With twenty stories, accompanied by lush but tenebrous full-page images, Sam Weller’s “Dark Black” is a thing of haunting beauty and voluptuous terrors.
Dark Black, by Sam Weller (254 pages, Hat & Beard Press, 2020)
Most readers of The Imaginative Conservative know Sam Weller as the extraordinary biographer of Ray Bradbury and as the author of The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, and Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview. To be sure, few people knew Bradbury as well as Mr. Weller did toward the end of the great author’s life. And, Mr. Weller has dedicated much of his own professional life lovingly and devotedly helping us remember this finest of American authors. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Mr. Weller is as excellent as a story teller as he is a biographer. Something of Ray Bradbury’s mythic genius most certainly rubbed off on Mr. Weller, and his latest collection of short stories, Dark Black, is nothing if not a worthy successor to The Illustrated Man, Golden Apples of the Sun, and The October Country.
With twenty stories, accompanied by lush but tenebrous full-page images, Dark Black is a thing of haunting beauty and voluptuous terrors.
While not wanting to give too much away—for these are stories to be savored and not merely revealed by some boisterous and gung-ho critic—it would not be untoward to consider a few of the stories for this review. The twenty stories cover a variety of themes, engage in a number of moods, and, always, ask intelligent and insightful questions. They also vary in tone and length, some rather long, while others only a mere page or two. Some of the stories are conventional in form, but others are written as interviews, as recollections, and even, somewhat surprisingly, as memos.
The first story, “Little Spells,” finds a frustrated writer-academic trying to capture the energy, the intensity, and the spirit of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Following in Capote’s footsteps, the author comes to the horrific realization that whatever art Capote was capable of, he had brutalized the Kansas murder by selling the story for profit. Experiencing the trauma as though there, the protagonist strips in pure spiritual agony and rushes onto the Great Plains under dark black skies. “Mrs Bonnie Clutter. Capote described her as suffering from depression, from anxiety, from anguish. She had even sought treatment, he wrote. Mrs. Clutter’s mental lapses into mania, Capote said, were her ‘little spells.’ I saw so clearly now how the Clutter family had been victimized not just that night, but long after it. Capote was a g—dam opportunist. He had turned their tragedy into art. . . . How many people had profited, marveled, been drawn in by the murder of this midwestern family? How many?”
Throughout the story, one can feel the terror and the psychological failing of the author as he immerses himself in the insane.
Radically different from “Little Spells,” “All the Summer Before Us” is a gorgeous prose-poem, a paean to youth and optimism and, especially, enjoying the moment for what it is. Three eighteen-year-olds explore a rusted-out factory, climbing to the top of its tower and looking across the dark Illinois prairie. “The ladder felt precarious, going up at least four stories. Yet undaunted and for no apparent reason, we continued to ascend. As we got higher and higher the view was magnificent. We reached the roof of the tower and looked out at the dark cornfields rustling in tremendous sheets in the summer night. Far off, we could see the lights of Sterling Springs. We stepped upon the roof of the old factory. We talked, three young men who were, really, three boys. We lay down on the roof and stared up at the stars and we pondered where our lives would take us. What we didn’t realize then is that none of that really mattered. What mattered then, was that moment, and our friendship, and the very fact that all the world was out before us.”
It would be nearly impossible to capture such a fleeting glimpse of youth in all of its contentment and desires, a moment in which the machine and nature soothed the restless soul.
“Weird” is the tale of a seven-year old obsessive who throws temper tantrums and is, slowly, turning into a Goth. Written from the perspective of his brother, a rather slackerish fellow, at least as portrayed in his writing, “Weird” both humorously and disturbingly reveals the darkness of the human soul and the tendency toward the desire for absolute control. As “Weird” grows up, he becomes increasingly polite as well as introverted. As a Goth, he wears clothes from good will, watches the movie, Harold and Maude, repeatedly, and doodles in dark and squiggly ways. One night, convinced that Weird will be the next Lee Harvey Oswald, the brother quietly follows Weird during a post-dinner evening walk. Being a Goth, Weird walks into the cemetery. Once there, he does something astounding—at least to his brother—he meets a girl (the girl from the Goodwill Store), and the two kiss. Far from being a mass murderer (or even a single-minded assassin), Weird turns out to be quite normal, in his own unique way. “And as I stood there, in the cemetery, the wind whipping all up around me, I thought to myself: there really is someone out there for everyone, no matter how weird they are.”
These three stories do, in their own particular ways, represent Mr. Weller’s excellent story-telling abilities. He is—in a rather exceptional fashion—able to craft story around idea, and idea around his art. None of this is ideological, though, as Mr. Weller always wisely lets the story tell its own. . . well, story. These stories are what they are, and they are wonderful.
It should be noted that I have a nice paperback review copy of Dark Black, but when the book is published in June, it will arrive in full hardback glory, much larger than the review copy I have, but still endowed with its stunning woodcut-style illustrations by famed artist, Dan Grzeca.
If I had one complaint about the book, it’s simply that other than his acknowledgements, Mr. Weller provides no commentary, prologue, or introduction to any of the stories. To be certain, each story speaks for itself, but each story also makes me very much want to get to know the author even more.
Mr. Weller is one of America’s most gifted writers. I highly recommend pre-ordering Dark Black as quickly as possible. Every reader of The Imaginative Conservative will want a copy of Dark Black in her or his own personal library.
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The featured image is a photograph of Sam Weller and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.