Making the mundane magical one orphan story at a time

As a reader, I appreciate short stories, brief self-contained literary nuggets make reading an entire book more time friendly. Each little orphan story lends itself to a natural stopping point, facilitating my actually closing the book so I can sleep, eat, make the plane, clean the house, or whatever I might have waiting.  When put together, these individual children create a family of ideas that embrace and entertain with the best full course novel: but like haute cuisine hors d’oeuvres, the brevity also means they are either very good or very bad.  Today I offer to your mental palette,  two amazing collections and one actual novel by the gentleman who taught me what short stories should be. None of these are new writers nor are they new books, so I shall present them in the order they appeared on my shelves.

The gentleman, and he truly was a gentle man, that set the bar for which every short story writer ever after would aim, was Ray Bradbury. His short stories in collections like “The Illustrated Man” and “Martian Chronicles”, would come into my life the following fall via a yet unmet school library, but it was the first day of summer in 1960 something. My sister and I had walked ourselves, in our brand new summer tennis shoes, library cards stuffed in cut off school pants, the familiar six city blocks to restock our entertainment.  My sister made her way to the shelf with her favorite book, “Adventure in Forgotten Valley” by Glyn Frewer, and I followed touching the spines of  dozens of well read friends, watching for something new. (I had  already read this part of the library from A-Z, and held my next two books in reading the non-fiction portion in order in my hand. I was up to the 590’s and flora and fauna.) When there it was, a new book faced out and waiting, “Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum: Twelve Shuddery Stories for Daring Young Readers.”

I remember it now as destiny, that the first story I opened to, while waiting for my sister to pick her other three books, was “October Country” by Ray Bradbury. I asked the librarian what “whole books” she had by this man Bradbury, maybe hoping for more of the Elliot family (which would not make its way into any reader’s hands until 50 years later in “From Dust Returned”) That day I went home with my two books on zoological identification and evolution of the mammal, Hitchcock’s Monster Museum, and Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” brought over from the Young Adult area of the library (cuz they did that for me,  I was kind of an unusual kid.)

I read books now the same way I did then, from first printed word to final printed word. This is from Mr. Bradbury’s introduction, “if your boy is a poet, horse manure can only mean flowers to him; which is, of course what horse manure has always been about.” I knew in that sentence I had a friend who understood me better even than my sister, who knew my heart in a way few have since, and for the first time in a very alien universe I was not alone.  That morning Bradbury’s prose broke a spider web on my face and I knew this summer would be different. I am much older and have reread this, as well as his better known books, dozens of times, and every time some new phrase or nuance reaches out and embraces all the real parts of me.

If you have never read “Dandelion Wine”, there is no more perfect time than summer, to meet Douglas Spaulding and John Huff and Grandma and even the Junkman, and if it is your first time you will not need to wait a lifetime as I did to return again to Greene Town, Illinois as “Farewell Summer” was released in 2004.

I have always had a certain passion for things fantastical and found that drugstore paperback shelves could offer me, if often less powerful prose at least more prolific hits, than the local library in this genre. It was here I first met the next gentleman friend of my imagination, Mr. Peter S. Beagle.  His “Last Unicorn” was a better quality read than the usual paperback fare I would read for hours behind the rack, I used my saved pop bottle and milk money to buy it.  He was not as easy to find as Bradbury, and although I found him in an occasional anthology (I particularly remember werewolves in Terry Carr’s New Worlds’s of Fantasy #3) and managed to carry a collection of his works with me when most everything else I owned was lost, I had never met the man.

That is until this year at Phoenix Comicon, I asked him which of his books he had there to sell he would recommend, and so I am now a proud owner of a signed “The Line Between.” I just finished reading it for the second time, and am slightly ashamed as a previous “cricket” to not have adequate words for the range of this man’s talent. Although the gem to most Beagle readers will be “Two Hearts” the not disappointing return to the world of the” Last Unicorn,” my favorite is the final entry, “A Dance for Emilia” which made me both laugh harder and cry harder the second time.  If you have any doubts about why you should read this collection, let’s just say I am mentioning this man’s short stories in a review sandwiched between Ray Bradbury and Charles de Lint.

Charles de Lint introduced me and many others to a new kind of fantasy where faery magic happened not in some far green country but the dark edges of our own dreams and city street corners. I did not meet his books until I was a writer myself, and an adult who was still pretty busy hiding her “geek” reads behind the more acceptable classics and feminist tomes.  It was in fact women writers,  Terry Windling and Ellen Kushner who deserve an entire blog of their own, who helped me find him in a place they like to call Bordertown.  De Lint’s “Waif and Strays” is the third book I recommend for a perfect summer read. For established fans of Charles the collected orphaned stories are literary visits to Tamson House, Newford and Bordertown. For those not yet fans, there is Tamson House, Newford and Bordertown; three places you will visit in your own dreams that will forever alter how you see through your waking eyes as well.

That ability to invade sleeping dreams and change waking reality are the connecting threads in these three books. Find them, read them, and then go visit the authors pages and thank them. Even if for Bradbury it is posthumously, I believe somewhere a particle of him will know he’s made another set of eyes see flowers instead of manure, and maybe a cat will dance for you.