Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review - Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury by Sam Weller (editor) and Mort Castle (editor)

Stories included:
Second Homecoming by Ray Bradbury
The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury by Neil Gaiman
Headlife by Margaret Atwood
Heavy by Jay Bonansinga
The Girl in the Funeral Parlor by Sam Weller
The Companions by David Morrell
The Exchange by Thomas F. Monteleone
Cat on a Bad Couch by Lee Martin
By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain by Joe Hill
Little America by Dan Chaon
The Phone Call by John McNally
Young Pilgrims by Joe Meno
Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon
The Page by Ramsey Campbell
Light by Mort Castle
Conjure by Alice Hoffman
Max by John Maclay
Two of a Kind by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Fat Man and Little Boy by Gary Braunbeck
The Tattoo by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Backwards in Seville by Audrey Niffenegger
Earth (a Gift Shop) by Charles Yu
Hayleigh's Dad by Julia Keller
Who Knocks? by Dave Eggers
Reservation 2020 by Bayo Ojikutu
Two Houses by Kelly Link
Weariness by Harlan Ellison

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Shadow Show was not originally conceived as a posthumous tribute to Ray Bradbury, although it was obviously conceived as a tribute to the writer. However, Bradbury's death just a month before this volume was published transformed this into a loving look back on the life and work of a magnificent writer. The theme of the book is both very simple and very complex: a group of accomplished writers were asked to write stories that celebrated Ray Bradbury, either writing stories that were "in the style" of Ray Bradbury, or stories that showed Ray's influence on their own writing, or in some other way that they thought would be a fitting way to honor him. And the result is a brilliant anthology full of beautiful stories. Each author was also given the opportunity to provide a note after their story, explaining Bradbury's place in their memory, and the inspiration for the story. Some of these notes are brilliant and insightful, others are less so, a few are banal. And as one might expect, the general rule is that the better the story, the better the note tends to be.

The book opens with a brief essay by Ray Bradbury titled Second Homecoming in which he describes his journey from a "child" of Edgar Allen Poe and other authors who influenced him to being the "father" of so many other authors, including the ones who penned the stories in this volume. This piece is brief, but like most everything that Bradbury wrote, it is touching and sweet without being maudlin or sappy. Bradbury's essay is followed immediately by The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury by the writer who may be the most "Bradbury-like" author writing today - Neil Gaiman. In his story Gaiman manages to capture the combination of melancholy and horror that infuses so many of Bradbury's own stories with a tale about a man who forgets Bradbury, but realizes that he has lost something valuable, even though he cannot recall what it is. It is moving and, like most Gaiman stories, brilliant. Another story that incorporates Bradbury by implication is The Exchange by Thomas F. Monteleone, a story about a young man who has a chance encounter with an elderly author. The story is moderately entertaining, and is clearly a love note to Bradbury, but it isn't anything more than that.

My favorite story in the volume is Cat on a Bad Couch by Lee Martin, possibly because I can somewhat relate to the protagonist who is helplessly seeing the life he has grown comfortable living fall apart. Along the way, he collects an ugly couch, an indifferent cat, and a guilty conscience. The story captures the everyday sadness and anguish that laces through so many Bradbury stories. Another story that reflects Ray's love of finding the extraordinary in the commonplace is The Page by Ramsey Campbell, wherein an elderly vacationer stumbles into a quest after the meaning of a single page from what turns out to be an obscure book by a deceased author. The story deals with meaning and mortality, as well as the immortality of an author.

Margaret Atwood may have a strained relationship with the science fiction genre, but she does know how to craft a creepy science fiction horror story and Headlife is an example of this talent. Atwood's entry in the volume is a tale of arrogance, karma, and terror. Another entry in the horror story field is By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain by Joe Hill, a more straightforward take on the genre that couples Bradbury's love of mystery and stories featuring children. An inscrutable object washes up on shore where a cantankerous group of kids are playing, leading to a day of arguments, disputes, and eventually, tragedy. Little America by Dan Chaon is also a horror story featuring children, but where Headlife is comic, and By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain is moody and atmospheric, Little America is terrifying and sad. It is also unpredictable, and making assumptions at the outset of the story is likely to lead the reader to some conclusions that are shown to be horrifyingly erroneous by the end. Perhaps the most frightening story involving children is Hayleigh's Dad by Julia Keller, a story in which the terror is made all the more shocking because of the ordinary setting and the casual nature of the violence.

Not all of Bradbury's stories involving children were horror tales but were instead coming of age stories, and Young Pilgrims by Joe Meno reflects this. Two children born into a repressive religious sect on a distant planet chafe at the restrictions imposed upon them and try to stretch their wings. Just as with so many Bradbury tales about growing up the story has its share of anger and death – parents never seem to want to let go, and if they don't, youth will not be denied but there is a price to be paid. A somewhat happier story, Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon takes place in a bleak future in which the worlds resources have been exhausted and everyone lives hardscrabble lives eking out lives by raising vegetables in their backyard. An old woman living and grey and empty hand-to-mouth existence acquires an archaic piece of technology and rediscovers the color and magic that storytelling can bring into one's life, especially when shared with other. Of all the stories in the volume, it is the only one that has an unreservedly happy outcome.

Although Bradbury was known as a science fiction writer, his work was oftentimes more concerned with human mortality and how we deal with it. In that vein, Heavy by Jay Bonansinga is about the relationship between a washed up Hollywood character actor known for playing villains and an agent with a reputation as an unlikable fellow. The two come together in an unlikely way, and they face death in an unlikely way, with a quirky little story in between. Max by John Maclay is also concerned with mortality, but like many it approaches the story with a light supernatural touch that suggests rather than says that there might be a way to transcend that condition. And sometimes Bradbury would show the way to face even death with joy, and Gary Braunbeck captures this with Fat Man and Little Boy, in which a man out of place reflects upon his life and imparts what wisdom he can to a young coconspirator who aids him in ending his own life on his own terms.

Another story dealing with how people deal with death but also love is The Girl in the Funeral Parlor by Sam Weller, in which a man meets the woman he believes to be his one true love. In a typical story, star-crossed lovers would meet briefly and be torn apart by fate. But because this is a Bradbury-esque story, the two lovers meet only after one of them is dead, resulting in a narrative that is full of melancholy leavened with a little creepiness. The Phone Call by John McNally also deals with love out of time, this time the love a son has for his murdered mother. The story is told through a series of phone calls between the future and the past that pose a mystery and present a tantalizing opportunity to save the dead, but by the time the mystery is solved everything has gone awfully wrong and it is too late even for justice and all the protagonist can do is grieve. Love and death also feature prominently in Backwards in Seville by Audrey Niffenegger, a tale in which a daughter is allowed to make a heroic sacrifice for her father, a sacrifice she makes out of the belief that he will make a better use out of the gift than she would. The story is somehow both nihilistic and life-affirming at the same time.

Bradbury was also known for walking the line between reality and the supernatural, and The Companions by David Morrell captures some of that magic with a story involving some rather affable guardian angels. However, in Bradbury fashion the story is also about the measure of love and sacrifice, as a man finds out that his fate is not what he wanted it to be, but accepts his role out of love. Who Knocks? by Dave Eggers feels like a campfire ghost story that hints at the supernatural, with an ambiguous and unsettling ending. Two Houses by Kelly Link is also a ghost story, but it is a ghost story in space, with a story within a story and a satisfyingly creepy mood. Also blending the supernatural with the mundane is Conjure by Alice Hoffman, a tale of misdirected puppy love, and the dangers it poses, as well as the sacrifices a true friend will make if they really care. But sometimes when the supernatural filters into the world the results are neither fair nor pretty, as in Two of a Kind by Jacquelyn Mitchard in which an old man reflects upon a chance decision made by his uncle that apparently condemned his cousin to death for an ill-considered crime. The story is calmly frightening with the casually harsh retribution meted out and the guilt felt by the survivor.

Because most of the authors in the book wrote their stories while reflecting upon which of Bradbury's works most touched them, the stories tend towards the haunting, the wistful, and the melancholy. But Bradbury's writing could also be whimsical and humorous, a fact that is reflected in Charles Yu's story Earth (a Gift Shop). An empty and abandoned Earth is transformed into a museum, and then an amusement park, and finally, just a gift shop so that tourists can get a souvenir to take home with them. The story is funny, but also bitterly satirical.

The most self-conscious effort to create a story that not only celebrates Bradbury, but more or less imitates his writing is The Tattoo by Bonnie Jo Campbell, a story that is clearly influenced by The Illustrated Man. It is a tale of a man who has always done the right thing finding his place in the world by means of a magical tattoo. Even though he does the "crazy" thing by abandoning his comfortable job and reliable fiancée in favor of a nomadic carnival lifestyle and a woman he barely knows, the story makes it clear that he is compelled to do so by the imperative of following one's true dreams. The other story that seems to be directly inspired by a specific Bradbury story is Reservation 2020 by Bayo Ojikutu, a story clearly influenced by Fahrenheit 451. In a future world, the inhabitants of the U.S. have been largely herded into reservations for their own safety. When a young man creates art that threatens to upset the political order, the dark reality that lurks underneath the Potemkin exterior is exposed. In contrast, the one story that seems out of place in this collection is Light by Mort Castle. An odd fictionalized account that tells of the life of Marilyn Monroe, weaving the real events of her life into a narrative that takes her metaphorical luminosity and asserts it to be a real physical characteristic. The story seems out of place in this collection because it is the one story that seems like it was simply pulled off the shelf by the author and mailed in, whereas all the other stories seem as though they were written specifically for this collection. A slightly supernatural retelling of Monroe's life is kind of interesting, but it doesn't seem to evoke Bradbury in any way.

The very last story in the volume is, appropriately, Weariness by Harlan Ellison. While most of the other authors who contributed to this collection were one or two generations later than Bradbury, Ellison was his contemporary – in Bradbury's words, they were brothers. The story itself is a brief exploration of the kind of melancholy and loneliness that permeated Bradbury's own stories, which is a markedly different tone from Ellison's own stories infused with a rage and anger that rails against the inevitable. The two authors were, in some ways, the sides of a single coin. While Bradbury wrote about accepting the world and working with it, Ellison's signature works give us protagonists who fight even when the fight is completely lost. Perhaps it is age and weariness that has mellowed Ellison and allowed him to produce this story. I doubt it. I think it is a testament to the love that he had for his fellow writer that made him channel the other's style so completely. And that love is clearly on display, along with Ellison's signature irascibility, in his beautiful and touching author's note.

Shadow Show is an almost perfect goodbye love note to a powerful writer. Full of stories that illustrate the impact that Bradbury had on his compatriots and the themes that wove through his entire body of work, the collection is almost tone perfect. With a single exception, the stories seem to give a little window into what Bradbury meant to the writer, and at times, seem to give a little window into Bradbury himself. From the opening by Gaiman to the closing by Ellison, Shadow Show is a beautiful and melancholy walk through the minds of writers when they think of Bradbury, and this walk is a walk that should be taken.

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  1. Oh wow, this brings tears to my eyes. Ray Bradbury was one of my first favorites. He was a pioneer. I have to pick up this book for sure.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: It is a really good collection. Some of the authors seemed to lock in on Bradbury's style perfectly and produced some fantastic stories without seeming like they were just imitating him.