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Seitz: Ray Bradbury Was the Author of Our Dreams

Ray Bradbury with his hands out, circa 1980.

Ray Bradbury, dreamer and yarn-spinner, died Tuesday at 91. To say that his most terrifying and lyrical images seem as real as my own childhood memories wouldn’t do his writing justice. For me — and for a good many readers, I’m sure — those images are my childhood. Bradbury was the first author whose words kept me up all night. I still have the yellowed, dog-eared paperback of his short fiction anthology Golden Apples of the Sun; as I flip through it here at my desk at Vulture, the years melt away, and I’m 10 again, lying awake in my grandparents’ house in Kansas City in the summer of 1979, listening to cars whoosh down Roe Avenue, hearing the clock tick toward daylight. Every opening line pulls me in again. They’re all riffs on the fairy-tale incantation: Once upon a time.

Back then, I didn’t know any of the influences that shaped Bradbury’s writing: the fated ironies and foregrounded symbols of Homer and Shakespeare and Greek and Roman mythology; the creeping darkness and spiritual torment of Edgar Allan Poe, the small-town nostalgia and pettiness of Sherwood Anderson and Booth Tarkington; the declamatory spiritual odysseys of Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman, with their serpentine roller-coaster sentences and unabashed exclamation points. (Bradbury named one of his collections after a poem from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”: I Sing the Body Electric!) But years later, as I discovered these primary sources through teachers, I rediscovered facets of Bradbury. I was awed by his knack for synthesizing so many traditions to create something distinctive and influential. It was literary alchemy, pure and powerful. The only American author of the second half of the twentieth century who begins to approach Bradbury’s ubiquity and versatility is Stephen King, another master storyteller whose sales figures made a lot of people wonder if a writer who appealed to so many people possibly could be Good for Literature. As wildly popular as Bradbury was, he never got much respect from critics and scholars who treated even the most engrossing genre fiction as “Pretty good, if you like that sort of thing.” He got a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2000, the National Medal of Arts in 2004, and a special Pulitzer citation in 2007, after nearly six decades as a professional writer; these were “Love your stuff, glad you’re still alive” awards not tied to any particular work.

Even within the world of sci-fi there was always (muted, respectful) debate about whether Bradbury was a “true” sci-fi author whose work was rooted in scientific speculation, or a fantasist, horror writer, O. Henry–style twist-ending ironist and nostalgia merchant who happened to adopt sci-fi trappings when it suited him. He was part of the core group of sci-fi authors who popularized the genre in the first half of the twentieth century: Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein, or BACH, as David Brin calls them in his superb appreciation of Bradbury — but his distaste for political, historical, and scientific specifics made him the odd man out of this elite group. He was a grab-you-by-the-throat storyteller first, an allegorist second, a speculative fiction author third, and an observer of the present-tense American scene maybe twentieth or thirtieth, if that. The high-tech A/V room that terrorizes the children in Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt” is imaginative crucible in which pixelated apparitions serve the same function as spirits in a ghost story rising up to punish mortals for their sins; it’s not about the gadgets, but the spiritually destructive effects of materialism and technology worship. 

Over the decades, Bradbury’s fiction imagined or predicted various inventions — including tiny portable stereos with headsets with which Fahrenheit 451’s oppressed citizens numb their spirits. But the technology was nearly always a means to a thematic end, never an end unto itself. He was suspicious of technology, really; he disliked plane travel and telephones, resisted going online, and inveighed against cell phones and e-books. For all the marvelous devices strewn throughout his fiction, one often got the sense that he’d have been more comfortable writing in the seventeenth century, putting quill pen to parchment. He professed to love all his stories equally, but in interviews, he always seemed to regard his most naturalistic novel, the childhood memoir Dandelion Wine, with special fondness. “Lilacs on a bush are better than orchids,” the book gushes. “And dandelions and devil grass are better! Why? Because they bend you over and turn you away from all the people in the town for a little while and sweat you and get you down where you remember you got a nose again. And when you’re all to yourself that way, you’re really proud of yourself for a little while; you get to thinking things through, alone.”

Bradbury copped to all this without apology. “I don't care for science fiction,” he told the News-Gazette in 1998. “Haven't read much since I was 10 or 12 years old.” The mother and father of what we now call sci-fi, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells, and Poe, the wellspring of all modern horror, seem to have had more impact on Bradbury than any of his contemporaries; all three merged speculation with social criticism and psychodrama of a general, timeless sort. Shelley would have loved Bradbury’s short story “The Sound of Thunder,” in which a corporate-sponsored time-traveling dinosaur safari makes the future meaner and uglier by accidentally squashing a single butterfly: There, as in Frankenstein, the unintended consequences of humankind’s God complex aren’t just scientific, they’re karmic. The October Country, another great Bradbury collection, is filled with Poe-like yarns about elemental fears: the woman in “The Small Assassin” who is convinced her baby is trying to murder her; “The Crowd,” in which the same group of spectators (a gaggle of grim reapers) gather each time around the bodies of accident victims; “The Skeleton,” a classic of body-fear about a man whose terror of his own skeleton leads him to have it extracted by a quack doctor.

Bradbury once said he considered the H.G. Wellsian Fahrenheit 451— set in a grim futureworld in which decontextualized factoids have replaced real learning and book burners suppress dissenting ideas — to be his only according-to-Hoyle sci-fi novel. The story “All Summer in a Day” is set on Venus but is not about Venus; it’s about the cruelty that children, and humans, do to each other, as casually as turning a lock on a closet door. His short-story-anthology-as-makeshift-novel The Martian Chronicles had about as much to do with the actual planet Mars as George Méliès's A Trip to the Moon had to do with then-known facts of Earth’s only satellite; while the book has sometimes been described as a veiled look at Cold War–American anxieties or a metaphor for imperial chutzpah, it’s so focused on the fears, fantasies, and quixotic obsessions of its characters that it might as well have been set on Prospero’s island.

With their O. Henry–like neatness and socko endings, The Martian Chronicles and other Bradbury works set the template for The Twilight Zone — which Bradbury infrequently contributed to as well as for The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, Amazing Stories, and other sci-fi/horror anthology shows. (He also got his own series, Ray Bradbury Television Theater.) You can also feel his influence in the novel and film adaptations of Solaris, in Lost and Planet of the Apes and George Romero’s Dead pictures, and other allegorical sci-fi in which fantastic, scary landscapes become screens upon which the internal struggles of individuals and societies are projected. The third of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” powers a lot of Bradbury’s work. There is no substantive difference between the devices in Bradbury’s sci-fi tales and the spells and curses and prophecies that run through The Halloween Tree, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and other classics of fairy-tale horror. They’re all versions of cosmic forces, or the will of the storyteller: the witches prophesizing Macbeth’s downfall; Zeus stirring the wine-dark sea and sending Odysseus off-course. On Bradbury’s website, the author says that he owes his career to a 1932 meeting with a carnival magician named Mr. Electro, who “reached out to the 12-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, ‘Live forever!’”

And he will, thanks to the simplicity and directness of his storytelling. “I’m really alive!” thinks the narrator of Dandelion Wine. “I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember!” Bradbury’s fiction is anchored in a staunch innocence, a willed naiveté that’s anathema to “sophistication” but essential for suspending disbelief and jacking into childhood terror and wonder. His voice is the voice of a grandparent telling you a bedtime story in which magic and premonitions and curses are real. It’s the voice of a friend huddled with other friends under a blanket, shining a flashlight under his chin while he tells you the honest-to-God true story of that creepy old lady who lives in that house at the end of the block, and … Oh, what’s that noise? Did you hear something? It’s just the wind. Right??

Every Bradbury short story and every chapter of every Bradbury story starts with a poker-faced incantation. The story has begun … You are leaving your body and entering my mind … Listen … Surrender. From Something Wicked This Way Comes: “The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.” From “The Fog Horn”: “Out there upon the cold water, far from land, we waited every night for the coming of the fog, and it came, and we oiled up the brass machinery and lit the fog light up in the stone tower.” From “The April Witch”: “Into the air, over the valleys, under the stars, above a river, a pond, a road, flew Cecy.”  From “The Time of Going Away”: “The thought was three days and three nights growing. During the days he carried it like a ripening peach in his head. During the nights he let it take flesh and sustenance, hung out on the silent air, colored by country moon and country stars. He walked around and around the thought in the silence before dawn. On the fourth morning he reached up an invisible hand, picked it, and swallowed it whole.”

Once upon a time …

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images