The Bradbury Chronicles
Ray Bradbury died a couple weeks ago, at the age of 91. That’s ironic, because he was still just a kid. There are many writers who helped shape my world view; Steinbeck, Twain, Vonnegut, to name a few. But it was Ray Bradbury who opened me to wonder and magic as a very real part of it all. This isn’t another biography, but an examination of his work and ideas. He was classified as a science fiction writer, but that’s not entirely accurate. He wrote about people and human nature, but his stories always had a dark edge, a degree of strangeness to them. We humans are a species who tells and listens to stories. When we watch TV, whether it’s a movie, reality show, documentary, or what passes as news these days, we are listening to stories. Since the development of language our most valuable cultural assets have been storytellers, and Bradbury was a master of the form.
As I think back to my youth, it was my brother who introduced Bradbury to me. He’d left home when I was five, and we didn’t see much of him. One day, years later, a box arrived, addressed to me. It was full of books, and one of the first I remember reading was The Illustrated Man. It was about a man whose body was covered with tattoos, and each had a story to it. I was hooked from the start. His first published book, in 1950, was The Martian Chronicles, still my favorite of his. It retells the colonization of the American West and the genocide of the native peoples, but each chapter also stands alone as a short story. It’s a brilliant opus.
Probably his best-known book is Fahrenheit 451 (1953), about a dystopian future in which firemen start fires, rather than putting them out. The title comes from the temperature at which paper ignites. He insisted that it wasn’t about censorship as much as the power of the new medium of television to control knowledge. He was disappointed with the film version, and always wanted to have it remade.
His success brought him to the attention of noted film director John Huston, who was about to film the classic “Moby Dick.” He hired the young Bradbury to write the screenplay, and they spent six months shooting on location in Ireland. Bradbury tells horror stories of how “mercilessly cruel” Huston was to him, bullying and playing practical jokes on him. (He eventually wrote a book about the experience, Green Shadows, White Whale, which is probably a pun on a film about Huston, “White Hunter, Black Heart”). It gave him nightmares for years, but he eventually got his revenge in 1986, when he was producing a TV anthology series, “The Ray Bradbury Theater.” In an episode called “Banshee,” a young American writer is visiting a famous film director at a remote manor in Ireland. The director was played by Peter O’Toole. The young writer tells of a mysterious young woman he met in the woods, and O’Toole tells him she’s a banshee, an Irish spirit who foretells a person’s death, and dares him to go back out and meet her. He does, and she cautions him, “You’ll catch your death out here.” But it’s not the young writer she came for, it’s the other one, the one back in the house. He had wronged her in a previous life. Dare HIM to come out here and meet me, she says. Huston died the following year.
There’s that haunting, creepy quality I liked so much. I was haunted (in a good way) for years by one of his stories, “The Jar,” which was adapted for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and was retitled “The Thing in the Jar.” A few years ago I read that story to a group of friends on Halloween. If you’ve never read anything by Bradbury, I think I can give you an idea of what you’ve been missing. There’s a small island in Japan called Hashima. In 1887 coal was discovered there, and Mitsubishi bought the island in 1890 and began mining. Over the decades it became a factory city that had a population of over 5000. In the 1970s the coal ran out, and the population was evacuated, but thousands of pet parrots escaped, or were set loose, and still live there. Some of them have vocabularies of over a hundred words. So think about this abandoned island, with all those parrots still mouthing human words and phrases. That’s just like a Bradbury story.
He was an original, and quite a character. He likes to tell about a cocktail party he attended in the mid-1960s, when America’s space program was striving to achieve Kennedy’s dream of going to the moon. He met several people at the party who scoffed at the idea that we’d ever get there. He carefully got their names and phone numbers, and on July 20th, 1969, as the first men were walking on the moon, he called each of the numbers. When someone answered, he simply said, “Stupid son of a bitch!” and hung up. I remember seeing him interviewed many years ago, and one thing he said really stayed with me. He said if you can’t get up in the morning and be really enthused about what you’re going to do that day, he recommends suicide. He was highly opinionated, stubborn, and was accused of being sexist, but he didn’t care what people thought of him. If I could have met him, I’m not sure if I’d like him or not, and I didn’t agree with many of his political positions, but I think we had much more in common. Besides, we should be careful not to confuse the artist with the art, as they are separate things. (No better example can be found than John Huston. A beast towards women, and by all accounts pretty much of a cad, Huston directed some of the greatest films of all time, among them “The African Queen,” “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” & “The Maltese Falcon”).
He detested political correctness and hypocrisy. He was always a big kid, and his house is full of toys. Mine would be too, except I’m on a severely limited income. Our real common ground was our shared obsession with the planet Mars. I’ve been in love with it since I was in 4th grade, and I often joke about it being my native planet. Bradbury frequently said he wanted to be buried there, even though he refused to even fly for forty years, and never drove a car in his life. But his writing helped elevate science fiction into respectability by the questions he asked — or more properly, the questions he caused his readers to ask themselves. I hope that when we finally get to Mars, someone remembers to bring an urn of his ashes to scatter around.