‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ and the Gothic Carnivalesque

Jamil Mustafa
Jamil Mustafa

The American gothic powerfully influenced Ray Bradbury’s writing, and a midwestern carnival inspired him to become a writer. When Bradbury was a boy, his aunt Neva gave him a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’, illustrated by Harry Clarke.

“I read ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and fell in love with Poe,” Bradbury explains. “And then I read ‘The Black Cat’ and fell in love with Poe. And then I read ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and loved Poe even more. And then I read ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and that increased my love for Poe. And then I read ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and Poe completely enchanted me. I was ten years old, and for the next two years, I read Poe every day of my life.”

After these two years had passed, at a carnival in his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, Bradbury met “Mr. Electrico,” whose act involved sitting in an electric chair and getting spectacularly shocked. “I sat below, in the front row,” Bradbury recalls, “and he reached down with a flaming sword full of electricity and he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose and he cried, ‘Live, forever!’”

Mr. Electrico introduced the young Bradbury to the tattooed man, the strong man, the fat lady, the dwarf, and the skeleton. “I felt changed,” Bradbury continues. “And so I went home and within days I started to write.” Not surprisingly, he wrote in the manner of Poe: “I began to imitate him from the time I was twelve or so until I was about eighteen.” It is only fitting that ‘Dark Carnival’ (1947), Bradbury’s first collection of short stories, marked the beginning of his legendary career. Mr. Electrico had indeed made him immortal.

Bradbury’s favourite work of fiction, and the one that best exemplifies both the gothic and the carnivalesque qualities of his imagination, is ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ (1962), which tells the story of how the boys Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, together with Will’s father Charles, confront and defeat Cooger and Dark’s evil carnival.

Hazel Pierce, coauthors Jonathan Eller and William Touponce, and Timothy Jones have all considered how the American gothic and the carnivalesque function in the novel.

Pierce describes how it employs “the Gothic conventions of place and atmospherics,” together with “effects that Poe might have called arabesque,” before ending with “the Gothic convention of restoring moral and social order.”

Eller and Touponce interpret it as a response to classical Freudian theory’s supposed displacement of the fantastic in literature. They contend that Bradbury is “carnivalizing the whole tragic nature of interiority (repression, guilt, anguish) that Freud’s work represents,” and they characterize ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ as “the culmination of Bradbury’s aesthetics of carnival in the fantasy genre.”

Jones bridges the gap between Pierce’s emphasis on the gothic and Eller and Touponce’s on the carnivalesque, arguing that the novel exemplifies the “carnival Gothic,” a visceral, whimsical mode that, unlike the conventional gothic, privileges “immediate thrills over reflective, interpretive labour.”

He discerns this mode in the fiction of both Poe and Bradbury, claiming that “Poe identifies delight as working alongside horror” and that Bradbury’s gothic offers a “playful, alternative account of the real.”

Although, like Pierce, Jones positions’ Something Wicked This Way Comes’ in the American gothic tradition, he implicitly revises her claims for the orthodox nature of its gothicism. Meanwhile, he explicitly takes issue with Eller and Touponce’s argument that the novel is written in “a nonlinear symbolic code.”

“Bradbury’s imaginings,” Jones responds, “are too disorderly to provide any kind of ‘code,’ linear or not, although the sense remains that these figures ought to be interpreted. These are symbols unmoored from certain meaning, becoming discursive feints, hermeneutic swamp lights.”

His rejecting their reading — and, indeed, any reading — of ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ as an intelligible “symbolic code” is provocative. Before proposing just such a reading, I should address Jones’s position, while also taking into account the line that he and others draw between Bradbury’s science fiction and his gothic fiction.

Jones asserts that “even when Bradbury apparently offers substantial allegory, as in ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, the seemingly proffered meanings dissolve under any kind of scrutiny” and that, in this text, “[f]eeling rather than meaning is the thing.”

The “carnival Gothic,” it would seem, lures critics into an interpretive trap— and, as Oscar Wilde warns in his preface to ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1891), “Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.”

Significantly, Jones’s implication does not extend to Bradbury’s science fiction, though Eller and Touponce claim that “Bradbury carnivalizes each genre in which he works,” including science fiction. Joining what seems to be a critical consensus, Jones claims that “Bradbury’s Gothics are, in the main, separate from his science fiction.”

For Jones and other critics, this separation is a function not only of genre but also — and more problematically — of verisimilitude and historical representation.

He avers that Bradbury’s “Gothics do not engage with discourse or the stuff of history in the way that his earlier science fiction does.” While Eller and Touponce make no such claim, they nonetheless read ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ — a novel that Bradbury began when the Warsaw Pact was founded and saw published during the Cuban missile crisis — as a carnivalesque critique of Freudian subjectivity.

In marked contrast, they interpret ‘The Martian Chronicles’ (1950) as “a diagnosis of 1950s American culture” and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1953) as “an inverted carnival” that “Bradbury constructs to depict the fears and concerns of postwar America.”

Kevin Hoskinson takes a similar position, arguing that “’The Martian Chronicles’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ share a distinction as ‘cold war fiction’ because in them, much more deliberately than in earlier or later publications, Bradbury deals with subjects and issues that were shaped by the political climate of the United States in the decade immediately following World War II.”

Arthur Redding likewise includes Bradbury among “a new wave of philosophically inclined science-fiction writers… whose writings [in that genre] deploy sustained metaphorical analyses of the costs and consequences of the Cold War.”

While most of these scholars simply overlook how Bradbury’s novel grapples with history and mistakenly dissociate it from his allegorical and politically informed science fiction, Jones describes it — and “carnival Gothic” in general — as “only loosely connected to the discourses of nation and history,” a “darkly-hued escape from [the] real.”

This misreading undervalues not only the novel’s artistry but also its contribution to Cold War discourse. Even if ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ were designed to withdraw from rather than engage with American politics and society of the 1950s and 1960s, an escape from history is still a response to it — flight rather than fight. Moreover, if the novel were as Jones describes it, then we might follow Fredric Jameson’s lead and probe its political unconscious, investigating how the text represses the turbulent times in which it was written.

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, however, is not an escapist fantasy requiring Marxist recuperation but a distinctively constructed allegory that represents and critiques American Cold War paranoia in a quintessentially gothic and carnivalesque fashion, by illustrating how laughter conquers fear.

In it, the gothic and the carnivalesque work together to explore related historical and psychological phenomena.

David Punter explains that the gothic is at once “a particular attitude towards the recapture of history” and “a mode of revealing the unconscious,” both “a mode of history and a mode of memory.”

Likewise, while the carnival and the carnivalesque are practices rooted in history and culture, “carnival forms of thinking,” David Danow contends, “are firmly embedded within the human psyche.” Fear is both a psychological manifestation and a response to historical realities (especially during anxiety-producing eras), and both the carnivalesque and the gothic concern themselves with its expression and eradication.

“The Gothic tradition is based firmly on the very human emotion of fear,” Pierce notes, especially “fear of the unknown” and “fear of evil.” The “energy of fear” powers Cooger and Dark’s carnival, just as it powered Joseph McCarthy’s investigations. Opposing fear is laughter, which, as Mikhail Bakhtin observes, “gives form to carnival rituals.”

The combat is unequal, for “fear is the extreme expression of narrow-minded and stupid seriousness, which is defeated by laughter.” Bradbury’s deploying carnivalesque laughter against the paranoia of the Cold War is very much in keeping with the strategy of Bakhtin’s own project, “a hidden polemic directed against Stalinist uses of Marxism in the Soviet regime of the 1930s and 1940s.”

For both Bakhtin and Bradbury, the carnival and the carnivalesque are the most potent ways to conquer the terror of tyranny, and the tyranny of terror.

As an allegory of how Cold War fear might be vanquished by laughter, ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is far less straightforward than the allegories of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, which are among its models.

Eller and Touponce are quite right that “the explosion of metaphor in Something Wicked is as intense as one finds anywhere in Bradbury’s fiction.” Trying to put all of these metaphors into their proper places, as if the novel were a puzzle to be solved, would leave pieces without positions — but a picture would emerge nevertheless. We need not echo Jim Nightshade’s admission: “Allegory’s beyond me.”

Jones is mistaken in claiming that the novel, however overdetermined and emblematically elusive it may be, is devoid of symbolic coherence. That said, its allegorical status is certainly problematic. Thinking of the text as similar to the Mirror Maze it features is helpful, for allegorical representation is not unlike a maze of mirrors, a mise en abyme in which meanings proliferate endlessly.

This comparison is especially apt when we interpret ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, whose carnival’s mirrors render people youthful or aged rather than simply grotesque, as a carnivalesque version of allegory. The novel inverts, collapses, and mocks the conventional allegorical schema, in which doubled representations coalesce to form an alternate level of significance. It offers instead a multiplicity of meanings, shattering traditional allegory in much the same fashion as Charles Halloway’s laughter shatters the Mirror Maze. Thus, an already uncanny mode becomes exponentially uncannier.

Given that ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ begins with the threat of lightning and that an actual Mr. Electrico inspired the novel, it makes sense to start with Mr. Cooger, transformed by the time-altering carousel from a boy into a wizened old man and renamed Mr. Electrico. Will and Jim, who have been spying on the carnival and are responsible for Mr. Cooger’s transformation, “bring doctors to save him, so he forgives [them], maybe” (111).

As the boys, two policemen, two medical interns, and the carnival freaks watch, this “Erector-setpapier mâché relic constricted in the Electric Chair” (110) is brought back to life by Mr. Dark. “One hundred thousand volts will now burn Mr. Electrico’s body!” (111), Mr. Dark cries. “Yet he will come forth alive!” Mr. Dark throws the switch, “the Electric Chair [becomes] a hearth [,] and on it the old man [blazes],” burned in “blue fire” (112). Impossibly, he does indeed “[come] alive” (113).

In giving rather than taking life, the Electric Chair functions as a carnivalesque inversion of its real-world analog, “Old Sparky,” the infamous electric chair at Sing Sing prison whose victims included Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed on June 19, 1953, for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviets.

Julius preceded his wife to the electric chair. When “a first shock of 2,000 volts, with ten amperes, surged through him,” Julius’s “body temperature spiked to 130 degrees and a strand of smoke rose from the leather facemask.” Minutes later, Ethel was strapped into the same chair by prison guards. After she too was electrocuted, “prison doctors placed the stethoscope on the thin green fabric covering her chest. They looked at each other, dumbfounded. Her heart was still beating.” Prison officials then “applied additional electricity, conjuring ’a ghastly plume of smoke’ that sprang from her masked head.” Immediately before she was killed, Ethel had been told by the prison rabbi that she could save herself by providing the names of any spies. “I have no names to give,” she responded. Outside the prison and around the world, people had been watching and waiting to learn whether the Rosenbergs would live or die.

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