It's the week before Hallowe'en, and Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois. The siren song of the calliope entices all with promises of youth regained and dreams fulfilled ...And as two boys trembling on the brink of manhood set out to explore the mysteries of the dark carnival's smoke, mazes and mirrors, they will also discover the true price of innermost wishes ...
What Did We Think?
That we read this book over the month of October, that is to say - over Halloween, was entirely serendipitous.
Most of us were delighted by Bradbury's most famous horror title, finding it unique and original despite its archetypal status. What most impressed everyone however was the stylised language Bradbury uses to tell his story. The prose is flowery and beautiful and creates an atmosphere which is at once tense, sinister and immersive, however it also makes the book nigh on impossible to skim.
There's a definite air of nostalgia around the two main characters: William "Will" Halloway and Jim Nightshade, both thirteen year old boys. So powerful is this nostalgia for an innocent childhood that at times it can be overly sweet and cloying. That said, his representation of the boys as two sides of the same coin was refreshingly different from the normally lazy characterisation of such figures in horror or boys-own-adventures, where normally duplicate children are all more or less the same and only more than one so that they have someone to talk to.
Whilst nicely drawn, more interesting than the boys were the chief villain, Mr. Dark: a powerful and exciting Faustian character, and Will's father Charles. Charles Halloway is an inciteful and complexly brilliant character with doubts and philosophies which come across as being honest and representative of genuine wisdom, possibly Bradbury's own (he was 42 when this novel was published in 1962). There are no significant female characters to speak of, and those that do exist seem to conform to the classical template of the maid, the mother and the crone, although this fits with the novel if seen as a boys-own-adventure story.
Obviously this was one of the first novels, if not the first, to exploit the circus freak mystique for horror purposes (although one wonders whether Bradbury had seen the 1932 horror film Freaks). Its influence on media as diverse as the TV show Carnivàle and Stephen King's It are clear (King references the novel is several fictions of his own, notable The Dead Zone)
What detracted from the novel was, paradoxically, what also made it so beautiful - the florid language making it at times hard to follow, especially if read in short bursts. Also, possibly a symptom of its age, the horror of the novel was far less horrific than would be liked in a modern novel, indeed it might be more acurate to consider it a suspense novel than a horror novel.
Nevertheless, there was an overall positive reaction to this book and a strong appreciation for Bradbury's skill as an author.
Votes were as follows: 9, 9, 8, 7, 7, 7, 7, 5