Like so many good things, the title of Bradbury's novel comes from Shakespeare. In Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth, one of the witches in the play exclaims:
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Enter Macbeth, who has now been singled out as wicked. This couplet is referenced in Chapter 37 of the novel as the only explanation Charles Halloway can give to himself for his steadfast belief in the boys. In keeping with a theme developed through the novel, it is Charles's body that tells him something is wrong.
In this novel, the "something wicked" that comes to quiet Green Town, Illinois is a carnival of freaks. Its menacing nature is evident from their first arrival at three in the morning that sends the two boys Will and Jim into a frenzy of fear. Rather than see the carnival and its freaks as directly embodying evil, however, we would encourage you to think about how the carnival speaks to the dreams and temptations that exist in all our hearts. In other words, the carnival does not exist apart from human communities, but thrives on them. Its wickedness stems from its ability to twist dreams into nightmares.
We also feel obliged to mention the particular beauty and neatness of the lines form a poetic standpoint. The two lines are each seven syllables and follow a stressed/unstressed rhythm (otherwise known as a trochaic rhythm). This pattern is particularly ominous because of its heavy beat – you can think about footsteps coming to get you in the night. (Read more about this writing style in our guide to Macbeth.)This is in keeping with both the general style and tone of the novel – check out those discussions in this Shmoop guide for more.
One irony in the witches' statement lies in their own wickedness. These evil, wicked witches are predicting that "something" is approaching that will bring wickedness as if evil isn't already present in the witches themselves. That "something" turns out to be Macbeth, the first reminder that he has become wicked because of Duncan's murder. The major irony, which is a dramatic irony known to the Witches and to us but not to Macbeth, in this line is that immediately after the second witch says "something wicked" comes, Macbeth has his entrance.
As the apparitions conjured by the second witch appear one by one, Macbeth believes that the predictions are reassuring, yet he says he will kill Macduff to make sure that this enemy will not pose a threat. Then Macbeth is very interested to see the fourth apparition to determine if Banquo will have any descendants who will become king, as the witches had predicted for Banquo. Macbeth's horror at the show of eight kings followed by a bloody Banquo shows that he now believes Banquo's prophecy will come true. He will question why he has killed Duncan so that Banquo's children can be king. It appears that more killing will follow as Macbeth demonstrates just how wicked he can become.
Read the scene carefully beginning when the apparitions appear and the witches offer their interpretations. Macbeth's responses reveal his character.