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Thirteen-year-olds Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are the best of friends, despite their contrasting personalities. A week before their fourteenth birthdays around Halloween, a carnival comes rolling into town. Even though carnivals aren't uncommon in their time, October is a very late month for them to be still running in. That isn't the only odd thing about this carnival, as Will and Jim soon find out that its freaks are offering townspeople more than cotton candy and amusement rides - offers that turn out to be more than their receivers bargained for.
Things become a lot more dangerous for the boys when the circus folk, led by the tattooed Mr. Dark, get wind of them knowing too much and plan to make sure that their secrets remain secret by bribery or trickery. Fortunately for Will and Jim, Will's father Charles Halloway proves the exception to the Adults Are Useless rule and becomes a valuable ally. Even so, the carnival has more up its sleeve than the regular parlor tricks, and the lure of its offers may be too great for one of the boys to resist...
This book contains the following tropes:
- And I Must Scream: The Dust Witch sews up Jim Nightshade's and Will Halloway's eyes, mouth and ears. They're still aware of their surroundings, but they can't see, hear, speak, blink or swallow.
- Badass Bookworm: Charles Halloway, who could also be called a Badass Grandfatherly-Looking Father.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Don't listen to the carnival's promises of youth or freedom. Just don't.
- Big Bad: Mr. Dark.
- Came Back Wrong: Happens to Cooger/Mr. Electrico; as in, his corpse is simply reanimated and controlled like some animatronic robot.
- Care Bear Stare: The mere threat of a smile is enough to kill the Dust Witch and The Power of Love is what takes down the Big Bad Mr. Dark in the end.
- Cassandra Truth: The carnival people deliberately set out to ensure that no one will believe Will and Jim if they try to warn other people about them.
- Character Filibuster: Charles goes on for at least two chapters on his theories about the carnival's nature and intents. Lampshaded when he realizes how long he's talked and that the boys don't understand most of what he's just said.
- Circus of Fear: A very influential version of this trope; most modern versions owe something to this story
- Dark Is Evil: Literatelly with Mr. Dark, owner of the Carnival.
- Disappeared Dad: The reason Jim's mother is so protective of him, which only makes Jim want to get away even more.
- The Dragon: The Dust Witch seems to fill this role. It seems Cooger may have either been this or Co Big Bad with Mr. Dark.
- Emotion Eater
- Epigraph: Includes a quote from The Bible and another one from Moby Dick.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: How Mr. Dark is destroyed in the book.
- Fountain of Youth / Overnight Age-Up: One revolution forward on the carnival's merry-go-round will age the rider one year; one revolution backward will de-age him/her a year. Naturally, the merry-go-round is the main source of attraction for the dissatisfied townspeople.
- Good Hurts Evil: Subverted in that holy objects can't hurt the freaks and Mr. Dark openly mocks the possibility. Played Straight in that good emotions can. A smile actively hurts and finally kills the Dust Witch and The Power of Love kills Mr. Dark in the end.
- Hall of Mirrors
- He Knows Too Much: Who'd have thought that two boys would be such a threat to a carnival full of magical folks?
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Mr. Dark in his adult form is physically powerful enough to crush Charles' hand with one hand. It's only because he ages himself down for his final attempt to kill the heroes that Charles can overpower and kill him with The Power of Love.
- Indy Ploy: Charles thinks to himself on at least one occasion that he's just taking whatever opportunities come along and he really has no idea what kind of plan he's carrying out. Turns out to be fortunate, as it means that Mr. Dark can't read what he's up to either.
- Literary Allusion Title: From Macbeth:
"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes!"
- Marked Bullet: Part of a magic trick held by the circus, but Charles uses it to his advantage by carving a smile instead of his initials on the bullet and using it to shock the Witch into death. It's Better Than It Sounds and also a Crowning Moment of Awesome for Charles.
- Meaningful Name: The boys find it cool that their names fit their selves so perfectly.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: J. C. Cooger and G. M. Dark.
- The Nothing After Death: Theorized by Charles.
- Odd Friendship: Will and Jim couldn't be more different, yet their friendship is unshakeable. Borders on Ho Yay at times.
- In fact, the only major difference in opinion they seem to have had before the dark forces invaded the town was whether they should continue to peep in on the more...intimate moments of their neighbors lives. (Is there a trope for "Youthful Peeping Tom"?)
- Police Are Useless
- The Power of Love: The only effective weapon against Mr. Dark and his followers, who run on negative emotions.
- Power Tattoo: Mr. Dark has tattoos of the other circus folk all over his body, signifying his control over them. He can hurt anyone tattooed on his body just by harming their tattoo. After he's killed the tattoos all vanish and return the freaks freewill.
- Right Under Their Noses: At one point, Will and Jim hide under a grate in full view of the carnival because no one will think of looking for them in such an obvious place.
- Satan: If this isn't who Mr. Dark literally is, it's certainly who he represents.
- Spooky Silent Library: Charles Halloway is the custodian of the town library. The boys seek out his knowledge and help, and wind up hiding from the carnival there.
- A Storm Is Coming
- Taken for Granite: One of the Dust Witch's powers.
- Title Drop: "By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes"
- Villainous Breakdown: Dr. Dark has several, but the big one comes when Charles Halloway sees straight through his final attempt to win, being rendered near speechless with rage.
Tropes that are Specific to the Movie Adaptation include the following:
- Ascended Extra: Tom Fury, the Lightning Rod Salesman.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: The Carousel ends up being Mr. Dark's undoing.
- Pragmatic Adaptation
- Spared by the Adaptation: Mr. Cooger