8 Things You Should Know About Ray Bradbury's 'Something Wicked This Way Comes'
Ray Bradbury was an extraordinarily prolific writer. He left behind more than 30 books and hundreds of short stories, not to mention stage plays, screenplays, teleplays, audio dramas, essays, and other works.
In a career that spanned seven decades, it’s easy to overlook the outsized footprint of his 1962 horror novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. It hasn’t been studied in schools as extensively as Fahrenheit 451, or endlessly anthologized like “The Veldt.” But Bradbury’s tale of two boys who come face to face with evil in their small Midwestern hometown—and decide to do something about it—is the story to which the author returned, again and again, for more than half of his career. From the time he first began tinkering with a story about a “dark carnival” in the mid-1940s to the release of Disney’s 1983 feature adaptation, Bradbury spent nearly four decades telling and retelling the story of Jim Nightshade, his best friend Will Halloway, and their terrifying encounter with Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.
From its kernel of inspiration in a bizarre childhood memory to Gene Kelly’s failed attempt to turn it into a movie before Bradbury turned it into a novel, here are eight things you might not know about Something Wicked This Way Comes.
1. Something Wicked This Way Comes was partly inspired by Ray Bradbury’s childhood encounter with a carnival performer called Mr. Electrico.
The story of Mr. Electrico and the formative role he played in Bradbury’s life is an integral part of the author’s biography. In Bradbury’s frequent telling, the meeting took place in 1932, when he was 12 years old. A traveling carnival called the Dill Brothers Combined Shows had come to Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, and with it came Mr. Electrico, whose schtick involved sitting in an electric chair while a stagehand threw the switch. At that point, according to Bradbury, the man “was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end.”
Bradbury recalled that he was sitting in the front row, awestruck, when the performer tapped him on both shoulders and the tip of his nose with an electrified sword, telling him to “live, forever!” The next day, Bradbury, who had just attended the funeral of a beloved uncle, returned to the carnival, where Mr. Electrico taught him a magic trick and then introduced him to other members of the show, including performers billed as “the Tattooed Man,” “the Skeleton,” “the Fat Lady,” and “the Dwarf”—all of whom will be familiar to fans of Something Wicked This Way Comes and other Bradbury works. (The Tattooed Man would also provide the inspiration for Bradbury’s 1951 story collection The Illustrated Man.)
Bradbury often identified his encounter with Mr. Electrico as a life-changing event that would inspire him to become a writer. But in his 2005 book The Bradbury Chronicles, authorized Bradbury biographer Sam Weller points out that some of the details the legendary author recalled don’t quite add up. Bradbury and several of his relatives insisted the event occurred over Labor Day weekend, but official records place the death of Bradbury’s uncle in October. Despite exhaustive attempts by Bradbury scholars, fact-checkers, and even producers of Disney’s 1983 adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes, no record of Mr. Electrico has ever been found.
2. Something Wicked This Way Comes has a long history, and Gene Kelly is a big part of it.
Something Wicked This Way Comes was published in 1962, but some of its foundational ideas appear in a 1948 Bradbury short story called “The Black Ferris,” about two young boys terrorized by a carnie named Mr. Cooger who uses an enchanted Ferris wheel to make himself older or younger. (Years later, Something Wicked This Way Comes would assign this magical ability to a carousel in Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.) According to Bradbury scholar Jonathan R. Eller’s 2004 book Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction, the roots of Something Wicked This Way Comes stretch back even further, to 1945 or 1946, when Bradbury wrote a series of “fragments, sketches, and chapter openings for a dark carnival novel.” Bradbury would later compile those notes into a 30-page binder he titled “Original Materials ‘Dark Carnival’ which became ‘Something Wicked T.W.C.’”
Over the years, Bradbury continued to develop his idea of an evil, soul-stealing carnival in multiple formats. Around 1952, he worked with artist Joe Mugnaini to turn the story into a wordless graphic novel. (Bradbury called it “an illustrated book with no text.”) That project was never realized, and Bradbury tried another medium in 1955, when he set his sights on developing the story as a feature film. Bradbury and his wife, Maggie, were friendly with Singin' in the Rain star and co-director Gene Kelly, and the couple had just attended a special screening of Kelly’s latest film, Invitation to the Dance. On the way home, Bradbury expressed a desire to work with Kelly, and Maggie suggested that he comb his files for something that could be turned into a screenplay. Bradbury quickly settled on his carnival story and wrote up a treatment for Kelly, which the actor liked and wanted to make. Kelly went to Europe with the treatment, then called The Dark Carnival, hoping to secure backing from foreign investors. There were no takers.
Bradbury didn’t do any better when he circulated the treatment domestically. Disney passed in 1955, and according to Eller, actor Burt Lancaster’s production company deemed the story “too fantastic for wide audiences.” Bradbury even took The Dark Carnival to London’s Hammer Film Productions, which must have seemed like a good fit: The studio had recently turned to producing horror movies such as 1955’s The Quatermass Experiment and 1956’s X the Unknown. But Hammer wasn’t interested. Back in the U.S., neither was Twentieth Century Fox.
It wasn’t until April 1960, after years of attempting to generate interest in his film project, that Bradbury sent a first draft of a novel titled Something Wicked This Way Comes to his agent.
3. One version of Bradbury’s “dark carnival” story made it to television several years before he wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes—and without his involvement.
There’s a curious footnote to Bradbury’s attempts to usher his creepy carnival to the screen. Samuel Goldwyn Jr. bought the rights to “The Black Ferris,” which was published in a 1948 issue of Weird Tales, in the early 1950s, and hired screenwriter Mel Dinelli (The Spiral Staircase) to pen the script. Dinelli had some inside knowledge about Bradbury’s intentions for the story; in 1949, he met with Bradbury at the author’s home, and the two writers talked about Bradbury’s plans to use an age-manipulating carousel (rather than a Ferris wheel) as one of the main components of Bradbury’s ever-expanding story. According to Eller, Dinelli and Goldwyn “developed a parallel evolution [of Bradbury’s story] in the form of a short television script.” The 30-minute show was aired in 1954 as part of a local Los Angeles-area series called Starlight Summer Theatre, and again in 1956 as an episode of NBC’s Sneak Preview. Instead of “The Black Ferris,” its title was “Merry-Go-Round.”
4. When Bradbury’s publisher of 11 years didn’t respond to Something Wicked This Way Comes as enthusiastically as he’d hoped, Bradbury took the book elsewhere.
By 1960, Bradbury had grown dissatisfied with Doubleday, which had published The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine; the author didn’t feel that the terms of his contracts were favorable for him, or that Doubleday was giving his books enough marketing support. Bradbury and his agent, Don Congdon, hoped Something Wicked This Way Comes would give them the leverage to renegotiate Bradbury’s contract.
That didn’t prove to be the case. Doubleday made a few concessions in terms of marketing Bradbury’s earlier titles and giving him some control over promotional copy, but they only agreed to devote $3000 to promoting Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury saw it as a lack of faith—not just in him and his new book, but in the genre he loved. “I think it is time for me to leave Doubleday and to try to find a new publisher who will see me and this fantastic and exciting new Space Age with the same high-spirits in which I approach it,” he wrote to his editor.
Bradbury left Doubleday on friendly terms, and by the summer of 1960 he was working on a new draft of Something Wicked This Way Comes. In September of that year, Bradbury found the home he’d been looking for: Simon & Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb made an impassioned appeal to Congdon, promising that the publisher’s advertising director was ready to tackle the challenge of “extending the cult-feeling about Bradbury to a much larger public” and identifying its marketing director as “a violent Bradbury-lover.” By the end of the month, Bradbury was a Simon & Schuster author, and Something Wicked This Way Comes had a publisher that seemed truly excited about it.
5. Sam Peckinpah wanted to adapt Something Wicked This Way Comes. It didn’t go well.
Since Bradbury tried to get Something Wicked This Way Comes made as a film before he turned it into a novel, it’s not surprising that he started sending the book to filmmakers soon after it was published. Eller writes that Bradbury sent a copy to The Innocents director Jack Clayton, who almost signed on to adapt it for Twentieth Century Fox. That didn’t work out, though, and in the early 1970s another filmmaker came into the picture: The Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah.
When Peckinpah first expressed an interest in adapting Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury must have been surprised. Peckinpah might have been a longtime admirer of Bradbury’s work, but his films were so dark and graphically violent they earned him the nickname “Bloody Sam”—not exactly an obvious fit for Bradbury’s lyrical, intensely nostalgic novel where evil is defeated by laughter and hugs. But when Peckinpah told Bradbury he meant to “tear the pages out of [the] book and stuff them in the camera,” Bradbury was sold.
The two met repeatedly over the next several years, with Peckinpah insisting he was trying to find the money to make the movie. But after years passed with no apparent progress, Bradbury decided to develop the film at Paramount instead.
Peckinpah didn’t take the news well. In correspondence dated August 1976, Peckinpah called Bradbury a “shatterer of dreams” and a “bunch quitter” (cowboy slang for a horse or cow that abandons its herd). According to Weller’s The Bradbury Chronicles, the director also sent Bradbury a cactus and a jar of petroleum jelly, with instructions to cut the cactus into thirds, share it with his director and producer, and “use the Vaseline as directed.”
It’s unclear how upset Peckinpah really was, but Bradbury was concerned enough to write his friend a two-page letter explaining his decision to proceed with Clayton. If Peckinpah really was angry, Bradbury’s letter seems to have helped. “Dreams are dreams,” Peckinpah wrote in his response. “I dream it will go well with you.”
6. Steven Spielberg considered directing Disney’s adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes.
When Something Wicked stalled out at Paramount and finally made its way to Disney in 1980, the House of Mouse set its sights on Steven Spielberg to direct. Spielberg was interested, but ultimately chose to make 1941 instead. (Considering how that movie was received, it’s hard not to wonder if Spielberg regretted his choice.) Directing duties instead fell to Clayton, who came out of retirement to finally bring Bradbury’s story to the big screen.
7. At one point, Bradbury’s screenplay for a Something Wicked This Way Comes adaptation was 260 pages long.
Based on the general screenwriting rule that one page equals one minute of screen time, Bradbury’s doorstopper of a script would have clocked in at roughly four and a half hours. (In his 1994 book Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury guesses he had written a six-hour film.) Bradbury worked with Clayton to cut the script down to a more typical 120 pages.
8. Something Wicked This Way Comes is part of a loosely connected trilogy.
Though it’s a standalone novel in terms of its plot and characters, Something Wicked This Way Comes shares the Green Town, Illinois, setting of Dandelion Wine (1957) and Farewell Summer (which remained unpublished until 2006). Together, the three books comprise what Bradbury scholars and fans call “the Green Town trilogy.” Green Town is a thinly disguised stand-in for Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, and all three books contain autobiographical elements.