Dark Carnival Brilliance: 10 Wickedly Good Descriptions in Bradbury’s Classic Novel

Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes remains a perennial October re-read. One key to the book’s lasting popularity is the poetry infusing Bradbury’s prose. The author uses his unparalleled gift for description to immerse his audience in the autumnal scene. Virtually every page of the novel features instances of haunting imagery and captivating language, but here below are my choices for the ten most memorable passages.

(All quotes are taken from the October 2017 Simon & Schuster trade paperback, a definitive edition recommended not just for the text of Bradbury’s novel itself, but also for the extensive “History, Context and Criticism” section appended to it.)

 

1.A Frost Maiden on Display:

And in the window, like a great coffin boat of star-colored glass, beached on two sawhorses lay a chunk of Alaska Snow Company ice chopped to a size great enough to flash in a giant’s ring. (p. 40)

 

2.Overnight Incoming:

There, on the precipice of earth, a small steam feather uprose like the first of a storm cloud yet to come.

The train itself appeared, link by link, engine, coal-car, and numerous and numbered all-asleep-and-slumbering-dreamfilled cars that followed the firefly-sparked churn, chant, drowsy autumn hearthfire roar. Hellfires flushed the stunned hills. Even at this remote view, one imagined men with buffalo-haunched arms shoveling black meteor falls of coal into the open boilers of the engine. (p. 44)

 

3.The Very Antithesis of Merry:

They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their  panic-colored teeth. (p. 69)

 

4.Suitably Sinister:

His vest was the color of flesh blood. His eyebrows, his hair, his suit were licorice black, and the sun-yellow gem which stared from the tie pin thrust in his cravat was the same unblinking shade and bright crystal as his eyes. But in this instant, swiftly, and with utter clearness, it was the suit which fascinated Will. for it seemed woven of boar-bramble, clock-spring hair, bristle, and a sort of ever-trembling, ever-glistening dark hemp. The suit caught light and stirred like a bed of black tweed-thorns, interminably itching, covering the man’s long body with motion so it seemed he should excruciate, cry out, and tear the clothes free. (p. 70)

 

5.A Fiery Rehearsal:

And there the Lava Sipper, Vesuvio of the chafed tongue, of the scalded teeth, who spun scores of fireballs up, hissing in a ferris of flame which streaked shadows along the tent roof.

Nearby, in booths, another thirty freaks watched the fires fly until the Lava Sipper glanced, saw intruders, and let his universe fall. The suns drowned in a a water tub. (p. 101)

 

6.Hearkening in the Dark:

What sort of noise does a balloon make, adrift?

None.

No, not quite. It noises itself, it soughs, like the wind billowing your curtains all white as breaths of foam. Or it makes a sound like the stars turning over in your sleep. Or it announces itself like moonrise and moonset. That last is best: like the moon sailing the universal deeps, so rides a balloon. (p.130-131)

 

7.Mr. Halloway Monologue:

“The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by death-watch beetles, and thrive the centuries. They were the men with the leather-ribbon whips who sweated up the pyramids seasoning it with other people’s salt and other people’s cracked hearts. They coursed Europe on the White Horses of the Plague. They whispered to Caesar that he was mortal, then sold daggers at half-price in the grand March sale. Some must have been lazing clowns, foot props for emperors, princes, and epileptic popes. Then out on the road, Gypsies in time, their populations grew as the world grew, spread, and there was more delicious variety of pain to thrive on. The train put wheels under them and here they run down the long road out of the Gothic and baroque; look at their wagons and coaches, the carving like medieval shrines, all of it stuff once drawn  by horses, mules, or, maybe, men.” (p. 182-183)

 

8.Horripilating Skin Show:

Mr. Dark came carrying his panoply of friends, his jewel-case assortment of calligraphical reptiles which lay sunning themselves at midnight on his flesh. With him strode the stitch-inked Tyrannosaurus rex, which lent to his haunches a machined and ancient wellspring mineral-oil glide. As the thunder lizard strode, all glass-bead pomp, so strode Mr. Dark, armored with vile lightning scribbles of carnivores and sheep blasted by that thunder and arun before storms of juggernaut flesh.  It was the pterodactyl kite and scythe which raised his arms almost to fly the marbled vaults. And with the inked and stencilled flashburnt shapes of pistoned or bladed doom came his usual crowd of hangers-on, spectators gripped to each limb, seated on shoulder blades, peering from his jungled chest, hung upside down in microscopic millions in his armpit vaults screaming bat-screams for encounters, ready for the hunt and if need be the kill. Like a black tidal wave upon a bleak shore, a dark tumult infilled with phosphorescent beauties and badly spoiled dreams, Mr. Dark sounded and hissed his feet, his legs, his body, his sharp face forward. (p. 196-197)

 

9.Plying Her Craft:

The Witch toppled forward with her seamed black wax sewn-shut iguana eyelids and her great proboscis with the nostrils caked like tobacco-blackened pipe bowls, her fingers tracing, weaving a silent plinth of symbols on the mind.

The boys stared.

Her fingernails fluttered, darted, feathered cold winter-water air. Her pickled green frog’s breath crawled their flesh in pimples as she sang softly, mewing, humming, glistering her babes, her boys, her friends of the slick snail-tracked roof, the straight-flung arrow, the stricken and sky-drowned balloon. (p. 204)

 

10.The Show Can’t Go On:

Then at last, the Freak Tent, the great melancholy mothering reptile bird, after a moment of indecision, sucked in a Niagara of blizzard air, broke loose three hundred hempen snakes, crack-rattled its black side-poles so they fell like teeth from a cyclopean jaw, slammed the air with acres of moldered wing as if trying to kite away but, earth-tettered, must succumb to plain and most simple gravity, must be crushed by its own locked bulk.

Now this greatest tent staled out hot raw breaths of earth, confetti that was ancient when the canals of Venice were not yet staked, and wafts of pink cotton candy like tired feather boas. In rushing downfalls, the tent shed skin; grieved, soughed as flesh fell away until at last the tall museum timbers at the spine of the discarded monster dropped with three cannon roars. (p. 252-253)

 

 

Occult Beverages

An original poem toasting all those with a thirst for mischief here on the eve of Halloween…

 

Occult Beverages

By Joe Nazare

 

Six tips for homely brewers in the late October:

Go for potency always
Attempting to level most is level best

Disregard freshness
Moldering ingredients will only improve this batch

Stir religiously
Being careful not to burn over an open flame

Pour straight from pot to goblet
Chilling before serving gets the order wrong

Garnish garishly
Skewered eye of newt is quite catching

Lastly, savor their every moue of distaste
After all your toil and trouble, you can sit back for a spell

 

Ichabod Inane

I try not to post strictly negative reviews here on the Dispatches from the Macabre Republic blog, because there’s not a lot of joy in writing them. Sometimes, though, it is a necessity. Consider this my public service announcement.

Ichabod! The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an hour-long film (dated as 2019, but according to IMDB, first released in 2004) available on Amazon Prime Video. It bills itself as a musical, which I must admit caught my interest. But after a song at the outset, the film runs for another thirty minutes before offering another tune (I think I counted four total). We might have been better off not getting any songs at all, because the lyrics approach the height of ridiculousness (they lost me at “What an Ichabod-a-bing!”).

This film has all the production value of a high school musical. I swear I saw the “stone” well shake as characters ran by it. The limited set design also seems to lend a nonsensical quality to the proceedings: a masked ball is actually held outdoors in the village courtyard.

The putative plot centers on the Ichabod-Katrina-Brom love triangle, but grossly distorts the Washington Irving source text. Here Katrina’s parents are hellbent on marrying their daughter off to the dubiously debonair Crane, and Katrina is torn between her sense of familial duty and her true love for Brom. Nothing terribly compelling about any of this romantic drama. I also find it laughable that the actor portraying Ichabod (Peter O’Meara) is a bit portly, and bigger in stature than the actor playing the supposedly-physically-superior Brom (Nathan Anderson).

Perhaps worst of all, the Headless Horseman hardly figures into the film. Quick glimpses of the legendary specter early on don’t make a lot of narrative sense. And while there is a climactic confrontation with Ichabod, there is neither a thrilling chase on horseback nor an iconic pumpkin-chucking scene. Instead the film settles for moribund ambiguity and a lame, heavily-moralizing conclusion.

When first selecting the film on Amazon, I debated between renting and purchasing. Thankfully I chose the former, because one viewing is one too many. Decapitation would be a preferable option to having to sit through this bastardizing dreck ever again.

 

Heavenly Halloween

For those who hadn’t already divined the truth from the sight of a harvest moon, here’s further proof that the Halloween season is cosmically ordained. NASA has set the internet ablaze with its recent posting of a 2014 image of the sun that suggests a fiery jack-o’-lantern face. This “Pumpkin Sun” (as NASA has dubbed it), is one whose glow I’d happily bask in on a crisp, late-October night.

 

Shock Treatment

The Universal monsters are not only ingrained in pop culture; they have become an indisputable staple of the Halloween season. A large part of their legacy was assured a little over half a century ago, with the advent of Shock Theater (a package of classic horror films brought to television syndication by Screen Gems). The following poem (from my collection Autumn Lauds) was written to commemorate this wondrous moment in the history of monster-movie viewing.

 

Shock Treatment

Home invasions welcomed each weekend

Screen Gems gleaming in black and white

Legendary wretches on late-night display

Heralded scenes seen for yourself at last

Frankenstein’s Monster getting a stormy inception

Old Imhotep set lumbering by the Scroll of Thoth

Lawrence Talbot turning darksome when the autumn moon is bright

Bandaged Jack Griffin proving indiscernible in dishabille

Dracula descending the massive castle staircase, candle in hand

All framed by the ghoul humor of Roland

Seminal influence of the syndicated

A Universal renaissance in October ’57

An entire generation of monsterkids born

 

The Kings of Comedy

In case you missed it:

Stephen King and Joe Hill recently did an event in Massachusetts together to promote their new releases (The Institute and Full Throttle, respectively). To see father and son on stage together is a terrific treat, and what makes the occasion even more special is just how downright entertaining the two writers prove. They elicit continuous laughter, via both prepared anecdotes and nimble ad-libbing, and as they tease each other mercilessly. The love and respect that King and Hill have for each other, though, is readily apparent, and heartwarming to witness.

Not that this hasn’t been mentioned before elsewhere, but, man, is Hill (especially when sporting a beard) the spitting image of his father at that same age (check out King’s original-hardcover book jacket photos for novels like The Dead Zone or Firestarter).

The interaction between the two here is so precious, and this video is such a fun watch, that I wish it was something King and Hill did together on a regular basis.

Kudos to Porter Square Books, not just for arranging “An Evening with Joe Hill and Stephen King,” but also for posting the video for the sold-out event to YouTube.

 

 

Hard (Case) Candy: A Review of Blood Sugar

When I learned that Hard Case Crime was publishing a new, Halloween-themed novel (one written by the co-author of The Shape of Water), I was immediately sold. I rushed to buy a copy of Daniel Kraus’s Blood Sugar and plunged into the book, which turned out to be quite an unexpected reading experience.

Blood Sugar surprises on several levels. First, it counters the immediate assumptions about the Halloween candy-tainting scheme that forms its central plot. Such mistreatment of costumed beggars is not being planned by some elderly neighborhood crank but by a young man and the group of kids who form his small circle of friends/surrogate family. Secondly, the narrative catches the reader (particularly the one anticipating typical genre fare) off-guard with its saturation by grotesque and outré detail. A perfect, squirm-inducing example: one quirky character here willingly mummifies herself with used flypaper teeming with still-wriggling insects.

Kraus’s eccentric October-set novel reads like the wild literary child of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (the anti-hero Robbie’s trashed house on Yellow Street makes Tyler Durden’s abode on Paper Street seem like the Taj Mahal). And while encountering a first-person narrator is no great shock in a Hard Case novel, the slang-heavy, streetwise-young-thug-affecting storytelling by the adolescent Jody certainly furnishes a unique take on the conventional perspective. Here’s a taste of Jody’s sic[k] verbiage:

We arent even off the stoop before Midge kneels down and investigates our jackolantern like shes from CSI Miami. Must be some beetles or worms up inside that big orange bitch. Moms bough tit from some banger with a shopping cart full a pumpkins and even though it was fungused I was psyched cuz Moms hardly ever gets out of bed and when she does its only to cross the street to reup her cigs cuz the dude that works there wont let me buy any for her. Last time moms acquired me something special like that was once upon a time and a galaxy far away.

I lugged that big orange bastard all the way down Yellow Street cuz Robbies got ten Ginsu knives hes super proud of and I knew theyd be perfect for doing pumpkins. Robbie warned me it was too early for carving and dang, yo, turns out fat boy was correct. Here its Halloween day and the jackolanterns mouth is sucked in like No Teeth Mike, this dude that shoots up from across the school. Its all withered and rotten and a gross poop color. Every time I look at it I think about Moms cuz shes the one that bough tit special for me and also cuz shes up in her room getting all withered and rotten too. Maybe moms has bugs in her head like the jackolantern does? That would explain a lot.

The many short chapters built with block paragraphs do give the book an episodic feel, and Blood Sugar lacks the hard-charging narrative drive of a typical caper novel. There’s not much suspense, either, because the intended crime is so heinous it couldn’t possibly be pulled off as planned (which isn’t to say there’s no poisonous candy dispersed during the disturbingly violent climax). Also, much ado is made throughout the book about dressing up in costume, but the overarching emphasis on grotesquerie tends to prevent the establishment of a true, autumnal-holiday atmosphere. Where Kraus’s version of a Halloween crime novel shines is in the dark brilliance of its narrative voice. This book is often laugh-out-loud funny, and beneath its vulgar exterior, surprisingly sweet. An unprecedented feat for Hard Case Crime (I doubt there will be anything like it put out by this publisher ever again), Blood Sugar proves to be a quite-satisfying seasonal treat.

Sleepy Hollow Feasting

I was browsing online recently when I stumbled across this neat post by Bryton Taylor: Throw a Sleepy Hollow Party; The Menu from the BookFull recipes are provided for recreating the various items on the banquet table during the quilting frolic scene in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These recipes might be slightly beyond my culinary capability, but those of you out there in the Macabre Republic who are more adept in the kitchen can now party like a Van Tassel. Just don’t invite any itinerant schoolteachers once the table is laden with classic fare, otherwise you might not get to taste a bite of the food you prepared!

Here’s Bryton herself discussing the holiday project:

The Number of the Treehouse

Perhaps serendipitously, Treehouse of Horror XXX is also the 666th overall episode of The Simpsons. The writers of the show’s annual Halloween episode appear well aware of this fact, as evident from an Omenreferencing intro (with some head-spinning nods to The Exorcist thrown in as well). This excellent opening almost feels as if it’s stocked with 666 gags, which are delivered at a furious pace (when first watching the preview of this section that was released online a few days ago, I missed the devilishly clever title of the book Marge holds: What to Expect When You’re Expecting the Antichrist). The section also features a terrific transition to the episode’s title card, after Ned, Marge, and Homer are impaled by church spires.

“Danger Things,” the first of the episode’s trademark three story segments, spoofs everyone’s favorite heavy-on-the-80’s-nostalgia sci-fi/horror Netflix series. And since Stranger Things is committed to alluding to Stephen King, it’s only appropriate that this Treehouse piece works in a images and dialogue from The Shining. The runaway popularity of the Netflix series makes it a perfect choice for parodying, but I was slightly disappointed that The Simpsons didn’t do more here with the source material (my favorite bit: flying monsters delivering Amazon packages in the “Over-Under”).

Judging by its title and main filmic reference (Heaven Can Wait), I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the second segment, “Heaven Swipes Right.” But I actually found myself pleasantly surprised, as the segment features plenty of macabre imagery (e.g. pictures of Homer’s bloated body, which has been rolled into a lake by paramedics who couldn’t manage to lift his corpulent corpse) and wicked humor (the reincarnated Homer’s deadly-sinful lifestyle quickly reduces a series of borrowed bodies to ruined temples).

The closing segment, “When Hairy Met Slimy,” bookends with the intro as the highlights of this holiday special. A spot-on spoof of The Shape of Water, the segment casts Kang and Selma as the romantic leads (when the former introduces himself as “Kang the Conqueror,” the latter pricelessly retorts, “I am Selma the Available”). It was nice to see that the well still hasn’t run dry when it comes to invoking Kang (and Kodos) into the Treehouse episodes. The writers also prove adept as ever at slipping in some witty innuendo (the lines about “Deep Space Nine” and “Jabba the Butt” hint at another “XXX” element to the episode’s proceedings).

For an unbelievable three decades now, Treehouse of Horror has formed a staple of the Halloween season. Judging from the 30th installment, the mark the episode makes on October TV viewing is as dark and glorious as ever.