Debut is a weird word. It suggests “newcomer,” but it feels wrong to use the word on the work of a winner of multiple awards. Sam Weller, who inhabits our own Lit 50’s Hall of Fame for his contributions to Chicago’s literary landscape, is most famous for his work related to Ray Bradbury. Weller was Bradbury’s authorized biographer, which resulted in the much-lauded “The Bradbury Chronicles.” Weller co-edited the Bradbury memorial collection “Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury,” which he and fellow editor Mort Castle later spun into a graphic novel. (Both works won a Bram Stoker award.) Yet in terms of original fiction, Weller’s collection “Dark Black” is his debut.
Weller’s stories are fittingly gothic for a collection named “Dark Black.” It’s a spooky collection, even when nothing overtly supernatural is happening. The opener, “Little Spells,” the story of a snobby, footnote-reliant nonfiction writer renting the site of the grisly murders that inspired Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is decidedly not a ghost story. But Weller definitely grasps how we might expect it to be and lets the possibility of a haunting hang over the story for mood purposes, a threat that’s backed up by later stories with actual ghosts, ESP, krakens, and an automaton living as a famous author. It’s the fun of the collection: you never know when Weller is going to veer into full horror or speculative fiction or when he’s going be simply literary, with a protagonist having a holy or devastating experience on a dark Midwest night.
If all of that seems a bit Ray Bradbury to you, it is, and purposely so. Weller gets that his name is synonymous with Bradbury at this point, so he leans into it. He whips up stories with delightfully wicked twists that would feel at home in a fifties science-fiction magazine. He gives us his own generation’s version of Midwest nostalgia, showing us scenes of a pure rural summer before “the incessant creep of asphalt and klieg lights and big box stores.” He has a story that stars Bradbury himself. He even slyly acknowledges his situation in my personal favorite story, “Guided by Demons,” where a young punk rocker grapples with the notion of co-authoring an album with a famous ghost. With this collection Weller is making an argument that he’s more than Bradbury’s chronicler. Weller is arguing he’s Bradbury’s literary heir.
By sheer story quality alone, Weller makes a good damn argument. “Dark Black” might be a debut, but it’s certainly not the work of a literary novice, the kind with a few good stories that suggest future literary promise. It’s the work of a literary master who’s done his homework, has paid his debts (especially to the obvious), and is ready to serve banger after banger without missing a beat. Complete with wonderfully creepy illustrations by Chicago print artist Dan Grzeca, “Dark Black” is the sort of debut that confidently announces that its author is here, and that he intends to live forever.
By Sam Weller
Hat and Beard Editions, 254 Pages