Ray Bradbury kept his muse close to him and in return he was blessed with the gift of words. Few writers have treated their muse so well and reaped such a harvest. He took us to Mars and all the way back home to Green Town, Illinois. He revealed to us a deep sea monster and the meaning of love on a night when the sound of a foghorn filled the sky. He told us a story about Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show and October would never be the same again. He tumbled words into a cup for us and I, for one, drank deep and tasted the pungent dandelions and felt the sweet breath of summer all at once.
From Bradbury I learned history is important and that good things could happen if people only tried. It was the way he loved words and let them play across the page until they jostled awake and peeked out from beneath sleepy lashes to ask “What magical things will we discover today?”
I met him but once, on a stormy night in Chicago in 1996. I made the long walk from the train station to the bookstore with the cold rain pelting my face. I pushed out of the rain and rushed impatiently into the bookstore having made the journey to secure an autographed copy of Quicker than the Eye. I waited in line with two hundred other ecstatic readers. When my moment arrived I thanked Ray for our sporadic correspondence. He was gracious, warm-hearted and kind to us all.
Bradbury is too often referred to as a “science fiction” writer. The label does him an injustice. What Ray Bradbury produced during his lifetime is Literature. Genre labels are nothing more than a convenience that detracts from the essence of storytelling. In his introduction to An Illustrated Life he stated: “I am, in essence, a nineteenth century writer. Consider the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, or Mark Twain. Not since their time have there been many writers who illustrate their concepts with such unforgettable images. I’m lucky to have been raised on these writers.”
Bradbury’s work is populated by the ghosts of his past. In one of the letters I received from him he recalled with fondness his father’s love for golf: “I used to caddy for him when I was a kid. When he retired, he played golf almost every day of his life. I still have his favorite driver put aside in my office!”
There is no limit to Bradbury’s depth of insight into the human experience. What few words I write here can never do justice to his contribution to literature. Certain of his book and stories are mandatory reading assignments in most schools, as well they should be. Like so many others I discovered him in High School with R is for Rocket, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles and I have been a fan ever since. He had a profound and lasting influence on my life as a reader and a writer, a common theme among the tributes from writers that began immediately upon learning he had passed away on June 5th at the age of 91.
Some years back when thumbing through some old paperbacks I came across a story of his titled Doodad in a paperback edited by Roger Elwood and Sam Moskowitz, Alien Earth and Other Stories (Macfadden-Bartell, 1969). This was Doodad’s only reprint appearance so I wrote Ray and asked him about it. His reply came in less than week. “Thank you for your kind letter about Doodad, which is one of my lost stories. I’m going to bring it up when I make a new collection and if my editors agree, it will go in. I’d almost forgotten about it and I deeply appreciate your mentioning it to me.” Remarkably, Doodad has yet to be reprinted and its absence remains an anomaly in his long career. I am grateful now that I helped him rediscover one of his lost classics, but I’m wondering why it hasn’t resurfaced. Perhaps one day his publisher will see fit to finally include it in a collection.
Another of my favorites was an early story called The Candy Skull and in the last letter I received from him he said: “My recollection of The Candy Skull, if I’m correct, is that it was fairly good. Most of my early Dime Mystery and Detective stories were done when I was much too young and I hadn’t yet learned completely how to be a short story writer.” As it turns out, The Candy Skull has been reprinted several times but Ray was a tad hard on himself and declined to include it in either The Stories of Ray Bradbury (2001) or its seminal follow-up, Stories: One Hundred of His Most Celebrated Tales (2003).
What I remember most about meeting Ray that one, precious time was his infinite patience in answering questions. I recall that he told me he still had hopes for yet another – a definitive - film version of Fahrenheit 451. And I recall that a few hours later as I walked the nearly deserted rain-swept length of Michigan Avenue very late that night I felt energized by having been in his presence, and the cold stinging rain bothered me not at all. Now Ray Bradbury is gone but I refuse to feel empty because his life and his work have enriched us all. I prefer to celebrate his life rather than mourn his passing. We are lucky to have had him among us. Great writers are immortal and Ray Bradbury will live forever in books.
Photographs of Ray Bradbury by Thomas McNulty copyright © 2012
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