Ray Bradbury is probably most well-known for his seminal dystopian work, Fahrenheit 451. If you were lucky, you had a good English teacher in high school who assigned Fahrenheit 451; not as a mere reading assignment, but as a means to open minds and discussions to the ills of censorship. If you were really lucky, that teacher also assigned Bradbury’s menacing, horror short stories, like “All Summer in a Day” or “I, Mars,” or “Homecoming.”
“Homecoming,” a short story originally written in 1946 for Mademoiselle, describes the very odd reunion of the Elliott Family in an old house in upper Illinois. Of course, as this is a Ray Bradbury story, this family is no regular family and the old house is no regular house. They’re a family of vampires and ghouls, and ten-year-old Timothy must watch over them. And although Timothy is an Elliott, he is mortal and doesn’t exactly fit in. Bradbury, over the years, had written several stories about this family of vampires and ghouls, like “The Traveler,” published in 1945, and “Uncle Einar,” published in 1947 and “West of October,” published in 1988. These are all great, creepy stories with heart and meaning and they all build well upon each other. It seems, even after many years, Bradbury simply couldn’t shake the idea of The Elliotts.
That’s probably why we have From the Dust Returned – the novel-length continuation and ending to the great Family Elliott, published in 2001. Much of this book is the stitching together of old short stories, but revamped to fit into a distinct storyline, with some added filler.
Like much of Bradbury’s work, From the Dust Returned sometimes feels like poetry and not prose at all. It’s emotive, breezy and lyrical; distant and light, but it sometimes lacks teeth or enough depth to add any understanding to this family of monsters. Essentially, the family is in turmoil because the modern world is encroaching, but we don’t really see any of the encroaching, only their reaction to it. And while the message, “Monsters are our friends,” is clearly the item of the day here, the nice message or allegory doesn’t make up for the sonnet-like language and lack of depth. Also, reading a novel of 200 pages is easy, unless a lot of those 200 pages feel like cryptic poetry. For example:
When every bed ached to be occupied by strange snows and every banister anticipated the down-slide of creatures more pollen than substance, when every window, warped with ages, distorted faces looking from shadows, when every empty chair seemed occupied by things unseen, when every carpet desired invisible footfalls and the water pump on the back stoop inhaled, sucking vile liquors toward a surface abandoned because of the possible upchuck of nightmares… there was Anuba. Clothed in a fine pelt of arrogance, her quiet engine quieter, centuries before limousines.
That’s essentially the entire book – Edgar Allen Poe as recited by Vincent Price. Who doesn’t want that? I want it! Well, while that may sound fun and a lot of the language is inventive and refreshing, a lot of it holds you back from connecting or experiencing the wonder of imagining this world because you simply can’t figure out what “sucking vile liquors toward a surface abandoned” even means, so you gloss over it and read on. At some point, creative, poetic prose can become meaningless word salad.
I don’t think anyone would argue the world needs this book. Much of what has been said about the Elliotts has been said. The language is quaint and sometimes so outdated and clichéd, I almost expected to see, ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” If that passage appeared on the page, I would not have blinked an eye. At all.
And YET! But! There are some really strong points to this book. Do not turn your back on it yet. There is a lot of good writing, allegory, creativity and ideas to sink your vampire teeth into. It’s also a solid, quiet, ghostly book for a Halloween evening alone. One of the characters, Cecy, a female ghoul, is a wholly original character whose equal has probably never been seen before in literature. She’s complicated, wily, tortured, but also clever and patient. Also, like a lot of Bradbury stories, he takes an old idea, mummies in this case, and gives them a whole new story and a fresh way of seeing them. Several of the chapters are excellent and exciting and strong enough to stand on their own (which they did prior to the novel). West of October and On the Orient North are particular standouts and incredibly inventive. Interesting enough, the better chapters seem to have been written more recently and are much more readable and modern-feeling.
From the Dust Returned, is a consistently interesting, spooky tale. The flowery language may not be for everyone, and some of the characters are miniatures of what they could be, but if you can get passed that, then a light, enjoyable story, with some truly unique and creepy characters awaits you.