Back to Bradbury
"I wouldn't want the nursery locked up," said Peter coldly. "Ever."
"Matter of fact, we're thinking of turning the whole house off for about a month. Live sort of a carefree one-for-all existence."
"That sounds dreadful! Would I have to tie my own shoes instead of letting the shoe tier do it? And brush my own teeth and comb my hair and give myself a bath?"
"It would be fun for a change, don't you think?"
"No, it would be horrid. . ."
Ray Bradbury, "The Veldt"
I can't remember a time when I wasn't obsessed by stories and storytellers, but they all existed in a general blur of excitement. To me, any few pages that could create other worlds and populate them with other people seemed as miraculous as any other. Eventually, however, I started to discriminate among these pages and choose my favorites; and in the process I discovered authors I would read and reread until they were imprinted in my brain, authors who left me with the suspicion that they held answers to questions I hadn't even begun to formulate.
At the top of this list was Ray Bradbury.
Some boys wanted to be athletes, some wanted to be explorers, a few might even have wanted to be insurance salesmen. I wanted to be a writer, and Ray Bradbury was the writer I wanted to be. Bradbury's stories, so different in theme, style, and substance, taught me there was more to fiction than the simple trappings of plot. Language could contain nuances. Metaphor could evoke different levels of meaning. Characters, whether children or adults, could provide clues as to how to live my own life. With Bradbury, the clumsy world of science fiction had become literature.
I'm guessing that my first Bradbury was The October Country, a collection of very dark fantasy and horror stories that were unlike anything I had read and contained elements that grew ever more disturbing the longer I lived with them. Second was The Martian Chronicles, where the silly apparatus of science fiction became the imagery of a sweeping poetic vision. After that I proceeded to devour his many other story collections with their enormous range of characters and effects and ideas, as well as the unforgettable novels. Fahrenheit 451 touched my rebellious young spirit, although I didn't suspect at the time how true its vision of the future would become. Something Wicked This Way Comes boiled down the essence of October and Halloween and of being a boy, but also of being a man faced with the grim prospect of aging and death. Dandelion Wine seemed, on first acquaintance, the simplest of the books, an interconnected grouping of nostalgic stories about a boy, clearly based on Bradbury, growing up in an idyllic small American town in the 1920s. Only after repeated readings did I understand how the sentimental surface of these tales held a darker core, an acknowledgement of the fearful things lurking outside our well-lit bubble of security.
And then I forgot about Ray Bradbury. It wasn't a deliberate decision. New books and authors started to push out the old ones. My well-worn collection of Bradbury paperbacks (whose distinctive covers I can still palpably evoke) either disintegrated or simply disappeared.
Last year I was surprised and saddened to find Bradbury's obituary in the New York Times. Dead at the age of ninety-one, he had been writing virtually until the end. He claimed to have produced a story a week which, even without doing the math, must have amounted to a prodigious number of pages. All along I thought I had read everything, but I had barely scratched the surface.
I went back to the stories, reading a jumble of them in no particular order, and discovered they were just as good (and the best even better) than I remembered. Some of these stories might be familiar to you. A dinosaur is summoned from the sea by the lonely sound of a foghorn. An unhappily married couple visits the mummies in the Mexican catacombs and suffers unfortunate consequences. Landing on the planet Mars, a rocket crew finds the American cities of their childhoods, inhabited by their own deceased parents and grandparents. A woman believes that her newborn baby is trying to murder her. Time travelers on a prehistoric hunting expedition inadvertently muddle the future. A futuristic house contains every modern convenience, including a playroom whose walls can replicate a child's fantasies, ideal for busy parents until what their children create is an African veldt full of hungry lions. At a seedy carnival, a man buys a jar containing an awful fleshy something floating in alcohol and brings it home to display to his envious neighbors.
Many obituaries mentioned Bradbury's uncannily prescient take on the future. I especially recall an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “Uncle Ray's Dystopia,” which helped fuel my desire to return to his work. And I saw for myself how many of the stories, written in the late forties and early fifties, seem to get at the heart of our own shrill, shallow, visually oriented, entertainment-glutted modern world. In the future, Bradbury was saying, technology will not necessarily be our friend. The gadgets which at first seem to free us may end up making us their slaves. As an example, you don't have to look further than Fahrenheit 451, where people at home are so happily transfixed in front of their wall-sized plasma televisions, it doesn't matter that firemen are outside burning the world's books. Or, like the family in “The Veldt,” we can let automation control our lives and lose ourselves in virtual reality games... until the lions come to devour us.
Although I had never before checked the library's catalog for Ray Bradbury, I was gratified by how many entries I found, certainly enough to satisfy my reignited literary enthusiasm. There is even a copy of his first very obscure 1947 hardcover, The Dark Carnival. The Ray Bradbury Companion is a bibliographic feast whose subtitle accurately describes its contents: "A Life and Career History, Photolog, and Comprehensive Checklist of Writings With Facsimiles From Ray Bradbury's Unpublished and Uncollected Work in all Media." And Bradbury: an Illustrated Life: a Journey to Far Metaphor, is a beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated compendium of the artwork associated with Ray Bradbury.
Since I always believe that an author's life can illuminate his or her art, I turned to the fine biography of a few years ago, The Bradbury Chronicles, where I found much that was surprising and illuminating about Ray Bradbury. Although born in Waukegan, Illinois (the setting for his Dandelion Wine stories), he moved at an early age to Los Angeles. He was vocal in his opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which later led to his being investigated by the FBI as a suspected Communist sympathizer. His novel, Fahrenheit 451, partly a response to McCarthyism, was written in the library at UCLA, where he fed dimes into a rental typewriter for half-hour increments of typing. An influential eight months were spent in Ireland with bullying film director John Huston, preparing the screenplay for the 1956 film Moby Dick; his novel, Green Shadows, White Whale is an account of that curious interlude. My favorite anecdote, however, is one Bradbury himself must have told many times. As a boy in California, he waited outside the Hollywod studios to collect movie stars' autographs. W. C. Fields gave him one with, “There you are, you little son of a bitch.”
As a mature person, I devoured the stories of Ray Bradbury as omnivorously as I had when I was a child and found them just as wonderful as ever.