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From the Dust Returned
by Ray Bradbury
(Morrow, $23.00, 204 pages, hardback; October 8, 2001.)

This book has an extremely interesting Afterword about its genesis. It began with the publication, in the October 1946 issue of Mademoiselle, of Bradbury's famous story "Homecoming", which had earlier been rejected promptly by Weird Tales, the cover scanpulp to which Bradbury had been a somewhat uneasy but regular contributor for several years. The story's appearance in Mademoiselle was illustrated -- with a full double-page spread, no less -- by Charles Addams, and the two men soon after decided that, over the next few years, they would create a book together: Bradbury would write further stories concerning the Family, the assemblage of supernatural quasi-humans introduced in "Homecoming", and Addams would illustrate them. Other commitments got in the way of good intentions, and the proposed book never came to fruition ... until now, long after Addams's death. All that survives of Addams's intended contribution is the book's cover illustration, which is that old double-page spread from Mademoiselle.

This book is billed as a novel. It isn't. And neither is it really a collection of short stories. Rather, it is a book of prose that contains six previously published short stories, three new ones, and a goodly number of short (often extremely short and inconsequential) interpolated prose passages that sometimes verge on short-storyhood but are mainly just included for the sake of atmospherics. The book itself is short: many of those 204 smallish pages are blank, and the leading of the type is very generous. On occasion the jury-rigging together of its components becomes over-evident, as at the start of the story "West of October", well into the book (page 69): here we find half a page telling us all sorts of stuff about the Family that we already know, but it's been left in there because it was, necessarily, in the original publication of the story.

It is also billed as "A landmark event more than fifty years in the making -- and a new occasion for rejoicing". I'm not too sure it's that, either.

Somewhere at the top of a hill somewhere in probably the mid-West somewhere in probably the middle of the 20th century or thereabouts there stands a House whose occupants are members of a Family whose other members are scattered all over the globe. Some of the Family seem vampirish, but to describe them as vampires would be to oversimplify: instead they are the dead who are not dead, or some such.

The principal family members with whom we are concerned are A Thousand Times Great Grandmère, who is the mummified mother of Nefertiti; Cecy, who forever sleeps in the attic but whose thoughts can wander far and wide and possess the bodies of others; the bat-winged Uncle Einar, who is a joyously playful friend to children; and Timothy, a mortal foundling, now a ten-year-old and the Family's determined historian (and presumably a surrogate character for Bradbury himself, upon whose own childhood the scenario is -- extremely loosely! -- based). Also somewhat near centre stage are Father and Mother (that is, Timothy's adoptive father and mother), who are strange in themselves but never really coalesce in the mind's eye.

The previously published stories are "The Traveler" (Weird Tales, 1945), in which the Family must cope with the arrival of rogue relative John the Unjust, a Vlad Drakul figure who might destroy their integrity; "Homecoming", in which, during a gathering at the House of all the far-flung Family, Timothy learns to accept and revel in his mortality; "Uncle Einar" (Dark Carnival, 1947), in which the eponymous character loses his battish sonar and thus can no longer fly at night, and so must find a way of flying by day without being recognized as a "monster" and shot down by humans; "The Wandering Witch" (Saturday Evening Post, 1952, as "The April Witch"), in which Cecy, a-quest for the experience of love, enters the body of a young woman and forces her to be polite, for just one evening, to a young man whom she dislikes; "On the Orient North" (The Toynbee Convector, 1988), a slightly twee but nevertheless effective ghost story spoiled by a predictable ending and somewhat bolted onto the rest of such structure as there is; and "West of October" (The Toynbee Convector, 1988), in which the excorporated spirits of four young men are drafted into the mind of A Thousand Times Great Grandmère's spouse, where they discover a world of romance and sex that they decline to leave.

Most of these are good stories, but the first four are extremely familiar from widespread publication in other books while the latter two will be well known to Bradbury devotees.

What then of the three new stories? In "Make Haste to Live" a buried Family member is disinterred and over succeeding weeks become rapidly younger until she vanishes in a sexual encounter. In "Return to the Dust", not quite a free-standing story, the attention of mortals has been drawn to the House, thanks to the malevolence of John the Unjust (op cit.), and so the Family must flee their separate ways. Finally, "The Gift", again not quite a free-standing story, sees Timothy present A Thousand Times Great Grandmère to an Egyptian museum of antiquities.

So much for characters and content. As it's not really profitable to discuss the plot of a non-novel, what about the writing style?

Bradbury has never made any secret of the fact that the major stylistic influence on his writing is that of Thomas Wolfe. (A note for the youthful: this is the Thomas Wolfe of You Can't Go Home Again, not the Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities.) If anything, Bradbury for a couple of decades wrote Thomas Wolfe better than Thomas Wolfe did: ignoring the subject matter, the stories in, say, The Martian Chronicles/The Silver Locusts (1950) -- another non-novel, but oh what a magnificent one -- had all Wolfe's richness of imagery and language but also a greater stylistic discipline: where Wolfe was always in danger of lurching into purpleness, Bradbury, with less rambling sentences and particularly with shorter paragraphs, always kept just this side of the narrow dividing line between floweriness and flaccidity. All through the 1940s and 1950s he maintained his grip on this precarious position with astonishing skill.

Around the time of his story collection The Machineries of Joy (1964), however, the grip seemed to be starting to slip. It was as if Bradbury had, well, run out of things to say and stories to tell, and was trying to compensate for this lack by an ever-increasing floridity of language that often veered into something approaching self-parody, as if Gerard Manley Hopkins had become infused with something of the spirit of William McGonagall. It is no coincidence that I cite the names of two poets here, because Bradbury's great strength as a stylist hitherto had been the robust poetic zeal of his language; now too many of the metaphors were misfiring, and what had once been a rich swirl was becoming too often a gush.

His subject matter was changing, too: many and then most of the stories were well clear of the realms of fantasy. Of course, there's no objection at all -- certainly from this quarter -- to such a switch of focus; but the loss of the fantastic from Bradbury's writing did make even more obvious the flagging of his style. I can remember reading, in the early 1970s, a Bradbury collection and a collection by the Irish writer Frank O'Connor. The subject matter of the two sets of stories was not at all dissimilar, and I sadly had to admit that O'Connor's beautifully taut yet richly written fictions made Bradbury's read like a self-indulgent and amateurish attempt at emulation. (For all I know Bradbury has never even heard of O'Connor, of course; but that's the way the stories read.) Yes, O'Connor's language was fully as poetic as Bradbury's; yet it did not obviate his tales possessing a powerful narrative drive.

And it seems to me that Bradbury has never recaptured the joyous exuberance, both stylistic and narrative, of his early fictions -- which were tales that any writer would have been proud to have written. From the Dust Returned would seem to be just a further evidence in favour of my contention. By contrast with those early tales, there are countless examples here of flaccid overwriting, some of which are near comic:

[] ...sucking vile liquors toward a surface abandoned because of the possible upchuck of nightmares...

[] Planes fly like pterodactyls on huge wings.

Oh yes? So the planes are flapping their wings up and down in a complexly articulated fashion?

[] looked down to see your pale light painting lost towns the color of tombstones and spectral ghosts.

As opposed to the non-spectral type.

[] She leaned forward suddenly and gave him such a kiss on his mouth that his eardrums fractured and the soft spot on his skull ached.

[] With one last crushing gesture he crammed his fist to his ears and dropped dead.

Try this one in the mirror. Take a single fist and cram it into both ears.

[] A rabbit thumped and ran in Timothy's chest.

[] "Like ghosts?" // "Which use people's ears to look out their eyes!"

Actually, I suppose if you've managed to cram a fist into both ears simultaneously this last one shouldn't be too difficult as an encore.

Let it not be thought that there are no nuggets of gold to be found in From the Dust Returned. Some of the reprinted stories have, for obvious reasons, all the exquisite fantastication of language and imagery that led in the first place to Bradbury's eminence; and elsewhere, in the more recent work, every now and then it is as if the same Muse had called back briefly to blow a breath of inspiration into his face. When this happens, the prose and imagery suddenly lift exhilaratingly off the ground, and one is left gasping. But then, all too soon, we're back to rabbits thumping and running in Timothy's chest. The overall impression with which one comes away from this book is thus, sadly, that it is a slight work ... and that it's about time to dig out that dusty copy of Bradbury's splendid non-novel Dandelion Wine (1957) and read it yet again.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 13 October 2001