Ray Bradbury, fantasist extraordinaire, needs no introduction. His novels and short story collections count among the best remembered: Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, The October Country, Fahrenheit 451, and so on. From the Dust Returned, has been hailed as a return to his former stylistic pinnacle. It spans the length of Bradbury's illustrious career, stringing together stories about an unusual misfit "family" of Halloween creatures -- a book that Bradbury hoped would...
"become a sort of Christmas Carol idea, Halloween after Halloween people will buy the book, just as they buy the Carol, to read at the fireplace with light low. Halloween is the time of year for story-telling... I believe in this more than I have believed in anything in my writing career. I want you [Charles Addams, the illustrator] to be in it with me."The overarching plot is fairly simple: a "family" -- or, rather, a group of societal misfits like loping werewolves, living gargoyles, ghosts who starve in a world without belief, the dead who must be unburied to live life backwards, the voice of a creepy creaky Theban door hinge, vampires and other winged creatures of the night who can no longer fly at night but must etch out a new meaningful existence, spirits that possess other bodies in search of the body that would love them, and Egyptian mummies who can bestow knowledge of the dead -- congregates every now and again at a haunted house and decides how to define who they are and what they should do, pausing to tell individual tales of the family members.
The strength of the narrative is the story of the rejected seeking out people with similar problems or powers to build their own family, catalogue and define it. Interestingly, as in real-life houses and churches and other places of congregation, the House becomes a symbol of the family itself that, when threatened by an outsider who wishes to expose and burn down the house, the family itself is threatened. One might view this as the story of the reading public in general, the genre in particular, or whatever group that feels isolated from the mainstream of society. The individual story sub-plots/sub-themes ask the mainstream: why not battle unbelief with the imagination of a child -- the life elixir of the undead? Why not accept death as another process of life?
Like a Robert Frost poem of perfect rhyme and meter, the light tone in From the Dust Returned can hide darker dealings for a careless reader. Timothy, the young mortal and family cataloguer who wants to join the immortal folk one day, suggests:
"we have someone who could make distribution. She can search the country for souls, look for empty bodies and empty lives and when she finds great canisters that are not full, and little tiny glasses that are half empty, she can take these bodies and empty these souls and make room for those of us who want to travel."The implications are tremendous. Who and what are empty lives? or half-lives? Are we living a half-life whose body might be better served for immortal souls to travel in?
Alfred Bester puts Bradbury's accomplishment best in his essay "The Perfect Composite Science Fiction Author" from Redomolished:
"Mr. Bradbury is for the simple life... [H]e seizes upon a very small point... and develops it with masterly style into a telling incident. Incident, not drama, is Mr. Bradbury's forte... [A] very little goes a long way... One becomes quickly surfeited with the subtle nuance, and begins to require more robust fare."This is just to say that Bradbury's cool plum of prose, while delicious, should be savored one or two chapters per sitting.
RIP Mr. B