(I hate to start this piece in the most boring way possible, but) I grew up in Andover, New Jersey. Nestled in the farmlands and forests of Sussex County, Andover is an old mining town and the polar opposite of the general population’s image of “Dirty Jersey.” Expansive corn fields, forests criss-crossed with streams, and a local hot-spot called Lake Illiff make up most of the geography of my homeland. The neighborhood was a giant nipple feeding my imagination. I lived there until I was 19 when I thought it would be a good idea to go to college.
Like most young boys, I harbored a large imagination. With tools like action figures and my Mongoose BMX, Andover was one big playground. My dad introduced me to Star Wars when I was in the 2nd grade (because that’s what everyone should feel like happened to them during their first Star Wars experience, right? We’re “introduced” to it). I read a lot of escapist fiction like Dragonlance and Lord of the Rings – also courtesy of my dad. All of these sacred works blew my imagination up, made me want to jump in my X-Wing and take on the Empire up. I wanted out of Andover. This town wasn’t big enough for Patrick Cooper, who would surely grow up to save the planet from evil. Then along came Ray Bradbury.
I never had to read Fahrenheit 451 in school. In hindsight, I’d say my middle and high school reading assignments were weak compared to other adults I talk to. So thank the gods for my dad’s home library. He had a massive hardcover simply titled “Stories of Ray Bradbury” that I began devouring one day. His work was scary and never weighed down with technological details (like that dinosaur Arthur C. Clarke). After finishing that book, I biked to a small bookshop in the next town over and picked up the game-changer: Bradbury’s dark fantasy of good and evil in a small Midwestern town, Something Wicked This Way Comes. It would turn out to be one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
That one book completely changed the makeup of my imagination and they way I look at just about everything and everyone. A lot of that has to do with the age I first read it. I must have been about 12 or 13 – still limited in my scope of the real world by how far my Mongoose could get me before I had to be home for dinner. But while before Something Wicked my imagination wandered off its leash in spaces outside of Andover (sometimes actually into outer space), now my mind was focused on dissecting my town and peeling back the curtain on whatever evil lurked right on my doorstep. I started naming people I never met and making up stories about them. “That’s Old Man Morgan, every five years he has to eat a child so he doesn’t age. I’ll give $1 to kick his mailbox over.”
It sounds weird, but what Bradbury and Something Wicked did was ground my fantasies. Not “grounded” as in they put them to the curb. He just made my neighborhood as scary and fantastic as Mars or Tatooine. The woods behind my house got darker. Demons now lurked in the ponds around the park. My busdriver sacrificed kids. And hell no, I’m not going into that cave alone. I didn’t need to dream about Dagobah anymore. My threshold to the underworld was right in my own backyard.
Now, decades later, Something Wicked is still terrifying and beautiful to me. I make a point to read it every October (“a rare time for boys”). It keeps me looking suspiciously at strangers and wanting to find the dark side of wherever I may be. Other Bradbury work like Dandelion Wine only reinforced my small-town wonder and instilled in me a sort of pride. Even if you’re from some puny town in the countryside of Jersey, it’s okay to be proud of where you’re from. Soak in the woods and the lakes and the strangers. Look for the dark parts of town and explore, then ride your bike home like the Devil’s on your ass. I hope my hypothetical kid does some day.
Thanks Ray. See you in October Country.