Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
Scary circuses, freaks and geeks, and a whole lot of allegory. This is another in the Fantasy Masterworks series, though it's essentially a supernatural horror story. I mainly picked this up because it was referenced by Stephen King in Danse Macabre and sounded like it would be a good, spooky read. It certainly is; as well as being seriously creepy, it's also very poetically written and wraps the whole defeat-the-bad-guys storyline in one big metaphor of age, time, growing up, and the paradoxical innocence and wickedness of childhood; no mean feat for the much-reviled horror genre.
Somewhere in smalltown America, sometime in the twentieth century. Next-door neighbours Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway are about a week away from celebrating their 13th birthdays - Will's on October 30, Jim's on Halloween. A travelling lightning-rod salesman passes through, and warns that a storm is coming; that night, a mysterious carnival arrives and sets up outside the town. Both the boys are eager to go, but Jim more so than Will - Will is the nice kid, open-hearted and talkative, whereas Jim is more fascinated by dark things, and something about this carnival is calling to him, even after seeing the terrible things it can do to its other customers. The carnival wants Jim, and it's up to Will to save him, even though Jim also sort of wants the carnival...
The boys' names and close birthdays are only part of the broad imagery used here, and all through the book, I found myself metaphor-spotting like an earnest GCSE student. The nice elderly teacher who sees her younger selves reflected back at her in the mirror maze; the carousel that can increase or decrease your age; even the fact that Will's father is self-conscious about being many decades older; all this is obviously about the fear of old age, contrasted with the boys' desires to grow up more quickly... It was all blunt enough to be deliberate rather than clumsy, but I rather wished I hadn't felt the need to analyse so much, as it stopped me enjoying the story a bit. It was rather like the experience of watching a David Lynch film for the first time; you're so busy trying to fit together all the analogies and work out the author's Message that you miss out on some of the fun.
That said, once you stop worrying about the grander themes, there's a good and scary story lying beneath. The buildup is very atmospheric and Bradbury has a nice sense of the grotesque without needing to resort to blood and gore; the parade of freaks in the street and the night-time visit by the carnival balloon are some of the most unsettling scenes I've read. The writing is also very stylised, which fits in well with the exaggerated themes in the plot, and makes for a very lyrical read once you get into the flow of it. I'm not sure I prefer this approach to the more straightforward and prosaic horror of, say, Stephen King, as it still looks a little stilted and artificial, but it was still a fine book to read, with plenty of food for thought.