Thanks to our recent book chats here, I’ve reread a bit of Ray Bradbury lately, so I was well primed to pick up the 2012 tribute anthology edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, entitled Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, which collects 26 contemporary authors who were asked to write a story inspired or informed by Bradbury. The task was sufficiently non-restrictive that the stories run a gamut of style and type: horror, fantasy, dystopia, science fiction, as well as several with no fantastical element whatsoever, which may surprise those who know Bradbury only through classic novels like Fahrenheit 451 or Something Wicked This Way Comes, or collections such as The Martian Chronicles, R is for Rocket, or The Illustrated Man.
Bradbury, however, was one of the first authors to cross easily between the then more-strict barriers separating genre and literary fiction, publishing in magazines as diverse as Weird Tales, Mademoiselle, and The New Yorker. He was also maybe the most assigned genre author in schools, with stories such as “The Veldt,” “The Pedestrian,” and “All Summer in a Day,” regular mainstays of classroom anthologies, often read alongside the aforementioned novels. (I speak from personal knowledge, as I can still visualize the cover of my classroom text in which I read “There Will Come Soft Rains” — a story I immediately fell in love with.)
Given his varied publication history, and his ubiquitous presence in the middle school and high school classroom, Weller and Castle may have been more hard pressed to find authors who were not influenced/inspired by Bradbury as opposed to those who were (in a nice bonus feature, each story is followed by a brief anecdote by the author detailing Bradbury’s influence on him/her). In any case though, they rounded up an impressive list of contributors, including heavy-hitters like Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Alice Hoffman, Harlan Ellison, and Joe Hill. Given those names, while overall the stories vary in quality as is typical of any anthology, no one should be surprised to find several pure gems in the mix.
My favorite is Alice Hoffman’s “Conjure,” which is just a brilliant alchemical reimagining of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (mentioned by name in the story), a tale which employs the same basic storyline, setting, and themes — two young best friends (girls this time rather than boys) in a sunny small town, each on the cusp of young adulthood, one more tempted than the other by the darkness, more desirous of shedding her childhood — to create a beautifully bittersweet work of almost startling originality considering the direct parallels. One can draw the line back to Bradbury from the story’s opening sentence and the way it evokes time and place, yoking the changes of the season to nostalgia and the end of childhood:
It was August, when the crickets sang slowly and the past lingered in bright pools of glorious light, even though it would soon be gone, the way summer was all but over, yet the heat was still on the rise.
This story alone I’d say is worth the price of entry.
Nearly as strong is Joe Hill’s “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain.” Its opening — “The robot shuffled clank-clank into the pitch dark of the bedroom, then stood staring down at the humans. The female human groaned and rolled away and folded a pillow over her head.” — seems to set us up for one kind of story. But we soon understand the “robot” is actually a young girl Gail pretending to be a robot and, not much later, readers will recognize that Hill is playing directly of off Bradbury’s oft-anthologized story “The Fog Horn.” The story does a wonderful job in its depiction of childhood friendship and imagination and in true Bradbury fashion, Hill does not shy away from the darker threads that run through childhood and life in general.
Robert McCammon’s “Children of the Bedtime Machine” is set in the future, a hard-scrabble post-apocalyptic future “where any of the few birds still living passed by, always going somewhere else” across a “landscape the color of rust.” Here, in “a lonely house in a lonely land … in a hard world” lives an older woman who wept over “this sad and brutal world. This careless world. This world of lost opportunities and crushed hearts.” Something, however, will change this world for her, though I won’t say what (you can imagine it might have to do with that bedtime machine). It’s a beautifully told tale, lyrical and with a sharply drawn main character, and in theme and detail would feel wholly at home in one of Bradbury’s own anthologies.
The story that opens the anthology, Neil Gaiman’s “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury,” is told in first-person by a man who is forgetting things: “I am losing words, although I am not losing concepts. I hope I am not losing concepts.” The speaker moves from a general discussion of his problem to more specifically fearing that he is forgetting the author whose books he so loved, a fear he expresses with aching, moving, desperation.
And as long as your words which are people which are days which are my life, as long as your words survive, then you lived and you mattered and you changed the world and I cannot remember your name. I learned your books. Burned them into my mind. In case the firemen came to town. But who you are is gone … All I have left is the space in my mind where you used to be … and I worry. I worry I was keeping them [the stories] alive. Like the people in the snow at the end of the story, walking backwards and forwards, remembering, repeating the words of the stories, making them real.
What drives this story’s impact is that sense of desperation, of sorrow, and of love for words and stories and this particular writer’s words and stories. Stylistically, the story builds strongly upon itself, feeling, appropriately enough given where it goes, like a prayer, and its ending is full of passion and grief and sacrifice.
The above four tales are I think far and away the best in the collection, each superb in both their own fashion and also in how they evoke Bradbury’s tone and style without resorting to pastiche. Falling into the not-great-but-really-quite-good category are (in order of personal preference):
- “Cat on a Bad Couch” by Lee Martin. One of the longer stories, it is marked by a strong sense of character and voice and takes its time to let story and character develop
- “Heyleigh’s Dad,” by Julia Keller, a tight, tense, little horror story with two young girls and a forbidden basement at its center
- “Two Houses” by Kelly Link, which was well crafted, sharply detailed and expertly paced but which I dropped into this group due to what I found to be a pretty weak ending.
- “Light” by Mort Castle. Like “Cat on a Bad Couch,” this is one of the non-fantastical stories, though unlike it and the others, it plays much more with style and structure as it brings Marilyn Monroe to life through a series of brief, expressionistic passages. I appreciated both its construction and also how it connected to one of Bradbury’s loves beyond but related to fantasy—Hollywood.
- “The Girl in the Funeral Parlor” by Sam Weller, a story about an unexpected love that is well told and had a definite Bradbury vibe to it.
From these we drop into the solid if uninspiring category, with a group of stories that were OK, but were maybe a little flat, a bit predictable, maybe somewhat over-long or talky or were well-told but somewhat slight. These include (again, in order of preference):
- “Little America” by Dan Chaon. One of the better ones in this mix, just a little familiar and predictable
- “Heavy” by Jay Bonansigna
- “Headlife” by Margaret Atwood. If you’re surprised to see an Atwood story in this category, just know she herself calls it “a little riff” in her afterword
- “Two of a Kind” by Jacquelyn Mitchard. One of the better written ones in this section, but it started to lag for me about three-quarters of the way through
- “Fat Man and Little Boy” by Gary A. Braunbeck. One of those “slight” stories, and more than a little implausible, but it has a winning voice in its primary speaker, and Braunbeck does a nice job of capturing a trademark Bradbury technique—the long monologue.
- “Weariness” by Harlan Ellison (I actually preferred his afterword, which was longer than the story)
- “Backward in Seville” by Audrey Niffenegger
The final grouping of stories is easy to title, as I can simply use the single word I often wrote in my note at the end: “meh.” Of these, “The Phone Call” by John McNally, “Young Pilgrims” by Joe Meno, and “The Tattoo” by Bonnie Jo Campbell were probably the best, but that’s relatively weak praise and all were marred by being overly flat or trite or predictable (or a combination of these problems). The unnamed stories were, we’ll just say, disappointing.
So if you’re keeping score, out of 26 stories, roughly a third are great or very good, and another quarter are solidly enjoyable (these ones are probably where your mileage will vary most). That’s a good ratio in my experience with anthologies, making it easy to recommend this one. But really, I’d recommend it on the basis of those first four alone.