The Short Version: A collection of stories inspired by and written for perhaps the greatest of fantastical forefathers, Ray Bradbury. Some set in the future, some in the past – some completely magical, others holding only the smallest seedling of magic… but all deeply indebted to Ray’s exceptional legacy. As he calls it in his foreword, it’s a Second Homecoming – his children, come home to the October Country to pay homage to their passing king.
The Review: I don’t tend to get too choked up about ‘celebrities’ or famous people passing away – it’s sad, but not in the way that the death of a friend or family member is sad. But when I heard last year that Ray had passed, I shed more than a few tears. I’d known his short stories (and, of course, Fahrenheit 451) for about as long as I can remember – and reading Something Wicked This Way Comes for the inaugural October Country visit on this blog brought such a rush of emotion, both joy and sorrow equally (not to mention, you know, terror). And every year, on Halloween, I read aloud from …From the Dust Returned, the collection of stories about that incredible family – once inked by Charles Addams – and the house they call home. Ray’s work is a part of my life in a way that few other authors (seriously – maybe J.K. Rowling, Tolkien, Camus, maybe just a handful of others) could lay claim to, because of how entwined with my life his work has been. And this isn’t even to speak of the incredible influence he’s had on my own writing.
This is the message of these stories, too: these authors, every single one of them, owes so much to Ray. Some of them, amazingly, wrote him and he wrote back. Some of them never met or spoke to the man. But all of them, every single one, can point to Ray’s work and say “This. This is an essential part of why I am who I am.” Even Harlan Ellison, a contemporary of Ray’s, does so as he closes out the collection – with an elegiac story of the end of a universe. Which is, indeed, what happened shortly after this book was first published; Ray passed on.
But to see these stories shows that while he may be dead, he is not gone – far from it. These are AMAZING writers – where else are you going to see Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Joe Hill, Charles Yu, and Dave Eggers (just to name a couple) just hanging out, come from their different walks of life and story to pitch a tale around the same campfire? – and they’re all telling stories today because of Ray. And this collection feels, for the most part, like a way of saying thanks. Atwood’s creepy “Headlife” is hilarious, reminiscent of those disembodied heads on Futurama – both of which, in turn, feel like the sort of light creepy sci-fi Bradbury enjoyed. Joe Hill’s “By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain” is a sort of twin sibling to a Bradbury story (I won’t ruin which one) and you see how we can take the stories Ray told us and synthesize them into something new, something of our own. Alice Hoffman’s riff on Something Wicked… feels like exactly how young girls reading that book might interpret a similarly life-changing summer. Even Charles Yu – an author who I wouldn’t immediately think of when it comes to Bradbury – makes so much sense here, with his tale of Earth-become-a-gift-shop.
It’s hard, sometimes, to recall that Bradbury was a man who could do so many things so well. Fahrenheit 451 is such a different book from Something Wicked… and those are both different from The Martian Chronicles and those, in turn, are different from Dandelion Wine. So of course he inspired folks to write in all these different veins. Just because the Bradbury of the October Country is different (to me) from the Bradbury of Mars doesn’t mean that we don’t all owe him the same allegiance, if that makes sense.
Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know. It’s hard to speak about a man who meant so much to so many people without, perhaps, writing a story to do the speaking for you. The bookends of this book, Gaiman’s and Ellison’s, feel like the right level of eulogy too – even though Ray hadn’t passed when they told their stories for that first time.
I should make a note that a few stories are only so-so – not necessarily because they lack the right influence but rather, I think, because their authors perhaps just couldn’t bring it home. It’s not everyone, not even everyone on this list – and ALL of them are talented writers – who can do what Ray did. Also, I should just say that there’s one story that felt like it was completely wrong for the collection – and that felt like an indulgence, one that made me a little angry to be honest. It felt self-serving, not at all right, and it just goes to show that sometimes one must remove one’s ego from the equation… but anyway.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Forget the fact that, like most short story collections these days, it goes on a little long in the end. Disregard the stories that don’t do it for you. The other ones – and I’ll bet the grab bag is different for everybody – are what you’re here for. They’re the stories that you’ll hold in your heart just like you hold “The Sound of Thunder” or “The Homecoming” – the stories you will, maybe, someday read to the “Children of the Bedtime Machine”. Or at least to your children. I know I will.