Wednesday, 6 June 2012
The Late Great Ray Bradbury
Raymond Douglas Bradbury was born on 22 August 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. He was a direct descendent of Mary Perkins Bradbury, who was among those in Salem, Massachusetts who was tried, convicted, and hanged as a witch in 1700. Through Mary Bradbury he was also related to Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was one of Mary Perkins Bradbury's great great grandchildren). As a youngster he was a voracious reader. He read the works of the Brothers Grimm, L. Frank Baum's tales of Oz, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the works of Jules Verne, the works of H. G. Wells, and the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He would eventually discover such science fiction pulp magazines as Amazing Stories and comic strips such as Harold Foster's Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon. Even as a child he loved films. He saw Lon Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Mummy (1932), King Kong (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and many other classic films. He loved magic as a child and saw the Great Blackstone on stage.
It was during the Labour Day weekend of 1932 that young Ray Bradbury's life would change forever. That weekend he attended a carnival in Waukegan where he watched a stage show of a magician called Mr. Electrico. Mr. Electrico would sit in an electric chair with the current going throughout his body. At the end of the show he would raise a sword and knight each of the children there, the electricity still running through his body. As Mr. Electrico knighted young Mr. Bradbury, electricity ran through the sword and throughout Mr. Bradbury's body. As Mr. Electrico knighted young Ray Bradbury, he shouted, "Live forever!" The next day Ray Bradbury returned to the carnival to talk to Mr. Electrico. Mr. Electrico introduced him to others at the carnival--the Fat Lady, the Tattooed Man, the Skeleton Man, and the other people in the carnival's sideshows. Mr. Electrico and Ray Bradbury talked for some length about their various philosophies. It was the next day that his family moved to Tuscon, Arizona and not long afterwards that Ray Bradbury began writing full time. Not only would Ray Bradbury's experience with Mr. Electrico and the carnival lead to him taking up writing, but it would prove a source of inspiration for some of his most famous works, including the short story "The Black Ferris," the short story "The Illustrated Man (and the framing device of the book of the same name)," the novel Dandelion Wine, and the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.
It was in 1934 that Ray Bradbury's family moved to Los Angeles, California. It was there that Mr. Bradbury met fellow science fiction fan Forrest J. Ackerman. Mr. Ackerman invited Mr. Bradbury to the Los Angeles chapter of the Science Fiction League. It was through the Science Fiction League that he would meet and receive encouragement from such professional science fiction and fantasy writers as Robert A. Heinlen, Fredric Brown, and Jack Williamson. Among Ray Bradbury's friends involved in the Science Fiction League was future special effects legend Ray Harryhausen. During this period Ray Bradbury contributed to various fanzines. In 1939 he launched his own fanzine, Futuria Fantasia, which lasted for four issues. He would also contribute to the film magazine Script.
It was in 1941that Ray Bradbury made his first professional sale. The short story "Pendulum" was co-written with Henry Hasse and appeared in the November 1941 issue of Super Science Stories. It was by the end of 1942 that Mr. Bradbury had established himself as a full time writer. Ray Bradbury's earliest work was published in the various fantasy and science fiction pulp magazines of the day (Weird Tales, Astounding), but eventually he would become one of the first authors considered to be a science fiction writer (even if he actually was not) to be published in mainstream, mass circulation magazines. His story "One Timeless Spring" was published in the 13 April 1945 issue of Collier's. That same year a young editor at Mademoiselle named Truman Capote rescued Ray Bradbury's short story "The Homecoming" from a slush pile. The story was published in the October 1946 issue of Mademoiselle and won an O. Henry Award. Afterwards Ray Bradbury would be published in a number of mass circulation magazines, including Esquire, Good Housekeeping, McCall's, Maclean's, Playboy, The Saturday Evening Post, Seventeen, and many others. It was in 1947 that Ray Bradbury's first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival, would be published.
The year 1950 saw Ray Bradbury make another breakthrough. The Martian Chronicles collected many of Mr. Bradbury's fantasy stories about colonists on the planet Mars in a format that partly an anthology, partly a novel. The book found its way to the hands of novelist Christopher Isherwood, who announced Mr. Bradbury as "a very great and unusual talent." The Martian Chronicles would then prove to have mainstream success often denied many fantasy and science fiction books. Mr. Bradbury would follow the success of The Martian Chronicles with another book that was partly an anthology and partly a novel, The Illustrated Man, in 1951.
Ray Bradbury would see even more success with his first true novel, Fahrenheit 451, in 1953. The novel had its beginnings in the short story "Bright Phoenix," written in 1947, which Mr. Bradbury expanded into the novella "The Fireman," published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1951. He later expanded the novella into the novel Fahrenheit 451. The novel would prove to be one of Ray Bradbury's most successful and most lasting works. In 1966 it was adapted by Francois Truffaut as a motion picture starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. Ray Bradbury would follow the success of Fahrenheit 451 with nine more novels. Like The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine was partly an anthology and partly a novel. It drew heavily upon Mr. Bradbury's childhood in Waukegan, Illinois. What may be his most famous work besides Fahrenheit 451, also drew heavily upon his childhood in Waukegan. Alongside Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes is arguably Ray Bradbury's masterpiece and his most famous novel. A horror novel with elements of fantasy, Something Wicked This Way Comes dealt with such weighty material as adolescence, belief, fear, death, and the struggle between good and evil. The Readers' List of The Modern Library included Something Wicked This Way Comes among the 100 Best Novels. The novel was adapted as a film of the same name in 1983.
Ray Bradbury's other novels include The Halloween Tree (1972), Death Is a Lonely Business (1985), A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990), Green Shadows, White Whale (1992), From the Dust Returned (2001), Let's All Kill Constance (2002), and Farewell Summer (2006). During Mr. Bradbury's lifetime there were around forty anthologies of his works published.
As prolific as Ray Bradbury was, one would think he would have had no time to write anything but his short stories and novels. In fact, not only did many of Ray Bradbury's short stories and novels provide the basis for television show episodes and feature films, but he also wrote several screenplays and teleplays. Several of his short stories would be adapted for the radio shows Dimension X and later X Minus One. The first television adaptation of his work would be a 1951 adaptation of "Zero Hour" for the series Lights Out. Over the years Ray Bradbury's short stories would be adapted for such television shows as Suspense, Tales of Tomorrow, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone. In 1980 NBC aired a mini-series based on The Martian Chronicles. He would write original teleplays for such shows as Fireside Theatre, Steve Canyon, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone. From 1985 to 1992 Ray Bradbury hosted Ray Bradbury Theatre, an anthology series based on his many short stories. Not only did Mr. Bradbury host the series, but he also wrote many of the teleplays.
Over the years several motion pictures would be based on the works of Ray Bradbury, including The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953--inspired by the story "The Fog Horn"), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), The Picasso Summer (1969--based on the story of the same name), The Illustrated Man (1969), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), Quest (1984--based on the story "Frost and Fire"), The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998), A Sound of Thunder (2005), and Chrysalis (2008). Ray Bradbury would also work on original screenplays for Hollywood, including It Came From Outer Space (1953), Moby Dick (1956), King of Kings (1961), the animated short "Icarus Montgolfier Wright" (1962), and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989). New adaptations of Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Dandelion Wine are currently in pre-production.
I have been a fan of Ray Bradbury's work since childhood. When I was young I went through a period during which I read a good deal of science fiction. It was during this period that I discovered Ray Bradbury's short stories and novels. While I soon discovered that most science fiction novels were not to my tastes and stopped reading many of the writers I read during that period, I never abandoned Ray Bradbury. Of course, much of this is perhaps because Ray Bradbury was not actually a science fiction writer, despite what numerous obituaries in the mainstream media proclaimed today. Ray Bradbury himself once stated, "First of all, I don't write science fiction," he said. "I've only done one science-fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see?" Ray Bradbury was much more a fantasist than he ever was a science fiction writer. He did not concern himself with technology, gadgetry, and what could happen. Instead Mr. Bradbury wrote about the human spirit, whether what he was writing was possible or not.
Of course, even referring to Ray Bradbury by as broad a term as "fantasist" does not seem quite right. The simple fact is that in many respects Mr. Bradbury transcended genre classification. This can be seen in his most famous works. Fahrenheit 451 was obviously science fiction. The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine were fantasies. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a horror novel (the greatest horror novel ever written, in my humble opinion). While the vast majority of Ray Bradbury's short stories and novels contained fantastic elements of some sort, those short stories and novels could be considered as belonging to a wide variety of genres. His short story "The Jar" could be considered both a suspense story and a horror story. His short story “The Very Gentle Murders" is a piece of black comedy. His novels Death Is a Lonely Business, A Graveyard for Lunatics, and Let's Kill Constance are all mysteries. Not only did Ray Bradbury work in several genres, but arguably most of his works can be considered to belong to more than one genre. Although widely considered a horror novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes contains a good deal of fantasy. The Halloween Tree is more or less a fantasy novel, but one with touches of horror. In some ways, I suppose Ray Bradbury could be considered a genre all his own.
Indeed, Ray Bradbury could in many ways be considered as creating his very own genre, one in which American small town life is blended with the fantastic. While it is true that many of H. P. Lovecraft's works are set in small towns (Innsmouth, Dunwich), Mr. Lovecraft's small towns were creepy, New England villages that hardly seem typical of American small towns. In contrast, the small towns of Ray Bradbury's short stories and novels could have come straight from a Norman Rockwell painting. They were comforting and familiar in the way that Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show is, the sort of quiet hamlets one can find anywhere in the Midwest or South. Of course, the difference between Ray Bradbury's Green Town, Illinois and Mayberry, North Carolina is that in Mayberry one would not expect to one of its inhabitants to build a Happiness Machine or for the visiting carnival to contain evil incarnate. Ray Bradbury blended the familiarity and comfort of American small town life with fantastic elements that was all too convincing. In doing so he would prove to be an influence on Stephen King (who in his book Danse Macabre stated, "My first experience of real horror came at the hands of Ray Bradbury."), Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, and many others.
In fact, Ray Bradbury's influence on Anglophonic pop culture is so great that it cannot ever be adequately estimated. The concept of the "butterfly effect (in which a small change in one place may cause greater changes elsewhere)" was dealt with first in Ray Bradbury's short story "The Sound of Thunder" in 1952. In that story the killing of a mere butterfly by a time traveller at the time of the dinosaurs results in subtle changes in the present. Ray Bradbury's most famous novels would not only prove to have a lasting influence not only on literature and film, but even on music. The novel Something Wicked This Way Comes inspired the songs "Cooger and Dark" by Mandrake Paddle Steamer, "The Dark Ride" by Helloween, "Something Wicked (that way went)" by Vernian Process, and "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Wednesday 13. The concept albums Imaginaerum by Nightwish, Carnival of Lost Souls by Nox Arcana, and The Last Temptation by Alice Cooper were also inspired by the novel. The album Pandemonium Shadow Show by Harry Nilsson took its title from the carnival in the novel. Something Wicked This Way Comes is mentioned in Stephen King's novel The Dead Zone. Something Wicked This Way Comes also provided the basis for two radio dramas. The novel was also spoofed on South Park and Tiny Toon Adventures.
Fahrenheit 451 would also have a huge impact on Anglophonic pop culture. The novel would be referenced in television shows ranging from The Simpsons to Lost. It would also be referenced in several movies (including Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, the title of which did not please Mr. Bradbury) and possibly inspire others (including Equlibrium from 2002 and The Island from 2005). Fahrenheit 451 is quoted at the beginning of Stephen King's Firestarter. Andrew Fox's novel The Good Humour Man was an homage to Fahrenheit 451. Robert Calvert entitled a collection of poems (and later an album of poems as well)
Centigrade 232--a reference to Fahrenheit 451 (232 degrees Celsius equals 451 degrees Fahrenheit). In the poem "Learn by Heart This Poem of Mine," Hungarian poet György Faludy references Fahrenheit 451. Like Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451 would also inspire music. Heavy metal band Steel Prophet's album Dark Hallucinations contains a suite of songs based on the novel. The Hawkwind album Choose Your Masques featured a song entitled "Fahrenheit 451."
Beyond Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury would yet other influences upon pop culture. The short story "The Rocket Man" may have inspired two songs: "Rocket Man" by Elton John and "The Rocket Man" by Pearls Before Swine. The Apollo 15 astronauts named a crater on the moon "Dandelion Crater" after Ray Bradbury's novel Dandelion Wine. Rush's song "The Body Electric" appears to have been inspired by Ray Bradbury's short story "I Sing the Body Electric."
As to why Ray Bradbury had such an impact on pop culture, the reasons are perhaps manifold. There can be no doubt that as a writer, Mr. Bradbury was a great stylist. His prose was lyrical in nature, very nearly approaching poetry at times. At the same time his style was very economical. In but a few words he could describe things so that a reader could actually visualise them. At no point in his career was Ray Bradbury ever dry or boring.
While Ray Bradbury was a great stylist, his words also had weight to them. Ray Bradbury dealt with far more weighty issue than many of his contemporary fantasy writers or the science fiction writers with whom he was often grouped. In Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury dealt with book burning, the dehumanising qualities of technology, and the superiority of knowledge over ignorance. In Something Wicked This Way Comes Mr. Bradbury dealt with childhood and adulthood, belief and fear, life and death, and the struggle between good and evil. Essentially being a collection of interrelated short stories, The Martian Chronicles touched upon a number of themes: ecology, xenophobia, racism, nuclear annihilation, dealing with one's past, and government bureaucracy. Throughout all of Ray Bradbury's works runs the theme of nostalgia for simpler times, a theme owing a good deal to Mr. Bradbury's fond memories of Waukegan, Illinois.
While Ray Bradbury often dealt with some very heavy subjects in his books and short stories, his works were always character driven. This is particularly true of what I consider his greatest work, the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Will Holloway is in many ways a typical American boy of the early 20th Century, obedient but at the same time possessing a desire for adventure. His father Charles Holloway is a middle aged library custodian who is somewhat dissatisfied with his life and wishes he was closer to his son. The father and son's relationship is as central to the novel as their struggle against the evil Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show. Mr. Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 is also very much a character driven novel. Guy Montag, the fireman who begins to question the hedonistic society in which he lives, stands out as one of the great tragic heroes of mid-20th Century literature.
A great stylist who dealt with important issues and created memorable characters, it should perhaps be no surprise that Ray Bradbury should prove to be so popular. Indeed, as I stated earlier, his total impact on popular culture is impossible to adequately gauge. He is to American literature what The Beatles are to music, Lucille Ball to television, or Sir Alfred Hitchcock to film--an artist whose contributions to his medium of choice are so great that it is impossible to know how far they actually extend.
As to myself, Ray Bradbury may have had more impact than all but a few other writers (Lester Dent, Charles Dickens, and Emily Bronte). It was the magician Mr. Electrico who inspired Ray Bradbury to be a writer. Ray Bradbury in turn inspired many of the rest of us to become writers. That having been said, Ray Bradbury's impact on me did not end with being one of the people who inspired me to become a writer. In many ways Ray Bradbury's novels and short stories taught me to be a better person. Particularly through the novels Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury taught me that human selfishness is a source of not only evil ,but unhappiness, and that in the end it is better to think of others and to take pleasure in the little things in life. Ray Bradbury taught me that human relationships matter more than youth, beauty, wealth, or anything else. Quite simply, I think Ray Bradbury made me a better person. I rather suspect that I am not alone in this and this is the reason so many of us are mourning him so.
Indeed, it would seem that Mr. Electrico was right when he touched young Ray Bradbury's shoulder with his electrified sword and told him to "Live forever." Even if one does not believe in an afterlife, it is arguable that Ray Bradbury will live forever. He has left behind an oeuvre of short stories and novels that people will still be reading centuries. He will never be forgotten.