Friday, October 7, 2011

Ray's Vectors: Needful Things

A book's greatness can be measured not merely by its intrinsic qualities, but by its effect on subsequent written works (that praise the original via imitation and echo).  Case in point: Something Wicked This Way Comes, which casts a long shadow over narratives involving dark carnivals and October incursions.  "Ray's Vectors," a feature appearing throughout Ray Bradbury Month here at Macabre Republic, will highlight several examples of texts that proudly bear their marks of influence by Bradbury's horror/ fantasy masterpiece.

I can think of no better place to begin than with the work of Stephen King.

King has analyzed Something Wicked in his nonfiction study Danse Macabre, and referenced the book by title in a scene in The Dead Zone (during Johnny and Sarah's visit to a rural fair).  But the author hearkens back to Bradbury most extensively in his 1991 novel Needful Things.  Leland Gaunt rolls (not far ahead of a terrible storm) into Castle Rock one October, and surreptitiously precipitates chaos.  His titular storefront (with window sign
heralding a grand opening) recalls the rented building space in Bradbury's novel where poster bills advertise the arrival of "Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show" (and where the enticing, ice-encased "Most Beautiful Woman in the World" has been left on strategic display).  The dirty dealing that Gaunt engages in--entrapping unsuspecting patrons by selling spurious objects of heart's desire--reflects the business tactics of Something Wicked's Mr. Dark, whose deceptive carnival attractions tempt the foolhardy with "empty promises."

Just as King works to expose the hypocrisy and lurking animosity of Castle Rock's populace, Bradbury's American Gothicism digs into the secrets of small town life.  The novel's hero (and fount of wisdom) Charles Halloway explains to his son Will: "Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin."  King's flawed characters make easy marks for the glamouring Gaunt, but Bradbury's inhabitants of the idyllic Green Town are no less innocent.  If anything, they have invited their own victimization, calling the carnival into their very midst.  Again, in the words of Charles Halloway:
Need, want, desire, we burn those in our fluids, oxidize those in our souls, which jet streams out lips, nostrils, eyes, ears, broadcasts from antennae-fingers, long or short wave, God only knows, but the freak-masters perceive Itches and come crab-clustering to Scratch.  [The carnival has] traveled a long way on an easy map, with people handy by every crossroad to lend it lustful pints of agony to power it on.  So maybe the carnival survives, living off the poison of the sins we do each other, and the ferment of our most terrible regrets.
Surely it's no coincidence that the first person in King's novel subjected to Gaunt's Machiavellian scheming is an 11-year-old boy, Brian Rusk (counterpart to Will and Jim, the 13-year-old targets of the carnival's evil in Something Wicked).  The clearest character parallel, though, is between Gaunt--a seemingly urbane figure fueled by sinister motive--and Mr. Dark.  We've encountered Gaunt-type antagonists before in King's canon: the Salem's Lot antiques dealer Richard Straker (whose vampiric partner, Mr. Barlow, also pairs with Bradbury's beastly Mr. Cooger); the malicious trickster Pennywise in It (preying periodically on Derry, just as Mr. Dark's carnival returns every few decades to reap Green Town's residents); even the nomadic troublemaker, the "Walking Dude" Randall Flagg.  In retrospect (with Gaunt's character obviating the homage), these various villains can all be seen to find their prototype in Bradbury's tattooed carnival proprietor.

If you are a fan of the classic Bradbury novel, I encourage you to read it back to back with Needful Things this October.  Do so and you will soon discover that Something Wicked has come again.


Kevin Lucia said...

Something Wicked is one of my favorite novels, and one my favorite to teach - I do it every October, with my freshman.

Joe Nazare said...

That must be a terrific treat for your students, Kevin. (I wish I had gotten to read _Something Wicked_ in my freshman English class!)

Kevin Lucia said...

A lot of them, yes. Especially the kids that have been wasting away on the usual junior high fare, and I find it's the perfect introduction to high school...

Joe Nazare said...

Maybe the only thing better than that would be to get to read Stephen King's _It_ for school at that age.