Anthologies — particularly those traveling in the genre fiction sector of the literary universe — often require an angle: A collection of the best stories featuring time-traveling dinosaurs. A book full of tales about carnivorous unicorns. An anthology of science fiction detectives. And on and on. Having an angle for an anthology makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t always yield quality or diverse results. In fact, diversity in an anthology might be counterintuitive to the curation.
With Shadow Show, the new anthology edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, the curation seems fairly light. All they did was ask the contributors to write a story in honor of Ray Bradbury. The result is a unique anthology containing tons of diversity, high quality stories, and yet adheres to its theme. Best of all, the majority of the stories aren’t hammy love letters to Bradbury’s style, but instead, awesome short works that stand on their own.
Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, was in the works from Harper Collins/William Morrow well before Ray’s passing last month. As such, this collection is not capitalizing on his passing, but instead is a kind of bittersweet and unintentional eulogy. After the excellent introduction from the editors, Bradbury himself writes a forward where he describes legends like L. Frank Baum, Jules Verne, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty and others as his “mamas” and “papas.”
“Now, many years later and very late in time, an incredible thing has occurred. Within the book you now hold in your hands, I find I am no longer the son; instead, I am the father. The twenty-six authors gathered in this collection or remarkable and varied stories have all come home to Papa, and I couldn’t be more proud.”
And the range of authors here is impressive. Neil Gaiman kicks of the collection with a story called “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” followed by Margaret Atwood’s “Headspace.” The difference between these two stories is actually a wonderful microcosm of what makes the collection work. Gaimain’s story is meta-fictional, describing a character’s loss of the memory of Ray Bradbury complete with references to some of the best-known stories. Conversely, Atwood’s story is a more literary version of a pulp 1940s science fiction yarn, complete with severed heads being re-animated. Gaiman goes for the literal tribute, while Atwood’s is more abstract. Bradbury was a fantasist, but also a literary interloper, and so Atwood writes a story, which would confuse all of those genre boundaries, just like Bradbury. But, importantly, she still writes it as Margaret Atwood.
A few of the stories do veer towards actually sounding like Bradbury’s voice, and with very pleasant results. Perhaps my favorite story in the collection is one by Alice Hoffman called “Conjure.” The obvious Bradbury source material here is Dandelion Wine; with sly references to the vagrant The Lonely One as two teenage girls have a close-encounter with a dangerous man who changes their life forever. Hoffman’s story here is a simple one of how young friendships fade away, but the light Bradbury touches turn it into something slightly more universal. The opening paragraph contains the line “Local children whispered that an angel had fallen to earth in a thunderstorm,” and then when black feathers are discovered, the truth of this notion is solidified in the heads of the characters and almost in the mind of the reader.
Audrey Niffennegger’s “Backward in Seville” is another one of the stories with a light touch to it. Ultimately, the very Bradbury notions of rapid aging, or having age reversed or slowed is given Niffennnegger’s own unique and quiet spin. Dave Eggers seems to reference time differently in “Who Knocks” evoking the notion that the creative powers which haunt us sometimes seem to be coming from somewhere else, and yet, the author is still a bit guilty about all the monsters he or she has unleashed. As the character in Eggers’s story puts it: “I did knock first.”
But the most science fiction-y tale comes from crossover master Kelly Link with her story “Two Houses.” This one gives us a tale of a spaceship called The House of Secrets which was the sister ship to another lost ship called The House of Mystery. The 12 space-travelers on this ship have just awakened from suspended animation and because it is one of their birthdays, they begin to celebrate by telling ghost stories. Shades of Bradbury’s “The Veldt” are evoked here as the ship itself can illustrate the ghost stories with projections all around the characters, adding to the spookiness of the story. And like a good Bradbury story, all the drama and angst is eventually wrapped up in something very real, personal and down-to-earth. If The Illustrated Man were to find a long-lost story for an alternate universe where the book was called The Illustrated Woman, it would no doubt be “Two Houses” by Kelly Link.
I’ll not summarize any more of the stories, but instead say that the Harlan Ellison story is extremely sad and touching, the Charles Yu story is hilarious, and Joe Hill’s “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” is adorable. In their introduction, Weller and Castle point out that Bradbury made a career of “ignoring and blurring the boundaries between genre and literature.” They call him a “gatecrasher” and point out he is a purveyor of modern mythology. All of this is without a doubt true, but the other function this anthology serves is not to answer the question of why Bradbury was able to do this kind of genre dancing, but instead give you individual decedents that prove he did do it. In the ongoing meditation of how genre functions in the mainstream, Shadow Show makes you feel like you’re right on the edge of understanding the magic code that turns all the genres into one. To this end, all of the stories even have wonderful afterword by their authors.
And yet, like any good magician, none of these great authors completely reveal how the tricks are done. Instead, they just encourage you to read on and enjoy the magic, both theirs and Bradbury’s.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.