When the amazing collection of authors contributed to Sam Weller and Mort Castle's new Ray Bradbury-inspired collection of short stories, Shadow Show, the master was obviously still alive. He would die just a month before the book was published, but the stories inside seem to eerily refer to a world where he was already gone. Such a macabre coincidence is of course the exact sort of thing Bradbury would've wanted on his literary tombstone.
It really is a Who's Who of the absolutely best in modern literature. Margaret Atwood, Alice Hoffman, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill and Harlan Fucking Ellison all appear to state definitively just how the work of Bradbury inspired each of them. The result may be the greatest collection of short stories ever compiled.
And yet, there is so much sadness in the pages. Sam Weller's own "The Girl in the Funeral Parlor" is an absolutely heartbreaking tale of a flower-delivery man who falls in love with a beautiful dead girl that he arranges a display for while she is laid out for viewing and all alone.
I don't mean he falls for her in some creepy Katie Vick way, I mean that he is just haunted by her face and the life she could have lived. He pictures himself in an alternative universe where they'd met and were together. It's a poignant look at an often pointless world, and somehow it manages to sum up everything about the loss of Bradbury. Is there a plane of existence where sheer affection for the man kept him alive and making magic?
Harlan Ellison, himself no spring chicken, tackles the idea of weariness in the story of the same name. It's one of the shortest in the book, and according to Ellison in the after notes, it may be his last. With Bradbury gone, only Ellison is his living equal in terms of short story brilliance.
Yet even he takes the opportunity in the final pages of the collection to have far distant aliens of perfection face the void at the end of all things. They stare, frightened at first, but with increasing understanding at the ultimate end of the story. It's part ode to a good life lived, part cry for help as strength fails and part goodbye. Ellison and Bradbury had a bet about the afterlife, and Ellison jokes in his notes that there's no way to declare a winner. To quote him from his own work, "There's a moral in that, somewhere."
Possibly the finest story in the book is the work of Joe Hill, who is turning out to be one of the most important American writers ever. His story, "By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain," is about three children finding Champ, the legendary monster of Lake Champlain, dead on the shore from some kind of accident. The kids imagine how famous they'll be, and send the youngest to collect adults to prove their discovery, but the adults are all uncaring and uninterested after a night of too many martinis on vacation.
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In many ways, it's the most Bradbury of all the stories, though it doesn't have much in common stylistically with his work. Instead, it's a tragic rumination on the difference between the way children see the world and the way adults do. Hill accomplishes much of what his father did in It, but more than that he taps into the fissure between imagination and harsh reality that Bradbury opened so wide. It's a raw, hurtful work that makes a man question what he might have traded wonder for.
But of all the stories, it's "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury" by Neil Gaiman that is all that need ever be said about Bradbury's importance to fiction. In it, the protagonist is a man who seems to be steadily losing his memory and possibly his mind. In a series of feverish soliloquies, the narrator laments all the important things that Bradbury taught us, most especially the lessons about what happens when you forget the great works of literature.
It's a bizarre story, more like one of Gaiman's few poems than a proper prose work, and it feels from the beginning like a requiem. It talks as if Bradbury was already gone, and Gaiman woke up in the middle of the worried agonizing over what would happen if something like "Usher II" was erased from the collective consciousness of the world.
Frankly, I wonder that, too. What would a world look like without the ghosts of Guy Montag and Jim Nightshade to haunt us? In a way, Shadow Show is like the Talmud to Bradbury's Torah, a discussion of what the divine word means and how it applies to our lives. It is the words of the priests of the October Country, left as sermons to guide us to glory.