Bradbury knew how to set the scene and draw his reader into the world of the page, which seems only appropriate for one who was passionate enough about the power of books to compose the infamous Fahrenheit 451. In Something Wicked This Way Comes it’s not so much like Bradbury is painting scenes for you as he is standing over you while you read and drizzling the paint directly on your head, until your covered, enveloped and breathing it in. Taking place in late October in small town Illinois, the book’s supernatural and autumnal atmosphere put me in a swell mood for All Hallow’s Eve.
Put simply, Something Wicked is about the carnival coming to sleepy Green Town. The carnival, however, is of the evil variety. Among other corrupting forces, it features a special Merry-go-round, which can age those riding on it years with every revolution, and when run backwards does the opposite. Two best friends, Will and Jim, find themselves in danger after they bear witness to the dark side of what appears to most of the townsfolk to be a perfectly normal travelling fair.
One question kept coming to me while reading this: what is it with horror and small towns? For one thing, we know that Hollywood loves to visit cinematic destruction upon cozy little burgs that seem so unexceptional. From The Blob to Scream, small American towns would appear to constantly be under attack, the favorite target of monsters, aliens, serial killers, ghosts, anomalous wildlife, you name it. Is it because these places are peaceable and average enough that a large number of us can relate to them? Or is there something more?
It seems to me that there is some inescapable tribal thinking that lingers in the modern human mind. We evolved as a species of hunter-gatherers, living in small bands that had to depend on unity among their members to survive, naturally reacting to the forces of the outside world–the unknown and the different–with wariness and fear. We are the result of thousands upon thousands of years of our ancestors huddling around the light of a guttering fire, or in crude shelters, throughout interminable nights of predatory darkness, holding close to one another, never knowing for sure when creatures or enemies might attack and carry members of our group, our families, away into death.
I don’t think we’ve ever quite left the tribe behind. We’ve grown up as a species: we’ve developed sprawling metropolises, the telephone, the internet, airplanes to fly us anywhere, a global trade network, and we are more aware of our common humanity than at anytime in history, but we are still living in tribes. We live in family units, walled up in our own houses, on property that belongs to the family and no one else outside of it. We easily form cliques and tight friend networks in childhood, adolescence and beyond. We live in villages, towns and cities, which may have sports teams or musicians we claim to be proud of, where we might complain about the ignorant tourists passing through in summer, or about how the government is shafting us in this way or that, or ruining our lovely home by building that new highway. We live in separate countries, bound under a flag, a culture, a national anthem, an education system, a governing body, languages and foods. We are divided up into religions and allies and enemies. No matter how thin you slice it, we’re still creatures of an us and them mentality.
I grew up in a small town myself. I remember the year that they built the Walmart. I came home from university during Christmas and there it was, looming just off the highway at the entrance to town. When I was a kid I would have loved this, because it would mean we wouldn’t have to drive for an hour for me to buy a video game, but now it was just ugly. It was an invader: a heartless, grey-walled corporate giant come to suck the life out of the peaceful, tight-knit place I’d been raised in. And it did. Our little mall became a sad shadow of what it once was and shops downtown dried up. Need something? Just head to Walmart, they’ve got everything and the prices are cheap. People I’d lived among my whole life were wearing that blue Walmart vest, just like every other Walmart employee in the world. We’d been assimilated. As a town, we lost a bit of our uniqueness that year, the same story experienced by hundreds of other places. The outside had bulldozed a woods, slapped a parking lot down and reached into our community with a fist shaped like a line of supply trucks.
Now I live in a small town in South Korea. To me, Korea displays many levels of tribal thinking that has adapted itself to the modern age. This was a land once known as the “hermit kingdom” because of its resistance to outsiders (North Korea is clearly dead-set on maintaining that title). Strong nationalist sentiment still runs through South Korea, a country that has historically been caught between the giants China and Japan on either side of it, and had to fend off plenty of foreign invasion in its long history. But step deeper and it becomes apparent that the same mentality–the drive for security, well-being and power of the group against those forces on the outside–can be found on many levels. Allegiance to companies and cohesion with coworkers, even if forced, is the norm in the working world, leading to long overtime hours at the office, and frequent dinner/drinking parties known as hoeshik. The support of Korean companies is so rampant that not only are the major national baseball teams owned by the country’s biggest corporations, but also named after them (Samsung Lions, LG twins, Lotte Giants, etc.), and anyone who’s been to a Korean baseball game will attest that the fans are not put off by this one bit: they sing together in the thousands, completely in sync, to their favorite team’s signature chants.
At the smallest level of group cohesion we of course find the family unit, but before that we arrive at towns and villages. I like my town here a lot. It’s a home. Over the years I’ve welcomed new foreign teachers that have come to work in the town and said goodbye to others as they move on. I’ve found that I’m happy when I see other people enjoying their life here. I like to tell stories about things that have happened in town; about people who were here before and are now gone. Would I feel this way were I living in a metropolis like Seoul? I doubt it. But in a small enough community, where I see my students every day while out walking on the streets, when there’s always someone I know right around the corner, I become naturally invested in the place, a part of it, with a sense of belonging that comes with time. It becomes the tribal ground.
Which brings me to my point about Korean towns and villages. In the old days, a kind of totem pole called a jangseung stood at the entrance to these places. The residents built them to protect the community from demons and evil spirits. Jangseung vary widely and the elongated face depicted on them is often a laughing one. Apparently the idea was that a fearless and madly laughing guardian was more likely to frighten off the spirits. Hundreds of years ago, when someone died from a sudden illness, the crops failed inexplicably, or other misfortune befell a village, the visitation of evil forces would have seemed likely. In Korea, bound together in communities that worked together tirelessly to raise the crops and remain fed, never knowing when illness would strike and sweep someone’s life away, or when a late frost would set in and kill the gardens, they built guardians that seemed more powerful than frail humans, to frighten the demons that wander the wilds and creep forth into human settlements.
In modern day people don’t generally believe in the power of the jangseung anymore, and yet . . . look closely. If you’re coming down the highway into a Korean town, look up and you might just see a camera staring back down from above the road. They watch you coming like cyclopean eyes, not hidden, but very much out in plain sight, very obvious. They are there to be seen. We saw you come in, those cameras say. I may be getting ahead of myself, but I’ve been looking at those cameras and now I think that really they’re the new jangseung. They’re not there to physically stop anyone, but to deter dangerous speeding through populated areas. They are the electronic guardians of village and town and city. The old ways, the ways of the tribe–that collection of humans huddled against the dangers of outside forces–have very much found their way into the 21st century after all.
While reading Something Wicked, I was reminded of Stephen King’s Needful Things, which takes place in another fictional small town: Castle Rock, Maine. In that story evil also infiltrates the town, in the form a pawn shop dealer who just happens to have the exact items people would do pretty much anything to own. He sells these by having people sell themselves, in the form of playing particular pranks on the other town folk. In this way the pawn shop dealer, knowing all the little grudges and animosities between the residents–stormy currents running beneath a placid enough surface–turns the townspeople against each other until Castle Rock is tearing itself apart. I think King took this whole idea of the small town being corrupted by evil to an extreme in his megalithic novel The Dome, where rather than anything bad coming into the town, a mysterious, impenetrable dome falls from the sky around it, trapping the residents inside. A violent hierarchy soon forms as the most power hungry take control, manipulating fears to build a base of desperate followers. The potential for human evil was already lurking within various residents, only needing a catalyst to let it grow and flourish.
In Something Wicked there are elements of human fallibility going hand-in-hand with the invading force. The townspeople generally turn a blind eye to the fact that this carnival arrives by train and sets up at the bizarre hour of 3 am, opting to go and enjoy it unquestioningly. One woman, after a frightening experience in the mirror maze, is drawn back to the carnival at the break of dawn, only to have misfortune befall her. The previously mentioned merry-go-round is a fascination for Jim, who desires to use it to become older and escape his adolescence. Dissatisfaction with certain aspects of our lives leaves us vulnerable to those whispered promises of something better, even if that thing might ultimately ruin us. Perhaps what all these small town scary stories tell us is that the threats outside of our tribe, be it our town, our country or even our culture, are only as foreboding as the ones lying dormant within.
Total pages: 304; total FoA pages: 29,348