Jim and Will are next door neighbors and have been inseparable since birth. They run everywhere together, go on midnight strolls and read in the library where Will's dad works. Their town is slow and uneventful until a traveling salesman tries to sell the boys some lightning rods and warns them that a storm is brewing. The storm never comes, but the next day the circus arrives.
Ray Bradburry's language and clarity bring life to this story; not a word is wasted to keep the reader engaged in this boyish tale. The eerie, ill-meaning circus has something odd about it, with each entertainer as mean as they are colorful. The boys fall upon so many misgivings and finally uncover the truth of the dangerous circus, a truth that the circus people are willing to do anything to keep a secret.
Will's father is elderly and has had a hard time relating to his much younger son, but he is able to help them fight off the enemies. Their relationship plays a key roll to the story as Will learns what his father is like through their adventure and his father is the one to figure out how to defeat the circus. He also gives us a glimpse into the deeper meaning behind the story. He compares the dangerous circus members as autumn people, people whose lives are stuck in the dreary lifeless state, people who find joy in misfortune and unhappiness. He also showed the boys how to fight the evil, not by simply getting rid of it but by replacing it with goodness, joy and love.
The book also addressed the question of eternal life. One of the many odd, magical attractions to the circus is the merry-go-round that, by going either backwards or forwards, can change your physical age. Jim especially is drawn to it, and the Illusive Man, the leader of the circus, tempts him constantly with eternal life. Jim in the end must make a choice.
Ray Bradburry creates terrifying villains and realistic protagonists. Every word is placed carefully and perfectly and he gently encourages the reader to explore his ideas while still deeply engaged in the plot. This is, in essence a jolly spooky tale about two boys and a circus, but told with Bradburry's vibrant description and style that makes him, to me, one of the greatest authors of all time.