In 2004, novelist Michael Chabon edited McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, an anthology paying tribute to the golden age of comics and pulp fiction. As the title suggests, the collection makes an attempt to recapture the literary conventions of an earlier era as well as a vanished sense of preadolescent wonder. Good intentions aside, it's difficult to imagine "literary" writers such as Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates following Chabon's stated program of "genre bending and stylistic play." Astonishment often dims in the face of self-consciousness.
If Chabon had read Jeffrey Burton's Shadow Play, he might not have felt compelled to recapture the past. Burton's anthology features 20 stories that are refreshing in both their unselfconsciousness and loyalty to the conventions of classic genre writing. Lean in construction and entirely focused on providing an unsettling effect, the stories aim to entertain. Like The Shadow and Doc Savage, they offer a delicate balance between lurid material and innocent amusement, usually avoiding gruesome excess, often recalling classic episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits in their terse economy and ability to deliver an unexpected conclusion.
Shadow Play's scenarios frequently recall those of Stephen King, who also brings horror into familiar, everyday worlds. Often, Burton's threats are not supernatural at all, but an unexpected revelation of a character's capacity for evil. In "Bump Bump Man," a father's bedtime stories hint at sinister nocturnal activities, while a traveling star salesman practices an ominous hobby in "Per Diem." Occasionally, one threat is a mask for an even larger, unsuspected menace, as in "Cold Snap," where a corrupt sheriff learns that his innocent partner has an even greater capacity for deception.
A mordant sense of humor often emerges, as in the concluding "Grog's Last Prank," a twisted variation on Tobe Hoober's "Funhouse" in which a frat boy's plans to vandalize a theme park backfire in poetic fashion. As in the revenge-thirsty 1950s EC comics "Tales from the Crypt" and "Vault of Horror," natural justice often prevails: an insufferable coworker is punished in "The Ten O'Clockers," while the demoralized narrator of the title story finds supernatural protection from daily threats.
At 20 stories in under 140 pages, Shadow Play is somewhat compromised by its brevity and focus on the exigencies of plot; selections occasionally read like terse outlines for longer, more detailed narratives. The addition of minimal scene setting, character detail or incidental information might assist in slowing momentum, modulating tone, and adding suspense by delaying the inevitable conclusion. With skillful dialog and an acute sense of observation, Burton already provides the impression that a greater world of detail lies beyond his straightforward prose. By expanding his visions, he could easily bring his narrative technique to the level of his original, occasionally sardonic, ideas.