Ray Bradbury has written some of the most recognizable and deeply loved stories in literature, from The Martian Chronicles to Fahrenheit 451 and even lesser known (but just as beloved) tales like The Halloween Tree. Bradbury’s influence on both genre writing and literary writing is undeniable. To work beside him, to be mentored by him, and to extensively read and teach his work would not only add to the zeitgeist that is the legacy of Bradbury, but would ensure your own work would reflect and be influenced by these timeless themes, tones, and mischievous stories.
It’s no surprise, then, that Sam Weller, who worked with Bradbury for over a decade and is his authorized biographer, wrote a collection of short stories deeply inspired by Bradbury’s philosophies and work. Dark Black, 20 stories connected by the weird, paranormal, and some old school punk rock, is reminiscent of Bradbury’s dark and poignant collection The October Country.
But these stories don’t start and end with Bradbury. Weller puts his own voice and spin into each piece, mashing up modern influences with traditional storytelling methods. Musical journalism, experimental essay forms, flash pieces, and even a thinly veiled meta story all point to Weller’s own style and flair.
As a bonus, original color artwork by renowned Chicago artist and printmaker Dan Grzeca is featured for each story. I was eager to ask Weller about his desire to include artwork with his collection, and we also spoke about his connection to music and his relationship with Bradbury’s work.
As his authorized biographer, there will be many references, comparisons, and nods to Ray Bradbury as your book enters the world, but what specifically did you try to bring to this work that is all your own?
Certainly, Ray Bradbury was my muse on this book. His spirit was there with me every step down the midnight path, holding the lantern and guiding me along the way. “Follow me!” he said.
I spent 12 years working with him, so his spirit is with me on everything I write. But one thing I have learned as a writer over all these years is that you can only be you. Your voice must be your own, your themes, your ethos, the ideas must be all yours. The language in this book, the energy, this book is in my voice. It sounds like me. The ideas are mine alone. There is a punk rock edge to these stories that is in most things I create.
Mixing mediums here was a real treat. Can you talk about the collaboration with Dan Grzeca? How did this influence the tone of the book, either during the writing or after it was complete?
From the onset, I wanted this book to be illustrated. I don’t know why more literary books don’t feature art or even photography, the way children’s books and YA books do. Sadly, I think it all comes down to money with New York publishers in particular. They don’t want to take risks and really create an objet d’art, the way a real book truly is, and should be. This was so important to me.
Anyway, I happened upon Dan’s work at a street festival a few years back and saw the total desolation and loneliness of my stories in his illustrations. Dark Black is a book of people who are haunted by something—whether it’s a literal ghost, or the pain of their own past. There’s an old saying: “You don’t need a ghost to be haunted.” This idea is at the center of the stories in Dark Black and Dan’s art was the mirrored reflection of the stories I was writing. His shit can be so stark, I love it! I introduced myself to Dan that day at that festival and he stopped me before I was even done and told me that my book, Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, was a sort of creative bible for him. At that moment, I knew we had to work together on a project. I told him about the collection and he said “count me in.”
Many of the stories in Dark Black were written before I met Dan. But when I first saw his work, I could see how he would illustrate these stories in my mind. I grew up studying the comic book art of Frank Miller, John Byrne and Bill Sienkiewicz, among others. I have an art and film background myself, and I think quite visually. In the year before I sold the book, I wrote a number of new short stories and Dan’s aesthetic was very much at the forefront of my mind. He renders these massive landscapes—these lonesome vistas and desolate locales with maybe one person in them, and my stories have a lot of these sorts of places, too. It was great working with Dan. He read the stories very closely and really got them all. They resonated with him. And the illustrations he came up with were even better than I expected. He is selling a few limited edition, signed prints, including the print that goes with the title story. Only 100 copies of that print are available, along with the book, signed by the two of us. You can only get these directly from the publisher. This is one way we can offer something beautiful and unique that Amazon just can’t do. Publishing needs to innovate and do new things the way musicians are doing with limited edition colored vinyl, hand-written lyric sheets, deluxe editions with unreleased tracks, and other things. Dan does all the designs for Hop Butcher, an outstanding Chicago-based craft beer. They are going to release a Dark Black beer with the book cover on every can the week the book is released. We are thinking totally outside the box with this book and it’s been a blast.
There are specific stories that speak directly to your love of music and music journalism (like “Guided by Demons”), and others that seem subtly influenced by the punk music genre, including hard-edged atmospheres and left-leaning messages. Can you talk about how music works with your process?
Thanks for noticing the importance of music to these stories. Without getting too New Age, I truly believe that we all have art forms that connect us directly to what it means to be alive. We have all read books or watched movies that make us feel transcendent. Art connects us to the universe. Music does this for me every single day. Music has the power to alter my mood. Music has the power to inspire ideas. Music can give me the boost to power through just about anything. It speaks to me in such a metaphysical, glorious way. As such, music was vital to Dark Black. I listened to music while I wrote every story in the book and it inspired me throughout. In some instances, it served as a creative prompt. Take, for example, a story like “The Peephole.” I was listening to a lot of early and mid-seventies New York punk and new wave: Blondie, the New York Dolls, Ramones. This got me to thinking about dirty old New York, the graffiti on the subway trains, the Times Square peep shows, the blighted public housing units, the grit, the grime, the crime. All of it. So, the music inspired that story directly. Another example is the story “Guided By Demons,” which is one of my favorites in the book. I wanted to experiment with form and I had the idea to write a short story, but do it as a sort of Rolling Stone feature story. I have written so much music journalism in my career that once I decided to do this, it came very easily. I often think about the places where people die and I thought, what if a musician encountered the ghost of a music legend in the place he had died in and they wrote an album together? From that point, that story almost wrote itself.
Just as The October Country played with the gothic and the modern, so too does Dark Black seem to bend genre and mix aspects of time. Besides music, what other contemporary influences did you notice having an impact on your writing?
I’m very drawn to “low-fantasy,” where fantastic events and the supernatural intrude upon our everyday lives. The American “Dark Fantastic” is captivating to me—the weird landscape where things could be encroaching on the unreal, or perhaps it is all in the minds of the characters in the story. This is the milieu of Poe, Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson, Charles Beaumont and The Twilight Zone, for that matter. I wanted to write a book set in this murky, chimerical dark land, but make it modern and make it my own.
A few stories deal with communicating with spirits from the other side. I couldn’t help but think of Ray Bradbury peeking over your shoulder as you wrote. Whether or not you believe in that sort of thing, do you think there’s a part of Bradbury—spiritual or inspirational—that is guiding you as you tell stories and build these worlds on the page?
I spent so much time with Ray Bradbury that I can literally ask him any question in my mind, close my eyes and hear his response. So, he guides me all the time. He helped me with this book. I would often take walks and ask how I should write things. Then I would just wait for his answer. And he was always there. His ghost inhabits me in this way. I think people live on in what they accomplish in their lifetime and in who they loved. He lives on because of his books, his amazing stories, and his beautiful words. He lives in me because he loved me and I loved him. He dedicated his book Bradbury Stories to me in 2003 and, in return, I dedicated all four of my Bradbury related books to him. He’s always there.
Having read Bradbury extensively myself, there are plenty of stories that feel written as if in memoriam to him. “Live Forever!” and “Dark Black” in particular. Though these stories are a treat to even the uninitiated reader, would you say they might have been written more for yourself, as a celebration of your mentor?
I wrote “Live Forever!” while he was still alive and he loved that story. So, it wasn’t in memoriam, but as tribute. He thought the story was great fun. It really just takes the Bradburian premise of taking an autobiographical experience and extrapolating it into the realm of the fantastic. In this case, I fictionalized my first encounter with Ray Bradbury: I interview him for the Chicago Tribune, and in doing so, I discover his secret, that the man I met was not Bradbury at all, but a robot.
I actually wrote the beginning of the “The Shadows Behind the Trees,” in Ray’s house while he was still living. I wanted to see how writing in his space—the house he lived in for over half a century—would influence me. That is a story about a little girl who is on vacation with her family in the north woods in the 1950s and gets lost and her parents are never able to find her. They eventually have to leave and drive home without their child. For the decades to follow, her spirit wanders the forests looking for the love she never really knew. Ray cried when I read him that story.
So, yes, some of these stories are tributes to him, while others, I don’t think he would like at all. Some of the more rock and roll stuff in the book, the more punk stuff, the edgier stuff, those were stories I just needed to write. I had to remain true to me, but they all balance on that razor’s edge of the unreal and the weird.
The title story you ask about, “Dark Black,” was very much written as a memoriam to him. My favorite Bradbury story is probably, “The Fog Horn,” about the last dinosaur on earth that lives in the deeps of the ocean and it hears the sound of a coastal light house’s fog horn and it rises from the depths to investigate. I grew up watching Godzilla movies. I love Japanese “Kaiju” monsters and their mythology. I wanted to write my own Kaiju story and that is what “Dark Black” is. And in writing it, it became this lonely, melancholy, autumnal nod to my mentor and my friend, the late, Ray Bradbury.
By Sam Weller
Hat & Beard Press
Published June 30, 2020