Ray Bradbury’s From the Dust Returned

This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.

dustWhere do you go when you have no home? Wherever you are welcomed, naturally. Or supernaturally in the case of Ray Bradbury’s classic (redundant, I know) From the Dust Returned. Begun in 1945 and finally finished and published fifty-five years later in 2000, From the Dust Returned tells the story of a most unusual family, and their most unusual home. Known simply as the Family, the denizens of the House are an odd sort, a family cobbled together from shared experience and outsider status rather than direct biological lineage. They are the world’s spooks. Its ghosts, invisible boys, Egyptian mummies. Its werewolves, vampires, girls who age in reverse. The winged men, witches, and skeletal outcasts of a society that has no use for the abnormal or grotesque. The house stretches to hold them, coddles their delicacies, rebuffs their bullies, holds their secrets. They are every weird kid who has ever dreaded their own classmates, except a few of them are thousands of years old.

In their midst is one being who is exceptional by merit of being relatively ordinary, someone who fits in as an outsider because he’s an outsider among them: the ten-year-old human child Timothy. He was dropped off on the porch of the House as an infant, and he alone among this gathering of the world’s nightmares will ever truly know death. Death surrounds him; his family members are those who make mortal humanity quake in the dark watches of the night, fearing death, and yet only he will actually taste it. This makes him a freak at home with freaks, reminding us “weird” and “normal” are words that have no meaning divorced from their contexts. He becomes the Family’s scribe, their chronicler. He is a friend to a spider, a mouse, a black cat. He whispers to the Family’s dreamer, a slumbering traveler in the bodies of others. He receives the whispers of A Thousand Times Great Grandmére, the daughter of a pharoah. He is the essence of Ray Bradbury, the everychild at home among perceived horrors and awake in the witching hours.

“All told there were then some ninety-nine, perhaps one hundred kindred spells of weather on the move, a tribe of temperatures, the ancient airs, the recent blows of hot and cold that, seeking, found good lodging where thus hidden they waited for a rain-soaked wind to cork them out to join carousels of fresh storm. The House then was a great vintage bin of muttered yelling heard but not seen, opinions of pure air.” – page 157

From the Dust Returned, like all of Bradbury’s great stories, works on two levels equally well. It works as a wonderfully atmospheric, spooky tale of Halloween and the sweet death we meet in autumn, an ode to what Bradbury referred to as October Country and October People. You either intuitively understand what those terms speak of or you never will. Deeper than that, the book is a home for the outcasts who read it. The book and its author understand that not everyone who lives outside society’s norms does so reluctantly. Not all the unpopular kids are rejects who failed at the social game. For many of us, weird is its own reward. Normal is boring. Normal would be death. The conflict in From the Dust Returned comes when normal encroaches upon the Family and the House, when normal threatens to root out the weird, deny the fantastic, rout the horrific. The world’s punks, dreamers, artists, bohemians, freaks, weirdos, revolutionaries, and rejects have a home in these pages, and a right to a home and a family in the real world, even if that home is vagrant and that family is one they choose rather than one they’re born to.

If you count yourself as among the October People, as an honorary member of the Family, pick up From the Dust Returned. There is a touching afterword from Bradbury in which he discusses the genesis and evolution of the book. He gives us a peek into the earliest roots of his love for October and Halloween, and it is with those memories from when he was seven years old I will leave you.

“When Halloween came each year my Aunt Neva piled me and my brother into her old tin lizzie to motor out into October Country to gather cornstalks and field pumpkins. We brought them to my grandparents’ home and stocked pumpkins in every corner, put cornstalks on the porch, and placed the leaves from the dining room table on the staircases so that you had to slide instead of stepping down.

She stashed me in the attic clad as a witch with a wax nose, hid my brother at the bottom of a ladder leading up to the attic, and invited her Halloween celebrants to climb up through the night to enter our house. The atmosphere was rampant and hilarious. Some of my finest memories are of this magical aunt, only ten years older than myself.” – page 200

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