Tales of Mystery and Imaginaton: Fantasy Short Story Lessons from Two Masters

In 2008, The United States Post Office released a commemorative stamp honoring the progenitor of literary paleo-gothicism, the timeless writer, Edgar Allan Poe. I wasn't surprised when my friend Ray Bradbury rushed out like a bat out of Hades and purchased a hundred dollars worth of the 20 stamp sheets. As Bradbury’s biographer, I was keenly apprised of the symbiotic connection between the two creators.

When Ray Bradbury was 8-years old, growing up in Waukegan, Illinois, his Aunt Neva (somewhat of a jazz-age goth herself) read Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination to her nephew. The little boy was never quite same. The book would become young Ray Bradbury’s Bible.

Starting with “The Raven,” moving on to “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” little Ray Bradbury of 11 South Saint James Street, Waukegan, Illinois had been coaxed into Poe’s purple velvet netherworld.

One day in the spring of 2009, I received an oversized envelope in the mailbox. Ray Bradbury loved sending things snail mail. Even though he sent astronauts on ill-fated missions to Mars in The Martian Chronicles and envisioned the unbridled proliferation of mass media in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury was gloriously old school. He preferred paper mail to email. In the corner of the envelope was a haphazard plastering of the aforementioned Poe stamps. And in a wide Sharpie-marker beneath the stamps, Bradbury wrote: “MY PAPA!” with an arrow pointing directly to Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe was a master short story writer. He perfected and popularized the form. Ray Bradbury studied the man throughout his own ascension to literary eminence. I spent 12-years working with Ray Bradbury. In this time, he became my mentor and finest teacher. So much of what I know and understand about the short story came first from Poe, handed down to Bradbury, then passed on to me by carrier-raven in the thousands of hours I spent in the company of Bradbury, and, by proxy, his “Papa.” Here are a few of the lessons on short story writing from two unquestionable heavy-weight champions of the dark fantastic:

Lesson from Poe on Writing Short Stories

In an 1842 critical essay on the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe identified and established the concept of the “single effect” in the short story. “…in almost all classes of composition,” he wrote, “ the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance.” What Poe was getting at with his literary theory was the notion of compactness, the minimal nature of the short story form which, he asserted, must raise a single question and the entire tale should be built to answer that question—often to shocking aplomb.

Interesting, I once found a note in Ray Bradbury’s basement, made to himself very early on when he was in his twenties, just starting out. He had written down: “Short stories are about one thing.”

This was a lesson he had learned from his “Papa.”

Lesson from Bradbury

Bradbury professed ex cathedra that the best short stories, at least to him, were written quickly, instinctive first drafts created, beginning to end, in one sitting.

“In quickness, is truth,” he wrote in the 1990 collection of essays, Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. “The more swiftly you write,” Bradbury went on, “the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”

On his typewriter in his basement office, Bradbury had written, “Don’t Think!” He believed that first drafts must be instinctual, passionate stories with the writer serving as medium for inspiration. Like writer and philosopher Kahlil Gibran, Bradbury believed that stories don't flow from us, they flow through us. Bradbury maintained that only in the revision stages should a writer begin to intellectualize craft.

“Your intuition knows what to write,” he said. “So get out of the way.”

Lesson from Poe

E.A.P believed completely that the power of the “short prose narrative,” was in the reader’s ability to experience it in one sitting. “In the brief tale,” he stated, “…the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention, be it what may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.”

Ray Bradbury learned well from his gothic sensei. Some of his finest short stories are impossibly taut narratives, a deft amalgam of minimalism and gorgeous, controlled and ornate description at precise moments.

Lesson from Bradbury

Don't overlook the importance of setting. When Bradbury wrote of Mars in The Martian Chronicles, he owned it. When he evoked autumn in The October Country, he slayed. The same way Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner controlled the pink dust roads and the purple twilights of the deep South, Ray Bradbury owned the melancholy Midwest autumn and the abandoned bone cities of Mars.

Lesson from Poe

Poe was deeply concerned as an artist with originality, imagination and invention.

While his contemporaries were busy writing realist stories charting American life, Poe delved into the darkest recesses of our psyches, our dreams, reveries, obsessions and our unspoken nightmares. The lesson from Poe—don't be derivative. Be original.

Lesson from Bradbury

Film director Alfred Hitchcock was a towering Bradbury fan. And it makes total sense. Hitchcock, one of the great masters of suspense, once said: “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Bradbury created fear and tension in his fiction in much the same way. Bradbury strongly adhered to the principal that what is not shown, but rather what is implied, is far more frightening than what we see on the page.

Lesson from Poe

In his 1846 critical essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe elaborated on his “unity of effect” theory, positing that short story writers must decide what emotional response they want to elicit from the reader and everything in a story should then build to achieving this response. Often, Poe’s emotional of choice? Fear and more fear.

Lesson from Bradbury

Whether writing a coming-of-age story centered upon a family of creatures (“The Homecoming”), or an unrequited love story about a sea monster (“The Fog Horn”), or a ghost story about a little girl, grief and closure (“The Lake”), Ray Bradbury subverted narrative expectations. He flipped the tropes of genre fiction upside down. And, like the writings of Poe, along the way he created something wholly new, entirely original, and his books are now shelved, for quite good reason, alongside the works of his gothic Papa.

Sam Weller is the two-time Bram Stoker Award-winning authorized biographer of Ray Bradbury. He teaches in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. His book, Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews is out next month by Hat & Bread Press. This fall, he is teaching an online class on Ray Bradbury and Creative Storytelling for Columbia College Chicago Online.

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