The presence of a legendary writer has a certain undeniable gravitational force. It attracts, and sometimes repels, but always creates its own orbit. This is equally true when one leaves us. Since the passing of the great teller of tales, cosmic vibrations — in a silent and pandemic way — have been altering irrevocably those of us who are sensitive enough to detect them, those of us who have been exposed (typically at an early age) to a certain electromagnetic force we refer to as Ray Bradbury.
“Shadow Show: all new stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury” is a new anthology proving this phenomenon. Editors Sam Weller and Mort Castle have collected tales from a cast of today’s foremost story sorcerers, prolific writers possessing pop recognition — along with Midwest and local-Chicago names. Like an alchemic spell compiled by a prodigy and a savant, these stories were inspired or tainted by the presence of Ray Bradbury’s works — all of them paying tribute — and create an amalgamated dreamscape in his honor.
“This book had to reflect how Bradbury has influenced everyone from the finest genre writers at work today to young literary guns, to literary legends in their own right,” comments Weller, Bradbury scholar, Jack of All Pages and contributor to the forthcoming issue of CCR. If anyone is qualified to compile a book of Bradbury’s works, it’s Sam, author of “The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury.” “Our original title,” says Weller, “was ‘Live Forever!’ This is taken from a real experience Bradbury had when he was 12. A carnival magician named Mr. Electrico tapped Ray Bradbury with an Excalibur sword that crackled with electricity. Ray felt his hair rise on end and his teeth chatter. Then the magician cried ‘Live Forever!’ Ray started writing two weeks later and never stopped.”
Proving Weller’s words true, Ray himself delivers a commencement address for the book. In “A Second Homecoming,” he acknowledges the passing of the torch, releasing his work unto his “children” successfully propelling his legacy into the realm of metafiction. He shows his legendary form all the way until his last days, providing THE example of what a writer ought to be.
Neil Gaiman, probably the highest profile name on the cast list besides Bradbury himself, starts off by delivering a prosaic letter, “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury,” which slightly underplays the fantastic reputation Gaiman has earned for his work. In a first person address, a small whimsical anecdote is recalled and soon Gaiman feigns, forgetting all words whatsoever. The casual reader may be disappointed, but Gaiman provides an honest reflection upon the impact Bradbury had on him as a writer, bent to a literary form.
Margaret Atwood, a prolific writer whose work is impossible to categorize, delivers “Headlife,” a play of egos in a scientific comedy. The protagonist owns a business and believes he has everything wrapped up as he goes down for one of his own procedures — only to wake up disembodied and disenfranchised, betrayed by his buxom mistress and conquered by his rival. It is almost guaranteed that this story will leave the reader twisted in knots, unwilling to proceed for fear of further mishap, or even reluctant to accept the story as it had been crafted by its author.
“The Tattoo,” by Bonnie Joe Cambell, takes Bradbury’s illustrated man and puts him on the backside of a woman. Would you want a tattoo that moves? A company president visits a carnival side show and see’s a tattoo so fascinating that his mind won’t let go. Cambell brings the wonder of torrential imagery onto the very skin of her characters, playing scenes on bodies and making for a story that demands to be read multiple times.
“The Girl in the Funeral Parlor,” by co-editor Sam Weller, is an incising work of realism that borders on macabre fascination common in Bradbury’s work. A delivery boy stumbles across a beautiful girl and falls instantly in love – though she’s a corpse – and follows compulsion on a path to knowing her better. This is a sad story without sentimentality, a tragic counterpoint to the theory of true love; a small literary rose, white, untrimmed.
Joe Meno chronicles a futuristic bible story tinted with the desire of a children’s fable in “Young Pilgrims.” Two teens discover an underground Eden near their isolated colony. While a zealous Patriarch looms in the background, the heroes tread a path which leads them down into deception and lust. With brilliant imagery and breath-stopping tension this sci-fi thriller hits close to home and leaves the reader wondering what lies underfoot.
A true comic gem arrives later in the book with “Earth (a gift shop),” a self-deprecating advertisement of a failed amusement park that was the millennia-prior earth we all enjoyed. In a coy voice, Charles Yu gives us a laugh-out-loud-funny invitation to the t-shirt peddling future of the planet while implying a sardonic image of humanity.
Other memorable scenes from the collection include the cascading scratches of a wild army of feral children; a weathered Hollywood heavy standing over a movie exec with a gun firing a “happy birthday” flag; an old man watching a specter chase a fleeing page down the beaches of paradise; Marilyin Monroe as a child in a movie theater, staring up at beams of light; a man on a cleaning ladder, speaking to the mysterious matriarch on a myriad of large screens; a circle of girls and one boy telling ghost stories on a space frigate; and a man trying to warn his own mother — of her own impending murder — with a phone-call backwards in time.
What the book does well is blend the intellectuals influenced by Bradbury’s imagination, ranging from speculative-moralist fiction to more realistic works filled with tension and sad irony. As often as the writers gravitate toward post-apocalyptic, speculative and science fiction, they are balanced out by those who were influenced by Bradbury’s more grounded works.
If any petty criticism could be assessed from this collective work, it would be the short, short syndrome: Several of the best or earliest stories are quick enough to read while standing in the airport, waiting to board.
“Bradbury’s footprint on writing is as important as Neil Armstrong’s first bootprint on moon dust,” stresses Weller. “Incalculable,” he adds. The writers in this anthology have definitely strapped on the shoes that Bradbury walked in and perhaps treaded similar ground — but if they did, it was only because of the force of gravity the man himself has built up, and perhaps continues building. “Shadow Show” easily becomes more than just an anthology of tales in celebration of Ray Bradbury, instead having all the attributes of muse-written scripture.
What does Weller name his motley cast of contributing writers and any disciples of Bradbury? “Autumn People,” invoking a quotation from “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which reads: “For these beings, fall is the only normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No, the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks through their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars.” First there was the word; and the word was Ray.