Sunday, July 17, 2022

Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury: Little America (2011).

Sometimes you don't know what to say.  That's just the way it goes, or so it seems.  It's difficult to tell where to begin with a name like Ray Bradbury.  I think there might be a number of reasons for that.  Part of it, of course, is to due to good old fashioned cultural amnesia.  Life itself seems to be moving at a pace where its a wonder if the man on the street is even aware of the town or city he lives in, what it's history is, or where it came from.  What in hell is an Alamo, for example?  Another, more complex reason is the way the reputation of certain ink stained wretches can sometimes grow to impossible seeming proportions over time.  We're not talking about your run-of-the-mill Mid-List fiction writer here.  The kind of authors I'm thinking of have left behind legacies that tower and dwarf over your Don DeLillo's and Sue Grafton's.  These are the simple scribblers whose works have become monoliths with the passage of time.  Something that turns them all into giants whose shoulders sometimes prove impossible to get a purchase on.  It's the case with writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, or J.R.R. Tolkien.  It's also the truth about Ray Bradbury.

When he first got started way back in the day, pounding out a dollar a word for himself on whatever typewriter he could afford, spewing out copy for whichever pulp magazine would give him something for his next meal, he was nothing special.  There was very little to distinguish this near dirt poor hayseed kid from Waukegan, Illinois amongst the other toilers in the trenches of the yellow rag press.  It was a setup as far from the New Yorker as you could get.  We're talking dubious periodicals here, with names like Black Mask, or even something as generic as Thrilling Wonder Stories.  They dealt mainly in cheap thrills interlaced here and there with scatterings of work that might just show tell-tale trace elements of quality on occasion.  In other words, there was a lot to like about all of it.  Though you wouldn't suppose that this was the breeding ground for all of the major popular genres as we now know them.  More to the point, there was no way anyone could guess that some four-eyed hick from Illinois would wind up playing anything like a pivitol role in all of this.  You just have to laugh at the idea.

It also doesn't change the facts of history.  What the evidence reveals to us today is that if you have to look for any one writer who can be said to have helped set the definitive mold on Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, then Ray Bradbury is your best candidate.  This is where the difficulty comes in, because when you talk about the artistic achievement of someone like Bradbury, what you're really trying to discuss is the way all the modern forms of popular Fantastic entertainment took shape, and were given the final forms, or stamps of identity by which we know them now.  What we're dealing with, then, is tall order, one that would take a whole book in order to do it justice.  The best anyone can do in a limited amount of space like this is to offer the faint suggestions of a first outline of Bradbury' accomplishment.  Right now, the best way I know how to describe all that is to say that it all came down to two or three crucial ingredients.  The first was that of finding the right, contemporary voice.  The other two were locating the right sort of stage setting, and the proper creative imagery to go along with it.  What this means in practical terms is that Ray gave a voice and home for a lot of old myths.

If you want to get technical about, there was nothing all that new about the stage in which Bradbury set all of his fiction.  So far as I can tell, it's little more than the same one guys like Shakespeare used way back in the day.  All Ray did was stumble upon it while looking for story material, saw some potential in the old, discarded grand edifice, and found all he really had to do was apply a few new coats of paint, and then he was pretty much in business.  He might have done little more than give the forms, themes, and plot devices of ancient myth a surface makeover.  Yet the key thing to note is that in finding a working modern expression for a lot of hoary old tropes, Bradbury didn't just wind up writing a lot of good stories.  He created art in such a way that everything he wrote would go on to set the kind of basic standard for everything to do with either lands far away, worlds located in other galaxies, or else all those dark corners, lanes and byways that he would later designate as "The October Country".


In each case, without ever really meaning to, Bradbury created an artistic mold, or paradigm in which later arrivals such as George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry, Neil Gaiman and Steven Spielberg, or John Carpenter and Stephen King could find room to thrive and carry on where the old Waukegan Martian left off.  Indeed, it could be argued that all King did was to find his eventual way into Ray's October Country, and then set up a permanent office space there.  Just recently it even looks as if King's son, Joe Hill, is more or less poised to take over the management of the Old Country for future posterity.  This then is just a preliminary suggestion of the myriad legacy that was left behind by Ray Bradbury.  It's an accomplishment whose effects aren't lost on the likes of Sam Weller and Mort Castle.  It's the main reason they banded together to help create Shadow Show, an anthology of short fiction dedicated to and inspired by the work of Ray Bradbury.  If I had to take a guess, then it's Weller who started the idea.

He's no stranger either to Bradbury's work, or the author himself for that matter.  Weller spent a great deal of time interviewing Bradbury during the final years of his life.  It was a brief yet impactful meeting of two minds.  At the end of it, Weller had come away with enough of an understanding on who Bradbury was to later give us a full-length, published biography way back in 2006.  So far it remains the standard introductory text to Ray and his particular brand of Gothic Science Fictionalism.  With this knowledge in mind, a collection like Shadow Show takes on an air of inevitability.  Odds are even it's possible that Weller felt the need to give a little something back in return for the writer opening his house and home to him for such a gracious period of time.  So together with Mort Castle, Weller canvassed a list of some of the best names in the Fantastic genres, and this is the final result.

In his introduction to the anthology, Weller lays out the main premise better than I can, really:

"In Shadow Show, this celebration of Ray Bradbury, artists who have been profoundly influenced by him pen their own short stories in homage, stories that through image, theme, or concept are either ever so obviously or ever so subtly "Bradbury-informed."  From the lyrical magic of Dandelion Wine, to the shifting sands of Mars, to the roiling mist of The October Country, Bradbury's literary achievements in all their scope are honored by a host of today's top writers.  Shadow Show presents our most exciting authors, who, like the honoree, are not contained or constrained by category or locale, as they touch the Bradbury base for inspiration to explore their own singular, wildest imaginings.The stories in this volume are niether sequels nor pastiches but rather distinctive fictive visions by writers inspired by a single common touchstone: the enduring works of Ray Bradbury (4-5)".


It's a book I think I caught in passing, is all.  Like maybe it was a title that caught my eye as I was running my gaze over the list of titles in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of a local Half-Price Books, or something.  I didn't snatch it up then and there.  However, it seemed like something that could maybe be worth keeping an eye on.  Sooner or later this idea turned from a lingering possibility to a promise more or less kept.  I think what might have cinched the deal for me was a positive review I caught of it from the Truth Inside the Lie blog.  The result was the same, either way.  I knuckled under, paid the ticket, and took a ride.  What follows is a review of the first carnival attraction I took on the Shadow Show.

The Story.

Not too long ago, a neighbor of mine had this observation that I don't think I'll ever forget.  He said his own Dad once told him that "Children are like carpets.  They should be stepped on occasionally".  I think my neighbor, or his Dad, anyway, was trying to make a point about the need for discipline in the family unit.  Yeah, well, pardon a stupid thought.  However, as someone who still hopes to be a Dad one day, I say the minute you treat a child like an object is the moment you've lost them forever.  You've probably done worse than that.  You've pretty much abdicated the role of an authentic parental authority.  That's the worst kind of mistake to make with a child.  You've basically demonstrated to them that whatever responsibility is, you've chosen to ignore it.  In doing so, you have thereby given them carte-blanche permission to not just ignore you.  The final lesson you've imparted to them is that you can't handle yourself.  So why should they?  If it's a recipe for trouble that you're after, then I can't think of a better way to achieve it.  Of course there's nothing new about that.  There are some folks out there desperate enough to crawl on cut glass just to avoid having to take responsibility for others, or themselves.  I reckon something has to go very wrong inside for that sort of the thing to happen.

The real curious thing about my neighbor is in the way he gave his two cents.  It didn't come off like the words of a crabby adult who can't stand the sight of young adults.  We're not talking about the average "You-damn-kids-get-off-my-lawn" mentality here.  This guys was twitchy as he warmed up to his subject.  He would dart glances around the place, like a fox in a forest, trying to detect if a predator was nearby.  He even sounded borderline timid as he made his sentiments known.  He had the air of a man speaking a truth so profound it almost had to be considered taboo.  It took a beat to register just what in hell was going on, and then it hit me.  I was listening to the words of a frightened man.  It wasn't that this guy hated kids.  The emotion they conjured up in his mind was a lot more basic and elemental: fear.  For all intents and purposes, my neighbor was downright terrified of little boys and girls.


For the life of me, I'll swear I couldn't tell you why.  The whole damn thing was so off-kilter that I decided to take a risk.  Instead of just calling him out for being a sour-puss, or anything like that, I asked the neighbor to explain just what in hell he even thought he was talking about.  What he said next is sort of the reason I'm passing this along to you.  Maybe you'll be able to make better sense of it all than I can.  "Have you ever noticed kids, like out of the corner of your eye", he asked?  I told him I reckoned as how I had, same as other folks.  What's so strange about that, I wondered?  Children always get underfoot every now and then.  If they didn't they wouldn't be kids now, would they?  The neighbor wasn't talking about that, however.  He meant did I ever happen to spot or run across kids when they didn't think anyone noticed what they were up to?  I got to admit, that was the first time his words begin to set off faint alarm bells in my mind.  I asked my neighbor just what he thought  he was up to, and here's the part where things started to get weird, and not in the ways you might have been expecting.

"Did you ever bother to pay attention in class when the teachers used to lecture us about human ancestry", my neighbor mused out loud.  "Like how we're all descended from the beasts of the jungle.  I never even gave any of it much thought, until I noticed children".  I told him that was a low blow, and not at all fair.  He didn't seem to here me.  The neighbor's mind was now caught on a train of thought, and he was following it along without a care of who he said it to.  I then realized this was an notion he'd wanted to get off his chest for a long time.  "They say humans used to be animals once upon a time.  Every school book tells us we're descended from monkeys.  Sometimes I wonder if Darwin might have got it just a bit wrong, however.  What if it wasn't primates, yet something a lot more feral, like wolves?  You know they say that each human embryo starts out retracing all the developmental stages of evolution on its way to becoming what we regard as a normal fetus?  It starts out as an organism very near to that of a fish, then something very close to a lizard or an overgrown worm.  At one point, we all had the tails of dogs somewhere during those crucial nine months.  Then the scales and tails fall away, and what we're left with is a something or someone that later becomes you and me.  All so strange".

I told him I couldn't really see what was so odd about something that happens to every one of us at the start of our lives.  Besides, I pointed out, it's not like any of us turned out so bad?  "Maybe some of us (most of us?) just get lucky that way", the neighbor replied.  "By the time we're born a lot of the wild has been taken out of us, by whatever mysterious process we don't yet know enough about.  What happens if some of us are born with leftovers?  What then"?  Leftovers like how, I asked?  "Do you think it's ever possible that some kids are born with some of the wildness of old nature still in them, somewhere?  In most of us its probably rendered dormant at birth.  However, what if now and then you keep getting these odd numbered kids who still maintain a level development that was more common back when we swung through the trees on tails, or ran on all fours like dogs?  Maybe it's like a recessive gene or something that lies dormant and inoperative in guys like you and me, and yet some kids might wake up in this life with a lot of feral traits intact"?  I decided to helpfully point out the most damn-fool parts of his ramblings, here.  For one thing, if that was how some kids were born then it's a wonder they're able to so much as add two and two together.  In the second place, I told him I sure hoped he wasn't making a slight at those born with mental handicaps, cause then he was in trouble.


My neighbor insisted he was talking about something else.  "I don't even mean the problem kids like your juvenile delinquents.  Like maybe those types have trace elements of what I'm talking about in them.  Yet it's so diluted there as to not make any difference.  All you've got on your hands in that case is just a normal, maladjusted human being.  Besides, the trick there is that even the worst of them can learn to adjust to real life, sometimes.  No the sort of kids I'm thinking of now are...different.  They don't make a fuss, any more than normal, I suppose.  They don't draw attention to themselves, and yet it's like you can tell there's something wrong about them.  Like they're a bit too quiet.  Have you ever seen kids like that?  They're not handicapped or withdrawn.  Instead it's like watching a cat about to play with its food, or a timber wolf watching a herd of deer within easy reach.  Sometimes, whenever I let my guard down just a bit, I'll swear I've seen them go from regular kids to something else.  Like it starts somewhere about the eyes and mouth, only they never let you see it directly.  The minute you turn back to face them full on, the look has gone out of them, and their eyes are back to normal".

It was at this point that I first began to wonder about my neighbor's health.  It sounded like he'd been having one too many shots, or something like it before bed.  Here the neighbor just seemed to fold up, like Pinocchio getting caught  in one lie too many, or a poor excuse for a stage magician who realizes the trick isn't coming off the way its supposed to.  He told me to never mind, it's probably just nerves, or something like it.  With that, the man took his leave, and began to make his way up his own front porch.  "Tell you one thing, though", he added as a parting shot.  "I'll always feel a lot better knowing there's a handy shot gun right next to the bed".  That was the last time time he ever said a word to me.  He went inside, and the next time I saw or heard anything about him, my next door neighbor was dead.  He was found not long after dead in his own home.  The body was located a few feet from the front door.  He'd been trailing blood from his throat and had collapsed just a few feet away from access to the outside world, and possible help before succumbing to his wounds.  He was the victim of a break-in.

It's the nature of that break-in which gives me pause, and makes me tell all this to you.  I was interviewed by the police about it, seeing as how I was the closest person the former next door resident was familiar with, even if just on an occasional speaking basis.  It's from the cops that I learned all the gory details.  At some point between two and three AM, the lock on the backdoor of my neighbor's house was jimmied open, and a group of perpetrators (the exact number remains unknown, though evidence at the crime scene does reveal the presences of at least four of them) made their silent way inside.  From there, a great deal of what happened next is speculation.  It's assumed the intruders made a quiet beeline for the neighbor's bedroom.  This is based on the fact that the earliest signs of a struggle begin in that particular location.  Once they reached my neighbor, still possibly fast asleep in his bed, the fell on him.  I was never told or shown what happened in detail by the police.  However, someone later went on to leak photos of the crime scene, and they wound up plastered in newspapers and on the Internet.  It really does look as if a pack of wolves tried to crawl into bed with grandma for dinner.


 

The blue sheets of my neighbor's last moment of rest of scattered here and there with good splashes of crimson red.  Some of it winds up in hand prints on the walls.  One of them is identifiable as the old man who once shook my hand in welcoming me to the neighborhood.  One of those same middle fingers now appears to have been chewed clean off.  Another leaked photo shows my neighbor's cell phone lying in another crimson splash against a wall.  It's been shattered into three pieces, with bits of blood-stained glass and plastic from the main screen scattered all around it.  Situated not too far away, just visible in the frame is what looks like a little footprint, also with a bit of red on it.  The next photograph's a snail's trail the poor bastard made as he tried to crawl his way toward the front door.  It's hard to tell if the victim had a clear idea of what he was doing in his final moments.  Perhaps this was all he could think of in terms of a single word: safety.  Whatever the case, the final result was the same.The last photo is of the spot where the neighbor came to rest, just a few feet a way from possible freedom.  It would have been no more than two or three steps for a healthy human being with all of his guts still safely strapped inside of him.  


The opposite was true for the former occupant of the house next door.  There's not much more to tell about it.  The police investigation is still listed as "open" as of this writing.  All that's left are just one or two minor details, and these are the ones that bug me.  Thinking about them on and off seems to be what keeps me awake at night, when I seem to have trouble closing my eyes.  There are just two, actually three elements worth noting in all the crime scene photos. It concerns the following leftovers, and the most ordinary looking of them is the gun.  I don't think my neighbor ever told anyone he was the sort who kept a loaded fire arm near his bed.  I never even knew of it till he told me.  I saw it in the final photo, lying useless and discarded just that same few precious feet from the front door.  It's not visible in either of the previous snapshots, yet traces of its handiwork can be seen on occasion.  In portions of the wall located just behind the bed, or in back of the remains of the cell phone, tell-tale bullet holes can be seen dotting the plaster landscape.  The worst of them contain clear evidence of blood scattered on or about the spots on the wall where the ammo made contact.  

It got even worse in the photograph of the neighbor's bed.  There, the bloodstains around the holes in the wall were more prominent.  Taken together, the evidence tells a rather grisly story.  The end didn't come swift for my neighbor.  Nor, judging by the final signs left behind was he type that was bound to go quietly.  Instead (this is one of the faintest bits of minor satisfaction this whole ordeal has given me), it seems very much that if my neighbor was in a mortal fix, then he was damn well determined to give his assailants hell on the way down.  He seems to have managed to give back as good as he got, right up until almost the end.  The bedroom is where the shotgun got the most use.  It almost looked like the inside of Bonnie and Clyde's death car.  Yet that's not what keeps me up at night these days.  It's what the autopsy reports said when they were finally saw print and broadcast.  When they found the man next door, his throat had been torn out, much the same as you would expect a predator in the wild.

If it weren't for the second set of prints that can be seen in the rest of the photos, you would almost want to swear that the miserable bastard really was just the victim of a random wild animal attack.  The trouble is both the bite marks and the second set of prints tell a different story.  Animals don't attack in the same way.  I don't know of any pack of wolves that can open a sealed door with the rough skill of a locksmith who doesn't mind if a few dents and scratches are left for the authorities to find.  Nor do I know of any burglars capable of leaving these same deep indents on the walls, furniture, and posters of the bed itself.  These same scratch marks were found gouged into my neighbor's hide, as if he'd just come out unlucky in a mauling from a beast with five fingers.  It's also a proven fact that the jaws of a wolf have a very distinct shape.  The bite marks found on the man next door looked like they came from the mouths of humans somewhere in the range of five to ten years old, nor more or less.


I remember what he said to me.  That every now and then, children should be looked at as a separate species.  One that ever so often ought to be gently, yet firmly trodden upon.  Like an old carpet that's left outside to clean the souls of your shoes with.  When you put like that, no matter how hard you try, it still sounds downright barbaric.  As cruel, and inhuman as whatever shuffled the poor devil out the door in the most gory fashion imaginable.  For what it's worth, I till say children are infinitely better than any naysayers would have you believe.  What I'm not sure of, however, is who or what caused the death of the man next door.  The one detail that bugs me are those second set of prints.  The ones that look like pieces of finger paint you'd find on a wall in a kindergarten class somewhere.  That's the worst part.

Some Bradburian Literary Context.  

When it comes to any work of fiction, good or bad, context is always everything.  Sometimes a good grounding in the behind-the-scenes information of your favorite stories can go a long way towards helping you figure out just what in hell you read, anyway.  This is something that a lot of the film buffs out there know sometimes even in their sleep.  What I don't think most readers have stopped to consider is that this same rule of thumb tends to hold true for all your favorite books, more often than not.  In the case of a work such as "Little America", one of things it helps to know is just what particular kind of story the author, Dan Chaon, was drawing upon in order to tell his own.  The first part of the answer to that question is easy enough.  Like everyone else in the collection, Chaon is riffing on the work of Ray Bradbury.  Another practice he shares in common with his fellow anthology contributors is that Chaon winds up choosing to zero in on a specific trope of Bradbury's fiction as a subject for his own efforts.

Nor is he alone in choosing this method of digging for inspiration from the Bradburian well.  Just about every offering in Weller and Castle's collection features a story in which the writer has drawn on an image, or concept than can be found elsewhere in Bradbury's original corpus.  Sam Weller's own offering, "The Girl in the Funeral Parlor", for instance, acts as a sort of inverted riff on an original Tales from the Crypt oriented story that Bradbury wrote way back in 1947 for Weird Tales, and is known simply as "The Handler".  It's one of his little known efforts, yet it's got all that a fan of the classic Horror genre could want, complete with dark humor, a quirky main lead, and what's got to be one of the first instances of the Living Dead, or the modern Zombie, in a work of this kind.  Weller must have liked the original idea enough to use it as a sounding board for his own homage.  It's the same all over the rest of the anthology.  Joe Hill uses trace elements of "The Lake" and "The Foghorn" in order to spin his tragic yarn "By the Shores of Lake Champlain".  Joe Meno's "Young Pilgrims", meanwhile, utilizes the countless stories of Outer Space that Bradbury a household name in order to tell his work.

So it goes, from start to finish, and Chaon is no different from the rest of his peers in this regard.  When it comes to telling the story of "Little America" Chaon finds himself gravitating to what could one of the more familiar tropes in Ray's box of marvels.  At the heart of Chaon's effort lies the trope known simply as the Bad Kid.  Now to be fair, I don't believe it's possible to claim this is an original idea with Bradbury himself.  All the proof I need for this claim is to point to Roger Elwood's 1969 collection of stories entitle Little Monsters.  The entire thing is dedicated to Bad Kid Horror stories, all of them penned by some of the best names in the field.  One of Bradbury's own efforts gets a decent representation there.  However, the earliest known example of the Gothic Bad Kid to be found in Elwood's series dates all the way back to a 1904 ghost story by Rudyard Kipling with the simple title of "They".  The next earliest on the list is just a few years later, with Algernon Blackwood's "Old Clothes".  And so it goes on up the table of contents with E.F. Benson's "How They Departed From the Long Gallery (1911).  Followed closely by offerings from Cynthia Asquith, August Derleth, Bradbury, Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore.  The latest story is in 1949, by an unknown Greye La Spina.

So apparently there's your literary pedigree for the likes of Chucky, Carrie White, Regan from The Exorcist,  the Village of the Damned Kids, or Wednesday Addams.  It tells us a number of things.  Chief of which is that there's nothing familiar on the big screen that probably didn't find its original start in a text just out of sight somewhere.  The second is a testament to the longevity of certain artistic ideas.  Bradbury, in particular seems to have had an almost natural affinity for the Bad Kids.  The earliest known instance of a this particular trope showing up in Ray's fiction comes in the form of a short story that was published in the May, 1944 edition of Weird Tales.  He called it "The Lake", and at the heart of the story is a young girl whose is both creepy, and hauntingly beautiful by turns.  From the moment she's introduced on-stage, the reader can tell there's something just a bit different or "off" about her.  It's as if the narrator of the story has already run into a ghost long before the main action kicks in.  It's one of the strangest character notes ever produced in a work of fiction.  It is also the exact right note that Bradbury needed to strike in order to not just make his story work, but also for his career to take off.


It's the first major instance of a creepy kid in any of Ray's works, and it was also this particular sub-genre of Horror that helped put his name on the map.  In his biography of the author, Sam Weller notes that when Ray was finished writing this short story, "Tears ran down his nose and the hair on the back of his neck bristled.  He knew he had done something different; he had written a story that was neither imitative nor derivative.

"I realized I had at last written a really fine story.  The first in ten years of writing.  And not only was it a fine story, but it was some sort of hybrid, something verging on the new.  Not a traditional ghost story at all, but a story about love, time, remembrance, and drowning," Ray explains.

"It was anything but a typical "weird tale."  With "The Lake," Ray had turned inward and explored his childhood memories of Waukegan, Illinois, and in doing so, he inadvertently mined a tale of "autobiographical fantasy" that was at once lyrical, sentimental, and haunting.  Ray had, at long last, discovered his distinctive voice (112)".  If this is the case, and Weller's testimony can be trusted on the account, then what I find interesting, or most noteworthy about the moment when Bradbury found his own voice as an author, is that it all came through under the guidance of a Child archetype.  Nor does it seem to have been just any random piece of inspiration.  Rather, the fossil that Bradbury appears to have unearthed is a riff or version of a familiar, old literary topos that is able to straddle the line between light and dark contrasts.  In other words, the figure of Tally, the ghost girl at the heart of the "Lake" story, is interesting precisely because she seems to embody both good and bad traits all in one beguiling package.  She is, in effect, one of the clearest statements of the modern Gothic ethos, and Bradbury was the one who found a way to put that modern voice out there in a way that was able to effect a pretty influential shift of the gears.  The genre would move in new directions, henceforth.

The interesting part, like I say, is that it all came from one writer discovering the hoary old trope, or archetype of the Creepy Kid, and then putting it to good use.  Nor was this an isolated incident.  After "The Lake", Bradbury often found himself returning to the same well of Horror Children for inspiration.  Ray's next major literary uses of the Bad Kid tarot card came in the form of two stories, both of them published in the same month of November, in the year 1946.  These were "The Small Assassin", and "Let's Play Poison".  The first entry concerns a mother's growing fear that her newborn son was birthed with too much hatred for reality in his small, young mind to be able to know the difference between right and wrong, and that this has made him into a killer.  The latter story concerns a school teacher who witnesses an act of school yard bullying that goes to far, and takes a deadly turn.  He then uses his authority to inflict a sever punishment on the student perpetrators who committed the offense.  The result is that the teacher then gets more than he bargained for when the kids turn the tables on him during the course of one long, grueling night, in which his survival is less than guaranteed.


If "The Lake" was Ray's first, tentative steps into the deep end of the myth pool, then "Assassin" and "Poison" are close to being the author's first big plunge into the depths.  He's not just found his voice in these stories, greater still is the fact that Bradbury has learned how to have fun with the Bad Kids.  If I had to take a guess at why he was so good at writing these kinds of stories, then it might be down to a combination of autobiographical factors.  On the one hand, Ray grew up a nerd.  As always, this means he was easy prey for contact with bullies, whether on the school playground, or just in and around the streets of his childhood hometown.  It's an almost basic, real life scenario that more than one writer in the Horror genre has drawn upon to help tell their stories.  More to the point, it amounts to a form of literary catharsis.  Much like Stephen King, Bradbury can often be found using tales of creepy children to help deal, cope with, and often try and arrive at some sort of understanding of the worst of human nature at such a young, formative age.  The other aspect of it amounts more or less to a means of letting off steam, for lack of a better word at the moment.  All of which is to say some of these Bad Kid stories can also be taken as a form of Ray exorcising a lot of the bad vibes out of his system.

If one part of it all is about getting past the trauma of childhood bullying, then the the other is about finding a proper outlet for that attendant, familiar urge to hit back, to lash out and make the world choke on its own damned fucking teeth.  Strange as it may sound, it does seem to have proven effective at dealing with such traumatic emotions.  In any event, Bradbury had two other notable romps with the Bad Kids in his fiction.  These would be 1947's "Zero Hour", and "The Playground" of 1952, which saw its debut as part of his now famous Illustrated Man collection.  These latter offerings seems more calm and balanced than the earlier efforts.  It's as if the writer has learned to find an almost perfect point of detachment from which to view the archetype, and what it's trying to tell him about himself, in particular, and childhood in general.  Each story has this sense of arriving at a sense of completion, as well as mirroring and interrogating one another.  "Zero Hour" plays as the ultimate revenge against the parents fantasy.  While "Playground" takes that same script and flips it on its head, in the form of a parent whose memories of his own childhood make him willing to pay the ultimate price to protect his own young son from having to suffer a similar kind of fate.  It also reads like a swan song, in a way.


After "The Playground", Ray seems to have found whatever catharsis it was he needed, or was unconsciously looking for.  That plus the fact of turning into a Dad, with four daughters of his own to raise and nurture might have done something to help.  His first child, Susan, was born in 1949.  The last one he ever had, Alexandra, arrived on the scene in 1958.  In between that span of time, Bradbury managed to find a way of retiring from hanging out with the Bad Kids.  From the 50s onward, all the children in Ray's stories begin to take on the familiar contours of genuine heroes.  They are now idealists who are able to have a clearer view of life, and of the wondrous nature of reality.  A lot of their struggles, in just about every story that features them from now on, hinges on how well they do at protecting and safe-guarding that sense of idealistic Romanticism against those forces of the world that would wish to devour it all.  In this sense, Bradbury can clearly be seen switching from the likes of Wednesday Addams to the sort of child protagonists who would later populate the books and films from the likes of R.L. Stine, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, Jim Henson, and Steven Spielberg.  It is yet another facet of Ray's career that helps mark him out once more as a sort of pioneer, if you think it over.

Conclusion: An Interesting, and Mostly Successful Effort.

All of this preamble is by way of going into Chaon's story with the proper context under the hood.  The first thing to understand about "Little America" is that like every other entry in the Shadow Show collection, it borrows liberally from the various plot elements that can be found scattered originally all over Bradbury's initial stories.  In other words, it's the Magician from Waukegan who sank the original well, now all guys like Weller, Castle, and Hill have to do is go back to that old taproot source, and rummage around in it for any good material they can use.  In Dan Chaon's case, the trope he wound drawing from the well is a familiar one.  His entire story centers around the familiar archetype of Ray's Bad Kids.  It starts off with a scenario that would be somewhat familiar to anyone who has ever read Peter Straub's Ghost Story.  That's a book that begins with the reader following a man who appears to have taken a child hostage, and is now traipsing his aimless way across the American landscape.  In Straub's case, it was a girl.  In Chaon's story, the young traveling companion is now a boy.  

In either story, the initial surface glance proves to be very misleading.  We should be worried more about the driver than the child, as it turns out.  In Chaon's case, that's because the Bad Kid has been introduced and distilled down to its very essence.  Where Straub takes his time, ratcheting up the tension, and slowly turning the tables of expectation on his readers, Chaon has to get to the point a lot sooner.  This is no slight at all on what he has to say.  We just learn sooner, rather than later that there is something very off and wrong about Peter, the young, "troubled" youth at the heart of "Little America".

The first big clue, or off-note, comes right at the start, when Chaon gives his readers a clear inventory of the story's setting, and its contents.  With start with Peter traveling in a car headed in a direction that sounds like somewhere due west (Chaon keeps minor details like this deliberately vague, and it seems like the correct choice).  He's reading a map, and checking off all the towns and cities they've passed.  Then there's the driver, and other main lead in the story, Mr. Breeze.  Chaon paints this figure as an older man, the kind of guy who in an earlier era might have been played Ray Walston, Wilford Brimley, or Martin Balsam.  Today, the role wold have probably gone to the likes of Robert Duvall, Christopher Loyd, Richard Dreyfuss, or (if there were still time) James Caan or Roy Scheider.  One of those old, classic, character actors, in other words.  Guys who can convey the sense of a life spent learning how to survive, yet still keeping this quirky, avuncular quality about them.  It's when we get to main stage prop that we realize the situation is not normal.


"Third is Mr. Breeze's pistol.  It is a Glock 19 nine-millimeter compact semiautomatic handgun, Mr. Breeze says.  It rests enclosed in the glove box directly in front of Peter, and he imagines that it is sleeping.  He pictures the muzzle, the hole where the bullet comes out: a closed eye that might open at any minute (143-44)".  That's the moment when the reader ought realize that something is not kosher about the whole setup, and that they might be dealing with one of those stories that aims to play for keeps.  From there, the stage expands to the point of being a recognizable post-apocalyptic landscape.  "Something bad happened here", and yet the precise nature of what went wrong is kept vague, at first.

From there, things start to get progressively weirder until we're left this final, telling bit of narration.  "They are passing a cluster of houses now, some of them burned and still smoldering in the rain.  There are no people left in those houses, Peter knows.  They are all dead.  He can feel it in his bones; he can taste it in his mouth.  Also out beyond the town, in the fields of sunflowers and alfalfa, there are a few who are like him.  Kids.  They are padding stealthily along the rows of crops, their palms and foot soles pressing lightly along the loamy earth, leaving almost no track.  They lift their heads, and their golden eyes glint (147)".  It's the moment when the situation becomes more clear, and a lot more dire.  Much like in Ghost Story, it amounts to a sort of magician's trick.  It's a case of the either the author or the story starting things off by saying, don't look over here, look where I want your gaze to be directed.  

Also like Straub, Chaon knows the scenario itself is never quite what it seems, so that means a lot of the skill required in this kind of setup stems from the writer's ability to find the right transition from the surface appearance to reality.  This is where Chaon goes a long way toward proving his skill as a writer.  He has less time to effect this vital switch-over from head-fake to real truth, and the fact he doesn't make the reader bat an askance eye when the time comes is a testament to just how much talent is involved in digging this story out of the ground.  A lot of this is down to the way Chaon is able to uncover just enough of the right details to allow the reader to follow along and not lose the suspension of disbelief.  The descriptive passages that precede the big revelation of the story is a surprisingly balanced mixture of character detail and world building that is remarkable for the short span of time that the writer has in which to set everything up, and make sure all the imaginary ducks are in a row.


Apparently Chaon has found just enough of the right material needed to carry this story over this crucial hump so that when the time comes, instead of asking if a mistake was made, all the audience wants to know is what happens next.  As it turns out, we're being driven through a world in which, one day, of out the clear blue, all the children on the planet just turned feral.  There was no previous hint or clue, no sudden warning.  Their eyes just started to glow, and fangs sprung from the teeth in their mouths, and their ordinary fingers turned into claws.  It's got to be one of the strangest riffs on the Zompocalypse story that I've ever read.  Instead of a world overrun with the "Living Impaired", we've got Ray's Bad Kids sprouting up all over the place, and causing havoc.  The whole idea might sound spur of the moment, yet that would be a mistake.  It's clear enough that Chaon has found Ray's Kids inspiring on some level.  They've left enough of an impact, at any rate, that allowed Chaon's imagination to kick in to overdrive, and create an entire globe encompassed by these characters.

Chaon's description puts one in mind of the rowdy, malign predators who populate Bradbury's "Playground", especially as they appear in the William Shatner adaptation of that story.  What the director of that TV episode did is take a series of ordinary, elementary school level children, and have them leer and jeer at the camera.  He then puts them through a series of paces where the first the lighting, and then the facial features of the children themselves altered, until it leaves us wondering if what we're looking at is the final, terrible, half-way visage before each and every one of these little monsters transforms into either Orcs, Morlocks, or maybe both.  All Chaon had to do was go back to Bradbury's well, find that hoary old image lying around, and then take the idea and run with it.

It's an idea he's able to put to good use, by and large.  The one part that leaves me asking questions is the abruptness of the ending.  Up until that moment, I think, everything in the story runs like a well built machine.  What the audience is told up to that point happens in a series of almost vignette-like sequences, and yet it's easy to see the connecting plot beats that make it all hold together.  Perhaps the one sequence that will stand out in everyone's mind is when Mr. Breeze has to drive Peter through a tunnel infested with Bad Kids.  It puts one vaguely in mind of the Lincoln Tunnel scene from The Stand, except with the stakes just a bit higher than usual.  It would be like if all the dry bones in the tunnel had suddenly come to life and decided to attack Larry Underwood.  Let that give you the just enough of a hint as to what Chaon has in store for his character, with the pacing amped just a bit.

As for the ending itself, I'm still left asking if it counts as perhaps the one single false note.  It turns out I'm not the only one who wound up with a similar question on their mind.  In his author's note to "Little America", Chaon recounts some criticisms that Bradbury himself asked in regards to the story under discussion here.  Chaon quotes Ray as saying: "This werewolf story is too short!  It is an idea in search of conflict, but you are close to finding a short story - some nice ideas there.  Develop them!  What about the other people in the 'school'?  You drop hints, but I would like to know about the others.  It is almost like the start of a longer story.  What happens when he arrives at the school, or does he ever arrive?  Play with the idea (163)".

Before I make any possible comment on Bradbury's critiques, I think it'll help is we take a closer look at the reply that Chaon makes in response to all of those suggestions.  They might just prove illuminating:

"By the time I went away to college, I had started writing other kinds of stories, and my correspondence with Ray began to peter out.  I was distracted by undergraduate life, and I was thoughtless in a lot of ways.  Ray wrote: "Why are you going to college?  If you aren't careful, it will cut across your writing time, stop your writing stories.  Is that what you want?  Think.  Do you want to be a writer for a lifetime?  What will you take in college that will help you be a writer?  You already have a full style.  All you need now is practice at structure.  Write back.  Soon!  Love to you!  RBradbury".

"I never did write back to him.  I was scared by his questioning of college, and by that time, I was enamored of a different Ray - Raymond Carver.  And ultimately, I didn't know what to say.  I loved college.  I thought it did me good.  I didn't want to disappoint him (ibid)".  I believe we're close to arriving at a better understanding of the way Chaon handles this particular story, though there is one or two other comments by the author that bear another close look, in order to complete the picture.  Before getting there, however, let me just note that I think even Bradbury was smart enough to know that college is often the single ticket most people require as a way out of any dead-end slump.  In other other words, he was always a firm believer that a little learning can go a hell of a long way.  The only other concern he might have is if the artist and above the Art were to get lost in a sea of theory.

As to Chaon's ultimate reply to Bradbury's critique, this is what he has to say at the last:

"(Now) more than thirty have passed since I got my first letter from Ray Bradbury.  And when Mort Castle wrote to me, suggesting that I write a "tribute" story, I couldn't help but think of that old werewolf story I sent to Ray all those years ago.  The first sentence and the last sentence are the same as they were when I was nineteen; the middle is infected with my middle age.  I am nearly the same age that Ray was when he wrote to me - and that desperate twelve-year-old is very far in the distance.  But I can see now how fully Bradbury has fitted himself into my brain.  It is not just that he was a mentor to me at a time when I needed him the most; it is also that his style, his mood, his way of thinking, has seeped into the very core of my work.    I don't know whether "Little America" will seem like a "Ray Bradbury" story to readers; but I know for a fact that Ray Bradbury has a hold on my soul as a writer (164)".  With all this information in mind, it is possible to arrive at a clearer picture of the story.


For starters, let's take Bradbury's critique.  All it boils down to is just a handful of observations.  The main conflict seems to need a little work, and the goal, or end point of the story should perhaps be a bit more clear for the reader.  Taken in itself, that sounds like just plain good advice for any writer out there, whether a green under the gills novice, or a seasoned professional.  The question is how much does it apply (if at all?) in Chaon's case?  My initial reaction still stands as of this writing.  Everything works so far as I can tell, and it's just the overall abruptness of the ending that gives me pause.  I suppose that means I'm left asking what could or should have been done here?  Or does that question even matter in this case?  What I can tell for certain is that Chaon's response is just as telling as the original critique to which it forms a somewhat belated reply.  Here's how it all shapes up.

Bradbury's main beef with the story is that it all amounts to the same problem that Alfred Hitchcock had with his adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's The Birds.  Both the film, and the original short story it is based off of feature the same, enigmatic, inconclusive end.  It's also a thorn that has stuck in the craw of many readers and viewers.  One filmmaker even went so far as to create a surrealist film that acted as an unofficial sequel to Hitch's movie.  This kind of response doesn't seem to be an isolated incident, as it's been leveled at a lot of other famous projects out there.  In this sense, Ray's critique is just one more item added to a various, and long-standing complaint.  Chaon just had the bad luck to be the next writer to wind up in the cross hairs of this old, familiar artistic grievance.  The irony is that none of this seems able to do much in the way of changing the fact of his reply.  Chaon claims he doesn't know what to say, and that in itself could be telling.  It suggests a talent who doesn't quite know what to do about it.


Chaon seems to know when he has at least the makings of a good idea on his hands.  Beyond that, however, he claims to be just as clueless as his audience.  Perhaps I ought to head off any complaints about his response by pointing out one other essential given of the modern writing life.  Chaon's admission is really sort of like an unspoken law of the land in these here word slinging parts.  It's a response I've gotten from so many famous names that I've sort of lost count by this point.  The basic idea goes something like this.  In a lot of interviews, every writer I know of finds themselves falling back on the same, basic artistic statement.  They consider themselves lucky to be able to tap into their imagination at all, and sometimes get good copy out onto the page.  They also claim to be more or less clueless as to how that process works, or even how to control it.  I won't try to argue with any reader who thinks it all sounds a bit too strange.  Maybe it's even the stupidest thing you ever heard of.

If that's the case, the best I can say is, "All well and good".  You might even be one-hundred percent correct.  It still doesn't change the fact that this is just how it is for the vast majority of imaginative scribblers out there.  The Imagination, its functions, and its purposes remain just as much of a mystery to them as it is to the reader or the viewer.  It's like having to do business with a dime store oracle, one that somehow manages to work half the time.  Doesn't make the job any easier for the artist or audience.  Yet it can sometimes be a pretty fun trip for the critic. In Chaon's case, the solution to the whole problem of "Little America", and its ending, is that I'm afraid I'll have to take the artist at his word.  He really doesn't seem to have known more than what he was able to find inside of his Imagination.  He has told what he can of the fossil he was able to uncover.  He can do no more.


The final results, then, are interesting.  In some ways, I think a lot of Bradbury's critique holds up.  At the same time, it's like what I've gotten might still be enough, in spite of a lingering sense incompleteness.  For the life of me, I can't tell how that must sound.  All I know for certain is I mean no disrespect to a great artist.  As for Chaon's "Little America", I think I'm forced to give it a passing grade.  It makes sense to view it as the homage its intended to be.  It's a neat, concise, and simple vignette showcasing one of Bradbury's more obscure, yet familiar tropes.  In doing so, it gives the collective archetype of the Bad Kid a nice airing after so many years.  I think the writer who comes close to summing things up is Stephen King, in an afterword of his own 1993 collection, Nightmares and Dreamscapes.  "(It) feels a little bit like the Bradbury of the late forties and early fifties to me, the fiendish Bradbury who revelled in killer babies, renegade undertakers, and tales only a Crypt-Keeper could love (880)".  In other words, Chaon has given us all a worthy tribute to a grand master.


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