Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. It’s been a while since we’ve tackled the “not-so-recent” portion, and as the spring starts to—well, spring—here in Louisville, I’ve felt a little nostalgic. Standing in front of the bookshelves, then, it seemed inevitable to pick up some Ray Bradbury; who else fits so well with that particular pleasant ache for the past?
The collection Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales is a hefty book, and certainly we won’t be talking about one-hundred pieces of short fiction in this column. So, instead of choosing particular stories to read (or re-read), I thought I’d just flip through and see where that led me—one piece here, another there, and the end result is a satisfying range of reading. The four stories I ended up perusing were “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh” (1960), “Another Fine Mess” (1995), “The Cold Wind and the Warm” (1964), and “The Witch Door” (1995).
It’s interesting to note, first off, that the original publications of these stories seem to reflect a different sort of world: Bradbury short fiction came with Playboy, or Cavalier, as well as F&SF. Also, luck of the draw presented me with two pieces from the sixties and two from the nineties—a pretty good set, I’d say, considering they’re out of 100 selected works. As Bradbury himself notes in the introduction, “It is hard for me to believe that in one lifetime I have written so many stories,” but he certainly did, and more to the point, they’re still very much readable.
“The Drummer Boy of Shiloh” is a brief sketch of a young drummer boy at the Civil War-era Battle of Owl Creek meeting the General in the night. He’s worked up to a brave front by the General’s words, and resolves to lead the men into battle with his drum after all. It’s a handsome piece—the descriptions are smooth and evocative, including lines like this one: “In silence he listened to his own heart ruffle away, away, at last gone from his ears and back in his chest again.” Of course, this being Bradbury, handsome description is sort of par for the course.
There’s also a fine balance between the reader’s understanding of the situation and the boy’s that makes this little bit of almost-flash-fiction work well. While he is motivated and calmed by the General’s speech to him, the reader is aware that the thing the General is more concerned about is the fact of his troops’ rawness, their youth, their inexperience and folly. He needs the drummer boy to do his job, so he motivates him, but there’s an underlying sense of guilt or regret, there, as well. So, though this is more of a vignette than a short story, it still has something there to think on.
There’s a real air of nostalgia about the next piece, “Another Fine Mess,” in which two older women meet the ghosts of Laurel and Hardy carting an upright piano up a long staircase on Effie Street. Turns out all the ghosts needed was to be reminded that someone loves them—and the women also seem to get a deep-seated satisfaction and relief from their peek into the past, their ability to have some influence on the comedians they loved as children. Zelda, the protagonist’s friend, is in particular a character bound up in this sense of the bygone days; the story makes a point of how she got a car just to be able to trawl around the old studios and homes for reminiscence’s sake.
I liked this one, too—it’s more of a story than “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” though it’s also quite brief. The two older women also have a bond in the narrative that I appreciated, one that shows through quite well in their crying over the ghosts and their piano. It’s also an interesting touch that the protagonist’s husband stays in the house while she’s doing all of this; it’s her story, and Zelda’s, not his. That’s kind of nice too.
“The Cold Wind and the Warm” is a piece I hadn’t read before, but it’s lovely—chock full of charm and the soft-haze glow of times gone past. An older man and five younger, all ridiculously beautiful and delicate and strange, show up in Dublin; a group of six local men who are also a crew are dumbfounded by them, follow them around, et cetera, and eventually spend the afternoon with them. At first the locals think they must be queer, but in the end realize that they’re just fey—the real ones, come back for a day to visit.
I appreciated the little speech given by Timulty about how they shouldn’t really judge, because it seems to him there are a lot of similarities between a group of homosexual men and their own group—which almost starts a fight, but he brings the men around to it through humor. It’s also easy to see that the mysterious visitors are uncanny in their beauty and otherworldliness; the fact that they’re the fairies of old, returned to show the leaves changing color and feel cold for one day, is just the icing on the cake. It’s a story that you see coming, of course, but one that works nonetheless. Quite charming.
Lastly, “The Witch Door” has a mix of dystopia, and time travel, and a good old fashioned twist-ending. In the future, the protagonists live out in an old New England farmhouse away from the collapsing cities and government infrastructure; one night they hear a pounding on the Witch Door in their house and then, to their surprise, a woman runs out into the night from it. At the same time, one of their friends is coming to stay because she’s been caught up in trouble and will be executed otherwise. The Witch Door room—the hiding place—is a gap in time, between Salem during the witch trials and the modern day; the friend goes in it to hide, but it’s empty when they open the door.
This piece—from ’95, remember—feels a bit like Bradbury doing Bradbury, performing a certain kind of haunting story about isolation and time. The dialogue is a bit too on-the-nose sometimes with its exposition, but overall, this is still an entertaining yarn. I appreciated the parallelism between the witch trials and the dystopic future’s own version of paranoia; I also appreciated the imagery of summer and winter flickering, coexisting, in the Witch Door room. I thought the twist at the end was a little obvious, also, but I wasn’t left unsatisfied by it despite that.
Overall, with each of these four stories, there’s a sense of comfort or the familiar—like curling up with an old blanket on a crisp spring night, waiting for summer to come. I was particularly pleased to happen upon “The Cold Wind and the Warm” in my happenstance flip through this collection, too; it was a pleasant find, and I’d recommend giving it a quick read. Plus, there are ninety-six other stories in this collection—why not give it a look?
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.