The Dark and Starry Eyes of Ray Bradbury
September 28, 2012
The ebullient Ray Bradbury often gave the impression that if anyone could defeat mortality, it would be he. Alas, the “poet of the pulps” died in June at age ninety-one at his home in Los Angeles. He left legions of devoted readers and a vast oeuvre that, at its best, combined Hobbesian fears with emotionally resonant hopes for his country and for the human race.
The author of eleven novels and some six hundred stories called his around-the-clock writing habits “my choreography to outwit Death.” And dance he did. His Herculean output included stories, screenplays, novels, radio plays, and theatrical pieces in the fantasy, science fiction, horror, and detective genres, as well as myriad essays and a first-rate 1956 movie adaptation of Herman Melville’sMoby-Dick. Bradbury sought the lasting fame and glory that artists want, but seldom has the urgency of that quest comported so well with the subject matter that the artist chose. Or, to put it as he would have, that chose him.
Bradbury made his finest contributions to American fiction early in his career. They include his story “The Night” (1946) and his first and greatest novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953), which he built up from an already-published short story. Dark Carnival (1947), The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man(1951), and Dandelion Wine (1957), all of which contain dazzling interludes, were brought out as novels but were really strung-together groups of new and previously published stories.
Because he was a lifelong reviser, many of these “greatest hits,” or pieces of them, remain in print today in a half-dozen variations. Truth be told, the proportion of greatest hits among his more forgettable works is not high. Yet the effect Bradbury has had is as potent as that of creators like L. Frank Baum, Rod Serling, and Steven Spielberg — probably as potent as all three combined, considering the large swaths of American popular culture he is father to. Filmmakers who cite his influence include Spielberg, David Lynch, James Cameron, and Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale. In television, he inspired Serling (and directly contributed ideas and scripts to Serling’s The Twilight Zone) and indirectly shaped such Baby Boom-era touchstones as Star Trek, The Addams Family, and Dark Shadows. Any number of wildly successful books and movies — Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, to name two — are unthinkable without Bradbury. And in the words of the prolific American horror writer Stephen King, “without Ray Bradbury, there is no Stephen King.”
The youthful experiences that made Bradbury into a writer preoccupied him throughout his life. Bradbury’s much-beloved novel Dandelion Wineis a thinly veiled fictionalization of many of his sweeter reminiscences — but even these could take an odd turn. “I loved to watch my grandmother eviscerate the turkey,” he once said, a memory that sums up his most characteristic literary trait: taking homey Americana and bending it in a violent or grotesque direction. His most seminal stories wrung terror out of common occurrences, such as going into a ravine that ran through the residential section of his native Waukegan, Illinois at nighttime. In the story “The Night,” an eight-year-old boy — the author’s alter-ego — simply scares himself. There is no ghost or criminal lurking, only the panic that wells up in all of us when we get lost in a dark, damp place and know we are alone in the universe, in the “vast swelling loneliness,” feeling the presence of “an ogre called Death.”
Bradbury spent his childhood goosing his imagination with the outlandish. Whenever mundane Waukegan was visited by the strange or the offbeat, young Ray was on hand. The vaudevillian magician Harry Blackstone came through the industrial port on Lake Michigan’s shore in the late 1920s. Seeing Blackstone’s show over and over again marked Bradbury deeply, as did going to carnivals and circuses, and watching Hollywood’s earliest horror offerings like Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera. He read heavily in Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, L. Frank Baum, and Edgar Rice Burroughs; the latter’s inspirational and romantic children’s adventure tales earned him Bradbury’s hyperbolic designation as “probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.”
Then there was the contagious enthusiasm of Bradbury’s bohemian, artistic aunt and his grandfather, Samuel, who ran a boardinghouse in Waukegan and instilled in Bradbury a kind of wonder at modern life. He recounted: “When I was two years old I sat on his knee and he had me tickle a crystal with a feathery needle and I heard music from thousands of miles away. I was right then and there introduced to the birth of radio.”
His family’s temporary stay in Arizona in the mid-1920s and permanent relocation to Los Angeles in the 1930s brought Bradbury to the desert places that he would later reimagine as Mars. As a high-schooler he buzzed around movie and radio stars asking for autographs, briefly considered becoming an actor, and wrote and edited science fiction “fanzines” just as tales of robots and rocket ships were gaining in popularity in wartime America. He befriended the staffs of bicoastal pulp magazines like Weird Tales,Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dime Mystery, and Captain Future by bombarding them with submissions, and, when those were rejected, with letters to the editor. This precocity was typical. Science fiction and “fantasy” — a catchall term for tales of the supernatural that have few or no fancy machines in them — drew adolescent talent like no other sector of American publishing. Isaac Asimov was in his late teens when he began writing for genre publications; Ursula K. Le Guin claimed to have sent in stories from the age of eleven.
By working furiously on his style, and by following the advice of mentors like the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein and Norman Corwin, the radio writer and CBS programming powerhouse, Bradbury conquered the pulps, but did not stop there. In 1945, when he was twenty-five, his fiction began appearing in the “slicks,” national magazines of mass-circulation like McCall’s, Collier’s, Mademoiselle, and The New Yorker. Upscale readers liked genre potboilers for the same reason that the buyers of cheap fanzines did. Many of us enjoy peeking at the bad thing that happened. The enjoyment lies in the fact that it did not happen to us, who lie tucked in a warm bed reading our genre fiction (by flashlight, if it is past our bedtime)…