival’s freak show, but they’re treated even worse. So far from even being given reported speech, they’re portrayed as monsters, inhuman, and some of the language used for members of the carnival felt a little uncomfortable for my modern sensibilities. Read in the context of its time, it makes sense, but I wanted to note this for other readers who might be upset by that.
The only thing that really didn’t work for me was a scene just over halfway through the book, where Charles, Jim and Will are trying to work out where the carnival came from, and what it actually is. I found that particular bit got a bit philosophical for me, rather than moving the plot forward it just gave Charles an opportunity to speak, at length, on the nature of darkness in humanity, good and evil, and other such topics. I found it slowed the story, and also the conclusions he came to seemed entirely spurious, as there was nothing presented as evidence to support any of his claims. It turns out he’s right, but I wish there had been more to say why he was. What led him to this outlandish conclusion, and how did he know that was the case?
That frustration aside, I really enjoyed it. I think this is the perfect sort of book to read as the nights are drawing in and the chill starts to appear in the air. The descriptions paint that time of year so vividly that I felt them, even though I was reading this during an (admittedly somewhat wet and chilly) August weekend. As Hallowe’en gets nearer (it’s only two months away!) and you look for spooky reads, this is worth picking up.
- A dark horror-fantasy that plays on the shadows that lurk at the corners of your mind and simultaneously tempt and repulse you. It explores ideas of age and self, while framing a story of a man and his son finding themselves and each other.
- As it’s an older work, don’t go into it expecting representation or diversity that can be found in more modern pieces of writing. It’s about three white men, and focuses entirely on their experiences. Where we are shown others, it’s only as a way to make the male characters react.
- It’s definitely got me curious about reading Bradbury’s other works, as I really enjoyed the creeping tone of the horror. There was something steady and almost gothic about it, which hit the notes I enjoyed.
Rating: 4/5 – some parts I found a little slower than others, and I wish their mothers hadn’t been handwaved aside as needing to be protected only, but otherwise it was a great, creepy fantasy.