Our Poet Laureate of the Phantasmagoric
by Harlan Ellison
Ray Bradbury is besotted with the English language. He has carried to term the love-child of exquisite verbiage. This Midwestern forever-teenager, long an Angeleno, has swum the length of vocabulary's Blue Nile and swallowed gallons of logodaedalia (don't ask, look it up). He is among the mere handful of noted and memorable American writers who have made a reputation from the short story, rather than through publication of massive millstone novels grotesquely bloated by anorexic plots and pudgy hot air.
Mmm, yes, I know most people think "The Martian Chronicles" is a novel. I suppose in a world where traffic reporters speak of cars "transitioning" from the 101 to the 405, the words "geek" and "gay" no longer mean what they were created to mean, and the unthinking regularly blather of "having their cake and eating it, too" (which is normal and happens a million times a day) but fail to perceive that one cannot eat one's cake and have it, too - well, in such a world the justly famous, most excellent "Martian Chronicles" is a novel. But Bradbury and I know it's a congeries of magnificent short tales, linked by a cleverer-than-thou framing mechanism intended to fool the eye 24 times a second. Like Poe, like Kafka, like O. Henry and Saki and Lord Dunsany, a number of whom actually wrote full stand-alone novels, Bradbury has, indeed, written some novels - full stand-alone novels. But "The Illustrated Man," "October Country" and "The Martian Chronicles" don't happen to be examples of that much-overrated literary form. And neither, in reality, is Bradbury's new "novel" - as it's designated on the cover - "From the Dust Returned."
If the thick, panoramic novel (say, "Don Quixote" or "The Brothers Karamazov") is a robust prime rib and Yorkshire pudding dinner, complete with creamed spinach souffle and caramelized morels; and slick, slippery commercial fiction such as Tom Clancy or Judith Krantz or John Grisham is a Wendy's Burger with pickle chips and a sesame seed bun, then what this Poet Laureate of the Chimerical and Phantasmagoric, Mr. Bradbury, proffers is a reverie, a delicate between-courses sorbet in a crystal goblet, intended to flense your palate and your spirit of lingering harsh tastes of a less-than-perfect world. It is the territory to which Bradbury has made regular frequent hegiras since his earliest professional days, the "October Country" he first led us to in the now-lost 1940s.
Bradbury began publishing, for the most part, in the legendary Weird Tales, a magazine whose ghoulies and ghosties bumped in the night to rhythms set by such stylists as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Seabury Quinn. Then came Bradbury, a scented breeze from a literary terra incognita theretofore unvisited by journeymen in the genre of the outre and hoary-gory. His cast of characters - unchambered for this "novel" - was the Elliott family, who were wholly unlike the fanged and dementedly bloodthirsty hordes unleashed in Weird Tales and other pulp abattoirs.
If anything, they were a benign, live-and-let-live version of Tod Browning's "Freaks": vampires of grape jelly and pumpkinseeds; loping hairy howlers as sensitive as Dylan Thomas sans the drunkard meanness. In stories like "Uncle Einar" and "Homecoming," Bradbury began a kindly concerto about the October People and their dear, once-in-a-millennium gathering of extended bizarre family at The House in Illinois.
Now those stories - some of which were originally published by the celebrated specialty press of August Derleth, Arkham House, in Bradbury's first collection, "Dark Carnival," in 1947 - have been reworked, set in the diadem with fresh interstitial material both airy and profound and with later snippets from the Elliott chronicles, all of it wrought with that Bradbury voice introduced to American letters more than half a century ago.
And it is that voice that compels us. Just as the power of Christ wrenches poltergeists and pea soup out of young actresses, it is the power of Bradbury, in that voice, that compels us. It is that iconographic voice that compels us to read him, and read him, and somehow - even when he's a bit over the top with his tropes - prevents us from escaping his weirding ways.
Weird, but nowhichway malevolent. The Eternal Family that Bradbury hies to The House is multifarious, and even though his hints, clues and asides may be vaguely unsettling, nary a frisson of terror trembles the reader's time spent with dreaming Cecy, who lies in ancient Japanese sands in the High Attic, sending her witch-mind out to nestle in the head of a sweet young girl, all because - oh how she desires it! - Cecy wants to be in love. Or mother and father, he who sleeps through the day in the coffin-chock-full basement, tucked in by mother, who never sleeps. Or Timothy, the human child left as foundling on their doorstep, who aches to be one of them, truly one of them. No, the fangs are blunted in this charming chronicle of nothing more plotwise-complex than a threnody of gentle sadness at the passing of simpler myths from a less barbaric time.
Does the word "charming" damn this book in an MTV age of Jerry Bruckheimer and Jerry Springer crudeness? One hopes not, because if it does, then Whitman is condemned, and James Hilton goes to the chopping block; Eudora Welty and Sherwood Anderson and William Saroyan are plowed under; and even Shirley Jackson - who understood that sturm und drang captivate guilt-ridden critics whose childhoods were adolescent Grand Guignols, while kindness and lyrical language in the service of reminiscence rake in only opprobrium and smarmy intimations of diabetic fluffery - even she is in peril of entombment in obscurity. Yet they, noble ghosts, expended their considerable talents, as does Bradbury, to brighten the corners.
The gestalt patchwork quilt that is "From the Dust Returned" may not be "Les Miserables," but it is superlatively what it is: a touchstone, codex and sampler of the pure Bradbury voice. Now here's the warning, the gardyloo you must not ignore, the alert not to feed the gremlins after midnight. Bradbury's voice is as idiosyncratic, as mannered, as specifically that of a rara avis, as Hemingway's or Proust's or Vonnegut's. If you dip a toe, and the aroma of rose petals and jasmine rises to trouble you, hit the road. Go find some faux-noir imitator of Jim Thompson or James M. Cain or John O'Hara. Don't shred the air with complaints of "precious" or "arty."
There are already enough auctorial demagogues loose in the land. Thank the shades of Twain and Melville and the living presence of Pynchon - all of whom cherish Bradbury, wherever they may be - that this Poet Laureate of the Chimerical and Phantasmagoric is still with us, still writing, still freshening our ration of dreamdust.
Короче говоря - читайте!