Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Memory of Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)


Ray circa early 1950s
It seemed as though he would live forever. He was a giant among giants and nobody ever expects the giant to fall. This morning he did fall after 91 years. My wife called me and told me the news. She said she wanted to cry. All day people have been sending me messages with their thoughts on the loss of Bradbury. The world doesn't look the same today. It's a little dimmer. That's how important Ray Bradbury is.

Illustration for "The Veldt" by Leo and Diane Dillon
I can remember the first time I read a Ray Bradbury story. The story was "The Veldt" and I was seven years old and it hit me like a slap to the face. This was the type of story I had been waiting for, the perfect fusion of science fiction and horror, of fantasy and reality. I had already gone through most of Poe's good stuff and I thought that was the end of that. There couldn't possibly be any other writer that could shake me around and chill me and thrill me like that. Boy, was I wrong. I can't quite remember what book I found it in but I'll never forget the impact the story had on me then and still has on me now. It was that moment, I'm sure of it, that I realized I wanted to be a writer. All of Ray's work is like that. It wasn't writing meant simply to pass the time, though it could certainly serve that purpose. No, Ray's work was what Theodore Sturgeon called "wisdom fiction." It not only made you think but, more importantly, it made you see the world in a different way, a more colorful way, for the darkness that Ray illuminated was filled with color. The wonderful burnt orange of the autumn sky, the fire red visions of Mars, the kaleidoscopic lights of the ferris wheel. For those of us with unfocused yet overactive imaginations, Ray roped us in and said "Look at this!" He took us into mirrored funhouses and onto the surface of Mars, into long ancient Egyptian tombs and among the dandelions in the fields of eternal summer in Green Town, Illinois. You just don't forget that work. How could you? His stories became memory for his readers. Ray was so good that he could fool a reader into remembering something that never happened.  

His were the perfect books for me in my formative years because they were so infused with energy and imagination. In his early days Ray wrote deliciously dark fantasy stories and I relished stories like "The Small Assassin" and "The Crowd" and "The Halloween Game" and "The Handler" and "Mars is Heaven" and "The Black Ferris." I was awed by his ability to tap right into what I loved about horror fiction and science ficiton, how he fused the two and blurred the lines that so many writers and readers love to draw separating the various forms of "speculative fiction." I wanted to do what Ray did when I grew up. His was such a unique vision and he was, of course, a famous writer who lived a thousand miles away from me and yet his books were like carrying your best friend around in your pocket, a friend that always knew exactly the kinds of stories you loved to hear.

When I discovered E.C. Comics soon after those first few Bradbury encounters I was overjoyed to discover that my favorite comics had adapted a generous number of my favorite writer's stories into comic form. I mailed off to Russ Cochran, who at the time was reprinting the entire E.C. line in single issue form, and paid my money to amass a near complete collection of the adaptations of Ray's stories. I found used copies of The Autumn People and Tomorrow Midnight, the Ballantine reprints with the wonderful Frank Frazetta covers. I loved how Ray could move from horror to crime to science fiction to fantasy and never skip a beat, never lose that unmistakable and irresitable narrative voice of his that could pull you in so easily. There are very few writers (I can probably count them on one hand) of whose work I can never tire. King. Ellison. Beaumont. Matheson. Bloch. Gaiman. Maybe a few more. But Ray stands above them all and I don't think any of the other gentlemen would say otherwise. Thankfully, there are still stories of Ray's that I have not read. I'm going to take my time getting to them. Though I can reread the best of Ray's stories a seemingly endless amount of times, there's nothing like the prospect of sitting down with a new Bradbury story and I don't ever want to be left empty of them.

As I grew older I haunted bookstores and libraries always searching for more Bradbury. I picked up scores of paperback science fiction anthologies because Ray's name was on the cover or Ray had a story inside. From those books I found other science fiction writers I have grown to love and whose works I have come to cherish. Sturgeon. Leiber. Kuttner. Fredric Brown. John Collier. Asimov. Heinlein. Pohl. Bester. It seems like the list is endless of writers I discovered and can trace that discovery back to Ray. Finding a new Bradbury book (there could never be enough) in a secondhand bookstore would improve my mood for the rest of day. As my collection of Ray's books grew, I started filling in the holes of the collection on the secondhand market that grew up around the internet. Suddenly, I could get any Bradbury book I wanted, no matter how rare or expensive. Though I still haven't to this day managed to acquire a copy of Dark Carnvial, Ray's first book from that veritable publisher Arkham House and the Holy Grail for collectors of Ray's work, I still often buy a new book of Ray's anytime I can spare the money. I eagerly await for it to arrive in the mail and I read it, sometimes in one sitting for Ray's work can read quickly, that is not to say anything of the complexity and intelligence of vision that rereadings will reveal, and then place it in on the shelf with the other Bradbury books. The last one I picked up was a collection of Ray's work adapted into comic form by some of the greatest names in comics. It's a Del Rey paperback and I found it at a library book sale. It was, as finding a new Bradbury book always is, an unexpected and delightful surprise. It is a book I'll never give away or get rid of. I do hope that I will never collect all of Ray's books, though. I hope there is always one more to add to the shelf.

There were exactly two books that were required reading in my school days that I considered a treat, works that had somehow slipped through the cracks of the usual dry works that they forced upon us. The first was Lord of the Flies by William Golding. The second was Fahrenheit 451. I was, of course, already an avid Bradbury reader and I envied those other kids that hadn't read his work before. The discovery of Ray was a wonderful thing and for many of my classmates it was the first time they had consciously realized the work of this highly influential writer. Whereas the teacher would, when building a discussion around other books, almost always have to push and pull and push and pull to get any kind of lively discussion going among the class, Ray's work shot off like fireworks and there suddenly seemed not enough time in the world to say everything we wanted to say about his wonderful books. That's Ray's magic.

Ray's impact on American popular culture is overwhelming and I won't attempt to gauge it here. Those of you that love programs like The Twilight Zone and writers like Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson know well what Ray has given, and given so well and so often. He mentored some of the biggest names in speculative fiction to emerge post WWII. He was best friends with Ray Harryhausen and it boggles the mind to consider the imaginative thrust those two gentlemen have had on generations of writers, readers, filmmakers, and fans.

When Ray got around, in the early 1950s, to writing his masterpieces, he was already revered among science fiction fans. A run down of what he would go on to produce is staggering. The titles alone speak for themselves, conjuring up indelible images of eternal childhood and far space, of Mars and dark ravines and carnival lights under midnight skies, of Halloween pumpkin spice and dinosaurs and fog horns and Moby Dick.

The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, The Golden Apples of the Sun, The October Country, The Halloween Tree, I Sing the Body Electric. . .

For me personally, the book was The October Country. I discovered it young, led to it by E.C. Comics and Ray's scattered stories thoughout anthologies. I read it compulsively, over and over. "The Jar," "The Crowd," "Skeleton," "The Dwarf," "The Wind," "The Lake," "The Small Assassin," "Homecoming," "Touched With Fire." It was as though that book had been written especially for me. It was Ray's secret stories told to me over many nights and I always asked for more, more, more. When I grew older I pushed the book upon my friends and told them they must read these stories and they did read them and they loved the stories as I loved the stories. We still talk about them today, remembering our first readings of them, our envy over Ray's amazing talent and knowing that we could write a million stories over a hundred years and we'll still never write anything as good as "A Sound of Thunder" or "The Fog Horn" or "The Emissary." But we will try because Ray could inspire like no other writer could. He was full of boyish energy and enthusiasm, living proof that strong will and an uncompromising allegiance to oneself can conquer all.

I'm sure that there will be a lot of interest in the near future in Ray's work because of his death but it should go well beyond that. Ray is timeless and so are his books. He left so much behind and we should all be very thankful for that. Check out his episodes on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Or his long running cable show Ray Bradbury Theater. It seems impossible that anyone reading this hasn't already read Ray's work and probably a lot of it. Though he only contributing one episode to the show, suffice to say that without Ray Bradbury there would be no Twilight Zone at all. I don't think Rod Serling would disagree with that were the statement put to him. And though there has been written of animosity between the two men I don't believe anything other than Ray and Rod had the utmost respect for one another.

Live forever!
If it's been a while since you've read Ray's work, do yourself a favor and go back to it, to any of it. It is all of the highest quality, the ability and enthusiasm didn't wane or waver. It held steady from first to last. I sincerely hope that we haven't seen the last book of new Bradbury stories. Ray was a magician and I imagine that he left a few tricks behind that have yet to be revealed. May there be many more! Click here to visit Ray's official site.

---Jordan Prejean

P.S.- Here are some Ray Bradbury related links:
Tor.com's tribute to Bradbury inspired illustration
Author Neil Gaiman's moving tribute
Bradbury resource site

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful and heartfelt tribute to a great writer. He will be missed.

    ReplyDelete