In the Spring of 1968, something wicked came to my hometown and killed more than 40 people with no warning at all.
A stream of natural gas, like the green mist in the Ray Bradbury film, gathered in the basement of the sporting goods store where I often spent my Saturday afternoons. When it ignited, it set off the cases of ammunition, the cans of gunpowder and the blasting caps stored there. Military surplus rifles – M1s and Mausers and Enfields – rained down on the roof of the library several blocks away. The explosion left a giant hole where the building once stood. It blew the engine out of a parked car and sent it screaming across Main Street, where it killed the kid brother of an elementary school classmate.
And it set the stage for a redevelopment project that did as much to destroy “downtown” as any explosion could. Among its victims was the public library, erected in 1864 but expanded, refaced with stone and converted into a Richardsonian Romanesque castle in 1892.
I spent hours inside that building as a boy. The main reading room had stone floors, vaulted ceilings, a mezzazine lined with wrought-iron rails, and oak-cased walls of volumes behind glass-paneled doors. A spiral iron staircase led up to a second level with its floor of filigreed iron we could see through. So unique and so popular were the old building’s details that many of them were salvaged and incorporated into its replacement in an earnest, if futile, effort to capture the magic of something now gone.
I was reminded of that old building while watching Something Wicked This Way Comes, with its haunting message about the longing we feel for the past, for our youth, for a world in which small boys could lose themselves in places that managed to be at once overwhelming and comforting. Memories came rushing back as I watched Charles Halloway replace volumes on a familiar mezzanine, and his son Will race down stairs like the ones I once knew.
The library in my hometown was a gift from a wealthy merchant. Its expansion was the result of a later bequest. Midway between those two events, the town adopted a tax to support the facility; prior to that it depended on overdue fines and the rent paid by the librarian for her living quarters in the building’s south end. Today, like most libraries, it gratefully accepts gifts but pays its bills with taxes, the dues we pay to live in a civilized world.
Something Wicked This Way Comes was Bradbury’s allegory about temptation, as illustrated by Mr. Dark’s carousel, which would transport the young ahead in time or let the aged return to the strength and glory and beauty of their youth. Those who succumbed to its lure found themselves trapped in the surreal nightmare of the mysterious carnival, a netherworld populated by shapeshifters, the blind, and the unconscious. We never learn the source of the grand library Charles Halloway tended. Was it the gift of a wealthy merchant, or the product of a community’s decision to tax itself in order to hold something grand in its midst?
The evil in the movie is portended by the angry black sky behind Tom Fury, who sells lightning rods to those who need “special protection” from what is coming. “Some folks,” he warns “draw lightning to ‘em like a cat draws a baby’s breath.” When the evil shows up, it rides a dark train, seems to appear out of nowhere, and promises something few townspeople can resist.
Those who surrender to its temptation and ride the carousel damn themselves forever. Their desire to recapture the strength, health and beauty they seek, or remember having once had, reduces them to writhing figures in the tattoos covering Mr. Dark.
The evil that comes our way today carries no such portents. Instead of black skies, we see flags wave. Instead of roiling clouds full of lightning and thunder, we hear an incessant call to turn back time, to return to an America that was young, healthy and beautiful. It doesn’t matter that we were never as pure and strong as we’d like to imagine. Those who want to ride the Tea Party carousel won’t leave the hall of mirrors that reflects only what they choose to see. They ignore the racism, the inequities, the hard times that made up the dark side of an America without organized labor or regulatory agencies or laws to extend basic rights to the most vulnerable among us. They ignore history that tells us that group has included black slaves, Mexican migrants, homosexuals and even middle-class women. Those yearning to ride the carousel backwards want that history ignored, even if that means destroying the education necessary to keep our democracy alive.
They say they want to shrink government, to reward initiative, to banish the moochers and deadbeats and the powerless. But in their shrill cries I hear the sound of a mystery train bearing down on our world, a ghost train hurtling toward us in the night, ready to transform all we’ve accomplished into something we won’t recognize. Given their way, they will starve our schools, our libraries, and our art. They will cut the safety nets from under the vulnerable and redesign our economic engine to devour the victims of the poverty it creates. They will drag us all through the gates of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show in their craven rush toward the magic carousel that leads to a world that never was.
Something wicked truly does come. And we don’t need Tom Fury to tell us what awaits us if we give in to its false promise.
Library scene from Something Wicked This Way Comes