Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top 10 Works of Short Fiction: #7, #6, #5

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

7. “Children of the Bedtime Machine” (2012; Shadow Show)

McCammon is no stranger to post-apocalyptic fiction, having produced several memorable examples (from the short story “Something Passed By” to the epic novel Swan Song). Here he envisions a post-technological world ecologically devastated by a global war. It’s a “sad and brutal world,” but the story (commissioned for an anthology celebrating the fiction of Ray Bradbury) does not prove some grim descent into Gothic horror: “There was no panic, and there was very little violence. The ones who had lived by that code were long dead. Now the remaining ones had taken on the thinness, the attitude and the patience of saints, as they waited for the end.” Emphasizing the lonesome rather than the loathsome, “Children of the Bedtime Machine” presents an isolated protagonist, an anonymous woman who lost both her husband and son long ago during the war. The melancholic gives way to the magical, though, when the woman comes across the titular gizmo while bartering at a store in “Douglasville”–a hand-cranked hologram projector designed as a sleep aid in the former age of the world. But when the machine later comes to life in the woman’s bedroom, it does not produce tranquil scenes of nature. Having already captured the tones, themes, and prose stylings of Bradbury, McCammon’s story takes a strong metafictional turn, as an exponentially-growing number of children are projected and ask the (soon-to-be-rejuvenated) woman to read to them aloud from her paperback volume of Bradbury stories. Accenting Bradbury’s ongoing generational impact, McCammon raises the possibility that these youthful figures are more than just “holograms and sparks.” The woman can’t help but wonder “if they were the spirits of children yet to be born. She wondered if when they came to real life, they would not have some memory of the stories, some feeling that they knew them even before they heard them the first time. Because she was sure that through these children the stories would live forever.” In an afterword, McCammon asserts that his narrative expresses his “feeling that Ray Bradbury’s work is timeless”; this hopeful fantasy story, a moving tribute to the Bradbury canon, promises to have a long shelf life of its own.

 

6. “Night Calls the Green Falcon” (1988; Silver Scream)

 

63-year-old Creighton Flint, a former star of Saturday matinee serials back in the 1940’s, is plagued by nightmares that replay scenes from his time as a crime-fighting superhero: “a reel of car crashes, falls from buildings, gunshots, explosions, even a lion’s attack. He had survived all of them, but they kept trying to kill him again and again.” Later in the novelette, it is revealed that Cray had suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in a sanitarium in the early 50’s (after a storeroom fire at a theater where Cray was making a promotional appearance resulted in the deaths of fourteen children). Cray reverts to his old character, though, after his apartment-building neighbor Julia, a gold-hearted prostitute, is murdered by a john who turns out to be a slasher known as the Fliptop Killer. Hollywood indeed is “a city of masks,” and Clay dons his (as well as his old superhero suit) to catch Julia’s killer. Along with murderous thugs, Cray has to contend with his personal demons, his doubts of his own sanity: was he “just a crazy old man out for a joyride through fantasy”? His investigative efforts lead him into a series of adventures (including a classic showdown with a group of harassing bikers at a bar, in which Clay is born anew as a hero, a “righter of wrongs and champion of justice,” even as he quotes “lines from old scripts”). Just as “Night Calls the Green Falcon” echoes the title of one of Clay’s popular serials, McCammon’s narrative is structured to reflect the thrilling, episodic nature of such fare, complete with chapter-ending cliffhangers. Clay, who faces daunting tests as a masked crusader against modern decadence, at one point professes: “I think I’d rather die as the Green Falcon than live as an old man with a screwed-up bladder and a book of memories. I want to walk tall, just once more.” The Green Falcon gets to do just that, without ending up levelled: the serial superhero ultimately bests the serial killer, winning himself a new following in the process. Melding gritty horror with more wholesome fantasy, McCammon’s “Night Calls the Green Falcon” is deservedly revered by the author’s legion of fans.

 

5. “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” (1986; Halloween Horrors)

“All sorts of good things” have happened to Dan Burgess and his family after the move to the small town of Essex (following Dan’s job loss when the steel mill in Birmingham closed back in February). In April, the once-again-employed Dan is promoted “from gravel-shoveler to unit supervisor at the cement plant.” In August, Dan receives a letter stating that the Burgesses “won five thousand dollars in a contest at the Food Giant store.” In October, though, Dan learns the price of such good fortune, when he is summoned to a strange Halloween night meeting of community members. The meeting’s host, Roy Hathaway, explains that Halloween is uniquely observed in Essex. On this night, a devilish wish-list is left on Hathaway’s doorstep, specifying the sacrifices Essex’s families must make to the town’s “satanic trick-or-treater.” As Roy pitches, “You can have anything and everything you want, Dan, if you give him what he wants on one special night of the year.” The story’s title heralds the fate of those who don’t hold up their end of the bargain, and come knocking is exactly what the dark adversary does after Dan refuses to engage in familial mutilation (he’s been told that the Devil “wants the first joint of the little finger of your child’s left hand”). A harrowing scene of home invasion ensues, but when Dan attempts to shoot the intruder he discovers to his chagrin: “There were no shells in the shotgun. Jammed into the chambers were [his wife] Karen’s pumpkin candies.” When Dan instead clubs the intruder in the stomach with the butt of the shotgun, the trickster spews the grisly evidence of his previous feasting this Halloween night: “a mess of yellow canary feathers, pieces of a kitten, , and what might have been a piglet.” Reading like an autumnal holiday version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” offers some wicked fun. Its delightful frights continue right up to its shocking finale, one that forces a hapless Dan to concede that “the Devil sure could come up with one hell of a Halloween costume.”

 

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