Time and its negative effects is a major theme in the book. Bradbury begins by saying the story takes place in October where certain kinds of Halloween things happen. The Cooger/Dark circus comes to town every thirty or forty years, but only in October. Charles Halloway refers to the “autumn people” (Chpt. 38, p. 141) who are trapped forever in darkness and despair. Will Halloway is described as a boy with a summer apple face, and Mr. Halloway has a winter apple face. They manage to escape this negative black hole of time in October that is about to swallow Jim Nightshade. This theme is an echo of the way Moby-Dick opens with Ishmael going to sea because he has November in his soul. It is an image of decline and approaching death.
Will is one of the few characters not concerned with his age. He likes being a boy. Jim Nightshade, however, is desperate to grow up and taste adult life. He wants to know about sex and evil. Mr. Halloway, on the other hand, is sad about aging. He is fifty-four with white hair and feels he is too old for his son. Yet inside, Charles Halloway feels like a boy and perfectly understands the urges of his son to sneak out at night, and to run with the wind. He is sad he can no longer do those things. Mr. Dark knows that time is one of the main temptations he has for people with the magic carousel that can make someone older or younger. Miss Foley the old spinster falls for this temptation after she goes into the Mirror Maze where she sees herself fragmented through history in older and older forms. She becomes afraid of being unable to “lift her gaze from the proofs of Time,” (Chpt. 25, p. 89) forever paralyzed by old age. She wants to find her younger self, but when she comes off the carousel she is a little girl lost in time.
Mr. Halloway voices the concern about time in his meditation on the hour of 3:00 a.m. (Chapter 14, p. 42). 3:00 in the night corresponds to October in the year, for it is the hour closest to death when the “soul is out” (p. 42). Charles thinks that women are used to living in time and understand its continuity through children. Men, however, especially thinkers like Charles, are awake at 3:00 a.m. aware of life’s decay, fragmentation, and loss. Charles eventually learns to use his years of experience as a positive tool of wisdom to pass on to the boys. He overcomes his fear of time by the end of the story after they have vanquished Mr. Dark.
Bradbury tackles the metaphysical question of evil in this book and in much of his fiction. What is evil? Who is responsible for it? How can one protect oneself? Like much of gothic or dark fantasy, his book considers two possibilities. Evil is either a supernatural phenomenon over which we have no control, or else it is a psychological drama, born of human interpretation and inner suffering. Bradbury plays with both ideas of what evil is.
The first explanation is given by Charles Halloway as Will overhears him through the wall speaking of “the general inconclusive way God ran the world “ (Chapter 8, p. 27). It’s as if God cannot make up his mind whether good or evil should prevail. At best, things are mixed, and humans appear to have no say in the matter. Mr. Dark and his circus show up every thirty or forty years, and each time, some people die or are lost. The victims in this story are Mr. Crosetti, Miss Foley, Tom Fury, and almost, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway. The former victims are seen in the freak show and in the tattoos on Mr. Dark. There is no doubt the reader feels a supernatural chill when Mr. Dark walks into the library. He is most definitely Satan at that moment and seems to have unlimited power.
Yet Charles had just been giving the boys examples of evil from human history. He tells them the evil carnival is after those lost souls like Tom Fury and Miss Foley who want something for nothing. The circus lives off the negativity of humans. Mr. Halloway makes a case for humans not being inherently evil, but rather, they have it in them to be unselfish and loving. Mr. Halloway learns not to feed evil forces his power with fear and despair. Vanquishing evil through laughter is to let go and see a larger picture, to put things in perspective and deprive the dark of its power.
Mr. Halloway stands for the free will of humans not to choose evil. When the boys come to the library to pick books to read, he asks them if they want white-hat books or black-hat books. Do they want the books that tell about evil or good? He knows Jim and Will, predicting that soon Jim will want a book on Faustus. He thinks Will will eventually want books on St. Thomas or Buddha. He hands a dinosaur book to Jim and Jules Verne to Will, saying “a long time ago, I had to decide, myself, which color I’d wear” (Chapter. 2, p. 13).
Mr. Halloway tells the boys the freaks in the circus show have become their own original sins, their own wrong choices. The Fat Man was lustful; the Thin Man, hungry; the Dwarf kept shrinking into himself; the Dust Witch lived for tomorrow and had to become a Gypsy telling fortunes. In this way he is affirming that humans have the power to live in the light; the right choice will lead to salvation, as in the Christmas carol he sings to himself, “The Wrong shall fail/ The Right prevail” (Chapter 5, p. 19). Bradbury, however, is skillful as a teller of horror stories by keeping the underlying mood one of doubt until the end. Charles is depressed by this Christmas carol because obviously, he is not sure at this point, if right will prevail.