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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
On the afternoon of October 23, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are sitting on their front lawns when a traveling lightning rod salesman arrives, and after talking with the boys, offers them a free lightning rod for a storm that promises to come in that night. The boys have spent literally every second of their lives together. At thirteen, though, differences are starting to become apparent. Will is quite content with who he is. Jim can only look to what will be. He is unhappy with all of who he is.
At three a.m. on October 24, a carnival arrives in town. The boys hear the music, and run out to meet the carnival train, but immediately, they know something is different about this carnival, as it looks like it puts itself together. The boys spend the entire next day at the carnival trying to discover anything strange about it. Only one strange thing happens during the day. The boys’ seventh grade teacher, Miss Foley, comes out of the mirror maze, frightened, saying a little girl who looks like she did as a child, is lost in the maze. She goes home to rest, and at sundown, the boys find the odd duck they’re looking for. They discover a working carousel that has an out-of-order sign posted on it. The redheaded Cooger immediately appears, about to throw them out. Dark, who looks like his name, appears, gives the boys a free ride ticket and asks them to leave. They start to leave, but end up hiding in a tree. From their view, the carousel beings to run backward, playing the funeral march backward. Cooger rides the backward carousel around 28 times, and emerges as a boy of 12.
Will and Jim follow him to Miss Foley’s house, where she’s taken him in at his suggestion that he’s her nephew. Will knows they’re in trouble for what they’ve seen. Jim’s intrigued, as he knows the carnival could make him the older man he wishes he could be.
The boys arrive home late, only to get yelled at by their parents, and sent to bed without any supper. Later that evening, Will watches as Jim creeps out of his house alone and head toward Miss Foley’s, hoping to talk to Cooger/the nephew. Will follows, knowing speaking to the nephew will be dangerous. The nephew reveals himself by throwing Foley’s jewelry onto the lawn, setting the boys up to take a burglary rap. The nephew takes off, with Jim and Will not far behind. Foley knows the nephew is attempting a set up that will keep the boys out of the way for her, and she obliges by reporting the theft to the police and Will’s father. Will and Jim follow the nephew to the fair grounds, and watch him jump on the carousel. Jim tries to jump in too, but Will plays with the control box, speeds up the carousel, and the nephew spins around near ninety times. The figure on the platform seems far too ancient to live. Will and Jim run for help. However, when the police and ambulance crew arrive, Dark passes the ancient figure off as Mr. Electrico, a new carnival stunt. The police buy it, and drop the boys off at a location they say is their home.
As they boys walk to their actual homes, they pass by the rear of the police station where they hear Foley making her report to the police. The boys turn themselves in, and Charles, Will’s father, takes them home. That night, the carnival, angry with the boys, sends the Dust Witch, a blind, wax-like woman with special psychic powers, out in a hot-air balloon to mark the boys’ houses with a slimy glue the carnival will be able to spot later when they come after the boys. The boys manage to wash it off the roof, but after they both go back to bed, Will gets his boy scout archer set, and shoots the balloon down, hoping to act again before the carnival does.
The next day, the boys head out to apologize to Miss Foley again, and on their way, they discover a young Miss Foley crying in the street. She too has taken a ride on the carousel. As they try to verify the young girl’s identity, the carnival sends a parade through the city, snatching the young Miss Foley, and hunting the boys. The boys hid in a grate under the sidewalk where Charles eventually notices them, and after an encounter with Dark, Charles finally realizes the gravity of the situation the boys are in. He tells them to meet him at seven that evening at the library, where he works as a janitor.
After a long day of hiding, they do meet him, and they reveal the whole story to him. He discloses that the carnival as been around for some time, showing up in October after people have forgotten when it lasts arrived and left. It always arrives with something close to the same name. Charles theorizes that it feeds on tortured souls.
Before they can start to plot a course of action, though, Dark arrives, breaks Charles, hand, kidnaps the boys, and on his way out, has the Dust Witch attempt to kill Charles by stopping his heart. Dark heads toward the carnival, the boys in tow. Charles manages to break free of the forced heart attack by laughing at the Dust Witch, and she leaves in fear with Charles close behind her.
Eventually they all arrive at the carnival. Dark stashes the boys, now in a drugged / dream-like state, in with the wax figures, and announces the last show of the evening to the crowd: the bullet trick. The Dust Witch is the target and Charles step forward to volunteer. He calls for Will to help him, and while Will cannot break out of his mental state at the start, when the crowd joins in to help, he is somehow able to respond. When Dark hands Charles the bullet to carve his initial on, Charles carves a smile. The bullet trick, though, is actually performed when Dark places a wax bullet, that will dissolve, in the rifle, and the Witch places the bullet Charles has carved on in her mouth. When Charles fires, though, the Dust Witch is so afraid, she chokes on the bullet in her mouth and dies.
With her death, the boys awake from their stupor, and Charles and Will leave to find Jim. As they’re searching, the carnival freaks attempt to transport Mr. Electrico to the carousel, but he doesn’t survive, and it is Jim who jumps on the carousel. Will manages to pull him off after a few rounds, but he appears dead, so Will begins artificial respiration. A small boy comes running to Charles, begging for help, but he turns out to be Mr. Dark in boy form, and Charles kills him by hugging him closer than he can stand.
With his death, the carnival collapses, and the freaks scatter, their bonds of slavery lifted. Charles and Will mange to wake Jim through happiness and excitement, and they run for home, content with their lives, knowing the carnival could eventually return in any form.