“‘Time and death are the greatest enemies all of us must face, and the only weapon stronger than they are is love.’”
In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, the familiar struggle between good and evil is framed by pitting a sinister carnival and its members against two best friends, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, and Will’s father, Charles Halloway. What distinguishes Bradbury’s approach are his startling arguments that evil can gain power only when good succumbs to it and that laughter in the face of evil conquers it. By referring to the characters’ various Christian denominations and their belief in God, Bradbury sets a Christian tone.
We see several Christian themes in the novel. First, in choosing to cling to good and deny evil in the form of the carnival’s wicked devices that alter the natural flow of time, there is the notion that we overcome evil. Second, Bradbury explores the Christian values of sacrifice and selflessness in one of his critical premises, love. It is embodied in the friendship between Will and Jim and the father-son bond between Will and Charles. He also demonstrates the power of laughter in exploiting evil’s impotence and in producing joy, which evil cannot tolerate, as its antithesis. Most importantly, Bradbury emphasizes the importance of the choices each character makes with regard to remaining in a community of love and laughter in the struggle against evil in our own hearts to make the right decisions. We see the strength gained from remaining in Christian community, shoring up each other’s weaknesses, and we live to fight another day against evil, both external and internal.
THE DEFINITION OF EVIL
For Bradbury, evil equates to selfish desire and choosing to succumb to the carnival’s temptations because of fear. The carnival exploits both as weaknesses in its victims. First is selfish desire, which causes characters to acquiesce to the carnival. Nowhere is this selfishness seen more clearly than in Jim. Will and Jim are best friends who were born within minutes of each other, have grown up next door to one another, and are opposites in everything from appearance to moral proclivities.
Despite Jim’s ultimate escape from the carnival, he is sorely plagued by its enticements. The carnival has two main contraptions that either tempt or frighten victims into joining: the maze of mirrors and the carousel. Both are magical and prey on the characters’ desires and fears regarding their ages. The maze of mirrors reflects aged images that either horrify or tempt those who enter it, depending on their longings. Jim is captivated by the desire to be older than thirteen and is enticed by his reflection in the maze of mirrors; however, he recognizes Will’s ability to curb his innate attraction toward evil and asks, “You’re always going to be around, aren’t you, Will? To protect me?” The carousel makes its victims younger or older by one year after riding one full circle either backwards or forwards while playing Chopin’s Funeral March. The idea of riding it transfixes Jim, but Will pleads with Jim to see his selfishness in leaving behind his best friend: “‘You’d just go away and leave me here, Jim…. Everything in its time, like the preacher said only last month, everything one by one, not two by two, will you remember?’” Will reminds Jim that a natural order of time and events exist, and rushing them by his own efforts is unwise.
Jim’s selfish desire also affects his mother, his only remaining family member. His father and other siblings are dead, leaving Jim and his mother, who remarks, “You’re here, Jim. If you weren’t, I’d given up long ago…. The day you go away is the day [your father] leaves forever…. But when it’s time [for you to go], tell me. Say goodbye. Otherwise, I might not let you go.” As her remark suggests, it is not yet time for Jim to leave home. Charles summarizes the evil in giving up what one already has for a selfish desire: “‘[The maze of mirrors] blackmailed Miss Foley so she joined the grand march Nowhere, joined the fools who wanted everything! So wound up with nothing like the dumb dog who dropped his bone to go after the reflection of the bone in the pond.’” For Bradbury, tinkering with the natural order of time is an evil affair.
Bradbury’s second definition of evil is fear instigating wrong decisions; specifically, this means succumbing to the carnival. The prime example is demonstrated in Miss Foley, Will and Jim’s seventh-grade teacher, who is in her mid-fifties. The maze of mirrors reflects a younger version of herself, and she is frightened. “‘Oh, she looked so fine, so lovely, so young. But it scared me. ‘What’re you doing here?’ I said. ‘Why, I think she said, “I’m real. You’re not!”…. She looked like myself, many, many years ago.’” Miss Foley mistakenly believes that aging will destroy her uniqueness, and to regain herself, she must become young again by riding the carousel. By preying on her fear of aging through showing Miss Foley her lost youth, the carnival traps Miss Foley.
Bradbury ties these aspects of selfishness and fear to aging, which in turn is tied to death. Will best summarizes the carnival’s mode of preying upon humanity’s fear of death as he ponders, “And, Will thought, here comes the carnival, Death like a rattle in one hand, Life like candy in the other; shake one to scare you, offer one to make your mouth water.” The carnival uses death as its main threat to lure victims into its fold and to react wrongly to their fear of death by choosing to alter the natural flow of time and aging via the carnival’s contraptions.
For Bradbury, the worst evil is to succumb to fear and choose to cheat death by using the age-altering carousel. As evidenced by Will’s reminder to Jim that the preacher advocated “everything in its time,” Bradbury views the artificial alteration of the effects of aging as part of the carnival’s evil temptations. Utilizing the carousel to extend one’s lifespan indefinitely is the most extreme form of these alterations and therefore the most evil. Bradbury’s view on the proper response to death is encapsulated by C. S. Lewis’s remarks:
So much for the sense in which human Death is the result of sin and the triumph of Satan. But it is also the means of redemption from sin, God’s medicine for Man and His weapon against Satan…. Humanity must embrace death freely, submit to it with total humility, drink it to the dregs…. [Christ] tasted death on behalf of all others. He is the representative ‘Die-er’ of the universe: and for that very reason the Resurrection and the Life.
In short, Lewis argues that God has used Satan’s own tool against him by sending Christ to die on behalf of humanity and turn death into the means by which those who trust Jesus as their Savior enter heaven. For that reason, Christians should not rebel against death because its evil will be transformed for good for them. In his refusal to allow death to have power over him, Charles best embodies this principle, “‘Death makes everything else sad. But death itself only scares. If there wasn’t death, all the other things wouldn’t get tainted.’” Charles explains that to forget death’s eventual force for good, despite the sorrow it brings, is wrong.
The fact that death will be overturned does not negate the ensuing grief we experience; even Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus. Although its effects bring anguish, with the proper response, we may remember that its end result is not evil. Charles is correct in his assessment of death; death only frightens and saddens us when we truly need not be terrified because of its transformation into a tool for our good. Bradbury’s view can be summarized thus: choosing to escape death by the unnatural means of the carousel’s magic is the most egregious evil because to submit to death at a natural time is to defeat it.
THE KEY TO DEFEATING EVIL: LOVE AND LAUGHTER
What feeds evil, as Bradbury defines it? Beyond taking advantage of its victims’ weaknesses, the carnival gains its power from the pain and misery it loves to cause. “The carnival doesn’t care if it stinks by moonlight instead of sun, so long as it gorges on fear and pain. That’s the fuel, the vapor that spins the carousel, the raw stuffs of terror, the excruciating agony of guilt, the scream from real or imagined wounds. The carnival sucks that gas, ignites it, and chugs along its way.” The carnival delights in the fear it strikes in its victims, and its supernatural powers thrive off the anguish and suffering from its exploitation of human frailty and sin.
Bradbury believes, however, that evil holds no inherent power of its own, stating, “Evil has only the power that we give it. I give you nothing. I take back. Starve.” This belief is striking, and perhaps because good and evil are often pitted against one another so vividly, it is often assumed that evil must possess some power to engage the omnipotent good. Perhaps we should not be surprised, however, for as James reminds us, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” We are called to “give no opportunity to the devil”; thus, when we obey God’s commandments out of our love for Him, we discover that evil has no hold on us.
Bradbury identifies two factors that strike at the heart of evil’s impotence: love and laughter. Charles identifies shared experience as the crucial element of love, but “What could he [Charles] say that might make sense to [the boys]? Could he say love was, above all, common cause, shared experience? That was the vital cement, wasn’t it?” By contrast, Charles observes the carnival’s tendency to seek out lone individuals:
Every man’s a fool. Which means you got…[to] make do, against the day you’re the worst fool of all and shout “Help!” Then all you need is one person’s answer…. [The carnival targets] individuals with no one, they think, or no one actual, to answer their “Help!” Unconnected fools, that’s the harvest the carnival comes smiling after with its threshing machine.
We are never more vulnerable than when we are alone, but love, through shared experience, places one into a community. It is this community that binds Will, Jim, and Charles together to fight the carnival.
Two relationships are key to exemplifying the might of love over evil: the friendship between Will and Jim, and the father-son bond between Will and Charles. Despite their differences, Will and Jim have an unbreakable, pure friendship; they desire nothing from the other except his company. Will is easily the most innocent character in the novel, whereas Jim is drawn to the darker side of life. His middle name is Moriarty, an interesting choice for Bradbury, because the Latin word moriar translates literally into English, “I will die.” Indeed, Jim does die, only to be saved by Will and Charles. Their friendship is based on a simple enough premise — they were born minutes apart and grew up next door to one another — but the two influence each other profoundly. Charles observes their effect on one another:
So there they go, Jim running slower to stay with Will, Will running faster to stay with Jim, Jim breaking two windows in a haunted house because Will’s along, Will breaking one window instead of none, because Jim’s watching. God, how we get our fingers in each other’s clay. That’s friendship, each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of the other.
Jim encourages Will to enjoy life more freely than he perhaps otherwise would, and Will keeps Jim on the right side of the line between good and evil.
Their friendship is critical to resisting the carnival because without Will’s better judgment to guide him, Jim would capitulate almost instantly. Will seems to have the greater influence on Jim, or in Charles’s terms, molds Jim more than Jim molds Will. Nowhere is this seen more plainly than in their finest moment of friendship at the end of the novel. After Will and Charles become separated from Jim at the carnival, Jim’s selfishness overtakes his better judgment, and he races for the carousel. While Charles searches for the box to shut the carousel down, Will runs after Jim to pull him off the contraption: “‘Jim, get off! Jim, don’t leave me here!’…. As if by some lone lost and final instinct, [Jim] gestured his other hand free to trail on the wind, the one part of him, the small white separate part that still remembered their friendship.” Will is the friend that sticks closer than a brother and acts selflessly because he risks being trapped on the carousel himself — which does happen, albeit briefly — and yet chooses to help Jim nonetheless. During this act of near-insanity on Jim’s part, it is only remembering his friendship with Will that returns him to his senses as he grasps for Will’s hand. We see the love of Christ in Will’s actions: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
The father-son bond between Will and Charles is the second love vital to defeating the carnival and rescuing Jim. At the beginning of the novel, Will regards his father as almost nothing more than an old man, and Charles is distant from his son, primarily because at fifty-four years old, he feels too old to be a suitable father to a thirteen year old. “Will stared. It was always a surprise — that old man, his work, his name…. Dad always seemed stunned when Will rose up before him, as if they had met a lifetime ago and one had grown old while the other stayed young, and this fact stood between….” Indeed, this fact so stands between them that Will is initially reluctant to disclose to Charles that the carnival is pursuing him and Jim. Charles suspects it, however, and his fears are confirmed when Mr. Dark approaches him during the carnival’s parade. Throughout the scene, the boys, who are hiding beneath the sidewalk, watch the exchange through the grille. As he witnesses his father’s courage in protecting him and Jim from Mr. Dark, Will sees his father in a new light, “And Will, below, gazing up, eyes wet, mouth wide, thought, Oh my gosh, why didn’t I see it before? Dad’s tall. Dad’s very tall indeed.” For his part, Charles begins to take a more active role as a father, remarking to the boys, “‘Why am I here at all? Right now, it seems to help you.’ He paused and looked at the two boys and their fine young faces. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Very late in the game. To help you.’”
At last, Charles overcomes his feelings of inadequacy as a father who is too old and therefore useless. He remarks to Will, “‘You know what I hate most of all, Will? Not being able to run any more, like you.’” Charles fulfills his need to exist in a community at the novel’s close, after the carnival has been defeated and the carousel destroyed. The boys decide to race one another home, and at first Charles hesitates to join them. But his longing to run with them topples his reservations, and he
hesitated only a moment. He felt the vague pain in his chest. If I run, he thought, what will happen? Is Death important? No. Everything that happens before Death is what counts. And we’ve done fine tonight. Even Death can’t spoil it. So, there went the boys…and why not…follow? He did just that…. Running even with the boys, the middle-aged man reached out. Will slapped, Jim slapped, Dad slapped the semaphore signal base at the same instant. Exultant, they banged a trio of shouts down the wind.
After spending years in the shadows, so paralyzed from fear of his age’s implications to his abilities as a father that he has not spent quality time with his son, Charles finally chooses to race with the boys and experience the love inherent in community with them.
The second factor to deal death its fatal blow is laughter. When the Witch, an emissary of Mr. Dark, attempts to stop Charles’s heart with her magic, he inexplicably cackles at the sight of her twitching her fingers, and she flees, unable to cope with his laughter. Charles then kills the Witch with Will’s help, as they participate in a carnival trick that involves a wax bullet onto which Charles has carved what Mr. Dark believes to be a half-moon: “[Charles] made these words, silently with his lips: The crescent moon I have marked on the bullet is not a crescent moon. It is my own smile. I have put my smile on the bullet in the rifle. He said it once. He waited for her to understand. He said it, silently, again.” Although the shot should be harmless, the Witch dies simply because she cannot bear the joy of a smile. Evil cannot tolerate joy and happiness because the carnival feeds off suffering and pain and cannot process any form of goodness.
In the following scene, the bond between Will and Charles is cemented, and laughter and love combine to defeat Charles’s demon — the fear of being too old a father. Immediately after the Witch’s death, Will and Charles attempt to rescue Jim from the maze of mirrors. Jim manages to escape without their help, but they are still trapped in the maze, which immediately pounces upon Charles’s fear. In each mirror, Charles appears even older than the previous reflection, and he collapses from terror. Only Will can help him, and he exclaims,
“Oh, Dad, Dad, I don’t care how old you are, ever! I don’t care what, I don’t care anything! Oh, Dad,” he cried, weeping. “I love you!” At which Charles Halloway opened his eyes and saw himself and the others like himself and his son behind holding him…. He opened his mouth very wide, and let the loudest sound of all free. The Witch, if she were alive, would have known that sound, and died again.
His son’s love strengthens Charles to laugh again at evil and binds them in shared experience, in community, and strengthens Charles to recall the proper response to evil which is laughter. The mirrors explode, never to haunt another victim.
For Bradbury, love and laughter are so powerful that they even reverse the untimely, unnatural death of Jim. After Jim stretches out his hand to Will on his ill-fated carousel ride, Will wrenches Jim from the carousel just before Charles cuts the power to the machine, and from the shock of being caught between the carousel’s wicked magic and the natural world, Jim falls dead. Will begins to sob, but Charles fiercely orders him to stand and dance to the boys’ favorite song, to sing and laugh to rescue Jim: “‘A single smile, Willy, the night people can’t stand it. The sun’s there. They hate the sun. We can’t take them seriously, Will!… Don’t let them take your crying, turn it upside down and use it for their own smile! I’ll be damned if death wears my sadness for glad rags. Don’t feed them one damn thing, Willy, loosen your bones!’” Their love for Jim recalls him from the evil toward which he has been walking and inspires them to support Jim in his weakness: “‘Half in, out half out. Jim’s been that, always. Sore-tempted. Now he went too far and maybe he’s lost. But he fought to save himself, right? Put his hand out to you, to fall free of the machine? So we finish that fight for him.’” Gradually, Jim is revived and joins in the dance and laughter with them.
Why does laughter strike so forceful a blow to evil and thereby conquer it? Although Bradbury argues that evil has no inherent power, he does not dismiss its temptations lightly, as the carnival’s enticements tantalize even the three characters who triumph over it: Jim, Will, and Charles. If evil can lure even the relatively pure of heart, it must be taken seriously. Thus, Bradbury’s brand of laughter does not scoff at evil’s supposed unimportance; rather, it treats evil exactly as the empty shell it is. Bradbury’s laughter recognizes evil’s own impotence and the authority we have over it as long as we choose to remember its lack of power and remain in a community of love that recalls to us our obligations to one another in times of trial.
The powerlessness of evil is nowhere more obvious than in Charles’s vanquishing of Mr. Dark, who has made himself younger to deceive Charles and evade the police. Charles sees through the ploy and hugs the boy Mr. Dark has morphed into; Mr. Dark protests but is unable to recover from Charles’s kindness:
“I’m not going to murder you, Jed, Mr. Dark, whoever, whatever you are. You’re going to murder yourself because you can’t stand being near people like me, not this close, close, not this long”…. He gathered the boy somewhat closer and thought, Evil has only the power that we give it. I give you nothing. Starve. Starve. Starve. The two matchstick lights in the boy’s affrighted eyes blew out. The boy…fell to earth. There should have been a roar like a mountain slid to ruin. But there was only a rustle, like a Japanese paper lantern dropped in the dust.
If evil possessed power, Mr. Dark would have collapsed with a “roar” as life rushed out of his body. In Mr. Dark’s almost soundless death, we see the feebleness of evil. Evil’s only advantage is knowing human weaknesses and how best to tempt us to act on those weaknesses, and its only talent is to destroy. Like the thief who comes to steal and destroy, it possesses no power of creation to generate community in which we “stir up one another to love and good works,” as Jesus explained His purpose was for us to have life and have it abundantly. Mr. Dark’s defeat, and that of the carnival as a whole, are illustrated by T. S. Eliot’s words, “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”
ARE THE AUTUMN PEOPLE ALREADY HERE?
When talking to the boys, Charles characterizes the carnival members as “autumn people,” that is, those who have turned to evil. He voices a chilling thought, “Most of us are half-and-half. The August noon in us works to stave off the November chills. We survive by what little Fourth of July wits we’ve stashed away. But there are times when we’re all autumn people.” Mr. Dark is only a man, but a man who chose to yield to evil and thereby became the ringleader of the sinister carnival.
We often congratulate ourselves on our moral superiority. We recoil from Mr. Dark and revile his corruption as so complete that we could never resemble him. But in doing so, we forget, or perhaps we conveniently ignore, the choice every person must make between summer and autumn, between good and evil. We do not always choose wisely, and those choices create a checkered pattern in all our lives between the green of summer and the brown of autumn. But, Charles says, as he and the boys stand on the carousel one last time, maybe members of the carnival are always present, even after Mr. Dark has been slain and his minions have fled:
Just three times around, ahead, thought Will. Hey. Just four times around, ahead, thought Jim. Boy. Just ten times around, back, thought Charles Halloway. Lord. Each read the thoughts in the other’s eyes…. The thought hit them all in the same quiet moment…finally you wind up owner of the carousel, keeper of the freaks…proprietor for some small part of eternity of the traveling dark carnival shows…Maybe, said their eyes, they’re already here.
Bradbury warns us of our own weaknesses; even the smallest temptation in the heart of Will, the novel’s purest character, could lead him to become Mr. Dark eventually.
The fight against the autumn people is never over, but equally important is the fight not to become the autumn people ourselves. Because in the end, some part of autumn always vies for a place in our hearts. We bear a heavy load with this knowledge and “we are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice, to laugh or cry.” For Bradbury, the choice is clear.
We choose to repel evil with goodness to give it no power over us. We choose to laugh and love, to chase away the darkness crowding into our hearts. We choose to remain in the community of love that supports us whenever we cry out for help, where “if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
As Charles and the boys do at the end of the novel, we choose to run with one another so that we will never allow each other or ourselves to become the ringleaders of our own personal carnivals of evil.
Megan Joy Rials holds her Juris Doctor and Graduate Diploma in Comparative Law from the Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center and works as a research attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She is currently working toward an online Master of Arts in Apologetics (cultural track) from Houston Christian University. She is a Board member of and regular contributor to An Unexpected Journal, and she also serves as Scholar in Residence and Content Editor for the Leadership Council of the Society for Women of Letters. Her work has also been published in the Worldview Bulletin, Mere Orthodoxy, Perichoresis, and the Louisiana Law Review, where she served as Production Editor for Volume 77. She attends Jefferson Baptist Church with her family, and her main apologetics interests lie in storytelling of all mediums, fantasy literature, the theology of suffering, the function of memory in spiritual development, and the work of the Inklings, particularly C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers.
Megan Joy Rials, “The Autumn People,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 2. (Summer 2020), 109-130.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/the-autumn-people-how-love-and-laughter-conquer-evil-in-ray-bradburys-something-wicked-this-way-comes/
 Patricia C. Wrede, “Stronger than Time,” in Book of Enchantments (New York: Scholastic Inc., 1996), 161.
 Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (New York: William Morrow, 1962), 69.
 Ibid., 128, 129.
 Ibid., 41, 42; emphasis original.
 Ibid., 281.
 Ibid., 66; emphasis original.
 Ibid., 137.
 C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1947), 208, 211.
 We might wonder why, if Bradbury views accepting a natural death as necessary for overcoming its inherent evil, Will and Charles revive Jim from his death at the end of the novel rather than accepting it. The answer is simple: Jim did not die naturally because the magic of the carousel caused his death. Therefore, reviving him was necessary to reverse the carousel’s magical alteration of natural events.
 John 11:35.
 Bradbury, Something Wicked, 200-201.
 Ibid., 273.
 James 4:7; Eph. 4:27.
 Ibid., 196; emphasis original.
 Bradbury, Something Wicked, 194.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 267; emphasis original.
 Prov. 18:24.
 John 15:13.
 Bradbury, Something Wicked, 14; emphasis and first and last ellipses original.
 Ibid., 179.
 Ibid., 193.
 Ibid., 130.
 Ibid., 288, 289; emphasis and first two ellipses original.
 Ibid., 249; emphasis original.
 Ibid., 256.
 Ibid., 281, 282; emphasis original.
 Ibid., 281; emphasis original.
 Ibid., 273-274; emphasis original.
 Heb. 10:24-25; John 10:10.
 T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” in Collected Poems: 1909-1962, 77-82 (Orlando: Harcourt, 1963); 79, 82; emphasis original.
 Bradbury, Something Wicked, 192.
 Ibid., 287, 288; emphasis and last two ellipses original.
 Ibid., 196.
 1 John 1:7.