By David Nilsen
No writer has ever understood the sad, strange, ecstatic wonder of midwestern childhood like Ray Bradbury. The curious freedoms granted us away from cities, the teetering inner space between camaraderie and loneliness, the emotional and sensory geography granted by the seasons, the cultural substrate of a people used to open land but not as far away from their neighbors as they think they are, the miles walked, the safe dangers known, the false trust in ubiquitous morality, the ancientness of a young country, brick buildings that are old for just no longer being new.
Similarly, I don’t know of another writer who understands what autumn does to a child in this environment like Bradbury. There is glory and regret and a whispering in the soul at the call of October in the heart of any child who has known falling barns and rattling cornstalks in their early years. It isn’t named, and it isn’t really understood at the time. It sweeps in every year with the inevitability of age. It might be tied to school; the start of the school year is the surest marker that time has indeed passed, that the bodies we live in daily are in fact getting older. The season is beautiful, but it is, of course, haunted. We don’t need Halloween to prove this to us. Autumn is when every tree we climbed all summer fakes its death till spring, and we feel some tickle of mortality on the wind long before we’re old enough to name it. Rain on the windows, pumpkins on the porch, leaves swept up and burned like a sacrifice. These things are an annual totem to the knowledge that spring is only half the truth of incarnation. No number of participation ribbons can cushion us from October. It comes for us every year throughout the eternal brevity of our childhoods. It came for Ray Bradbury throughout his, and he taught us to keep waiting for it past the border lands of adolescence and across the wide country of adulthood. If we train our senses to the seasons we can claim autumn like the thrill rides we trust our bodies to at the county fairs that mark the end of summer’s long swing – a celebration of life by way of pantomiming death. I never feel so alive as when I’m walking straight into a wet October wind.
You could argue Bradbury’s entire prolific bibliography is dedicated to this sentiment, that it all harkens back to the summers and autumns of his childhood in Illinois and this fearful glory of being awake to life and to death in the seasons. One of the novels he set in his home town (under the fictional name of Green Town) was Something Wicked This Way Comes, and it tips its hat to this notion with its opening line: First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.
Setting aside the nearly ubiquitous gendering of experience in Bradbury’s novels, the line primes us for a book that is largely about what autumn feels like for rural children in the middle states. The colorful wistfulness of autumn in this line and in several others early in the book establish the role of the season in Bradbury’s mortal imagination. Take these passages, all in the first fifteen pages of the book:
“But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last day of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” – page 1
“Jim and Will grinned at each other. It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.” – page 10
“Watching the boys vanish away, Charles Halloway suppressed a sudden urge to run with them, make the pack. He knew what the wind was doing to them, where it was taking them, to all the secret places that were never so secret again in life. Somewhere in him, a shadow turned mournfully over. You had to run with a night like this, so the sadness could not hurt.” – page 13-14
That final passage ties a loop around the theme of the book. Two boys, Jim and Will, are on the cusp of adolescence, the boundary to adulthood. They are still children, but taking childhood’s final full breaths. Will’s father, Charles Halloway, was forty when Will was born and is nearing old age now, with heart problems. The book examines mortality and death and the desire to live forever through the two lenses of Will’s youth and his father’s advancing age. A dark carnival comes to town on a screaming train late one night and sets up in a field outside town. Something is wrong with this carnival, and Jim and Will can’t quite put words to what it is. They are drawn to the horror and danger and magic of the carnival’s leader, Mr. Dark, a tattooed yet stately man of unknown age and preternatural knowledge of the fears and curiosities tumbling through the boys’ minds. They are drawn to him as they are drawn by the fascination of death to books of adventure, danger, torture, and crime in the library Will’s father works at late into the night.
Charles is a man who has lost the boy in him but is unfortunate enough to know it. He sees the holy joy and terror that pedal the boys’ legs before the howl of an October wind and wants nothing more than to join the run. His body has betrayed him, and he fears at some point his spirit did too. He fears what he is in Will’s eyes–something less than a father and more like a kindly old gentleman close to the family. It isn’t true. The book is partially about discovering that, about Charles learning painfully that a body and a spirit are still very much alive until they are not, and he is not too late to speak into the heart of his child.
One night the boys and Will’s old man have an unexpected and dangerous adventure related to the carnival, and when they arrive back at their adjacent houses late at night Mr. Halloway asks Jim if he can get back inside without waking his mother.
“Jim nodded and took them over to fumble among the clusters of thick moss and leaves on the side of the house until they found the iron rungs they had secretly nailed and placed to make a hidden ladder up to Jim’s room. Mr. Halloway laughed, once, almost with pain, and a strange wild sadness shook his head.
‘How long has this gone on? No, don’t tell me. I did it, too, your age.’ He looked up the ivy toward Jim’s window. ‘Fun being out late, free as all hell.’ He caught himself. ‘You don’t stay out too long–?’
‘This week was the very first time after midnight.’
Dad pondered a moment. ‘Having permission would spoil everything, I suppose? It’s sneaking out to the lake, the graveyard, the rail tracks, the peach orchards summer nights that counts….'” – page 95
So much of Something Wicked is Charles remembering, through observing his son, what it is to be alive, to claim life from the teeth of death with every tree climbed and train rail walked and ghost in the shadows dodged. By book’s end Will and Jim are not quite boys, Charles not quite grey old man. The one-page prologue ends, And that was the October week when they grew up overnight, and were never so young any more…
I sincerely don’t know how American children in warmer states learn about death. Not a general knowledge of it–everyone has a grandparent die, or a pet lost, or a kid in their town who gets hit by something on wheels, or an act of violence announcing the real world too early–but a deeper learning, something that runs along the bones and sits somewhere near the base of the throat when truck tires howl along a distant highway across empty fields in the witching hours of night while we lie still awake in bed. Rotting pumpkins and the smell of soybean chaff thrown to the wind behind harvesters big as the sky, rain on shutters and barren branches scraping along the inner rims of gutters–without these, I would never have learned the tug of death at the hem of everything given life, the slaphappy fear that gives October its fire. Ray Bradbury learned it, and he taught it back to us in most of his books.
We’re all going to die. Isn’t that wonderful, he seemed to ask us?