Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Short Story Writer, Novelist, Essayist, Poet, Playwright, Screenwriter, Public Speaker, Television Host
Born August 22, 1920, Waukegan, Illinois
Died June 5, 2012, Los Angeles, California

Ray Bradbury has died and the universe has lost one of its great literary voices. The reach and influence of his work are incalculably large. His was the voice of a poet, a nostalgist, and stylist in genres too often cold, mechanistic, and marred by hackwork. Everyone who has read and admired his work remembers a first encounter with fondness and nostalgia, whether it was in the pages of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, R Is for Rocket, or one of his other hundreds of works. For me, early in life, the book was Dandelion Wine, a wistful remembrance and evocation of magical youth. Later, I was touched by the story "Powerhouse" (1948), reprinted in The Golden Apples of the Sun.

If the Golden Age of Science fiction is twelve, then Bradbury lived a Golden Age his entire life. "The great thing about my life," he said in 1982, "is that everything I've done is a result of what I was when I was 12 or 13." He claimed to have remembered his own birth. If that is true, it would have been only the first sign of an astonishing prodigy. Like so many contributors to Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, he was an early reader and admirer of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. He began writing at age twelve and wrote every day for at least the next sixty-nine years. As a child, Bradbury so admired Burroughs' Warlord of Mars (1919) that he wrote his own sequel.

Bradbury grew up in Los Angeles and made friends with others in the bustling science fiction scene of the 1930s. They included Forrest J Ackerman, Robert A. Heinlein, Emil Petaja, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, Jack Williamson, Hannes Bok, and Ray Harryhausen, most of whom contributed to Weird Tales. Bradbury's first story was published in a fanzine when he was a stripling of seventeen. The following year he began producing his own fanzine, called Futuria Fantasia. His first sale to a professional magazine was a story, written with Henry Hasse, entitled "Pendulum" and published in Super Science Stories in November 1941. His self-proclaimed first success was "The Lake" for Weird Tales, published in May 1944. In his book Zen in the Art of Writing (1990), Bradbury recounted the genesis of his story:
All during my twentieth and twenty-first years, I circled around summer noons and October midnights, sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark seasons must be something that was really me.
I finally found it one afternoon when I was twenty-two years old. I wrote the title "The Lake" on the first page of a story that finished itself two hours later. Two hours after that I was sitting at my typewriter out on a porch in the sun, with tears running off the tip of my nose, and the hair on my neck standing up.
Why the arousal of hair and the dripping nose?
I realized I had at last written a really fine story. The first, in ten years of writing. And not only was it a fine story, but it was some sort of hybrid, something verging on the new. Not a traditional ghost story at all, but a story about love, time, remembrance, and drowning.
"The Lake" was not Ray Bradbury's first story for Weird Tales, but it was in his words the story that "got various editors of other magazines to sit up and notice the guy with the aroused hair and the wet nose." In short order, Bradbury's work began appearing in slick magazines, his first book--Dark Carnival (1947)--was published, and he began seeing his stories adapted to comic books, television, radio, and the silver screen. Some of those adaptations were his own, as was the screenplay (with John Huston) for the film Moby Dick (1956).

I won't go into the details of Ray Bradbury's life and career. Those are well known and as I write this well documented on the Internet. Instead I'll close with three things: First, a writer for Wikipedia observed that Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday night, June 5, 2012, during a rare transit of Venus across the face of the sun. It would appear that even the physical universe noticed his passing. Second: there's an old saying: "When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground." Ray Bradbury labored his whole life to build libraries and--with his book Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and other warnings--to keep them from burning. Although he has died and ninety-one years of extraordinary experience have passed out of the world, Bradbury's love of books lives on, as does his large body of work. Finally, when he was twelve years old, Ray Bradbury encountered a carnival performer named Mr. Electrico who touched him on the nose with an electrified sword and commanded him, "Live forever!" As it happened a decade later when he wrote "The Lake," Bradbury's hair stood on end. The charge from that electrified sword was more than a mere physical phenomenon however. From that day forward, Ray Bradbury wrote. And because of his writing, he will indeed live forever. 

Ray Bradbury's Stories in Weird Tales
"The Candle" (Nov. 1942)
"The Wind" (Mar. 1943)
"The Crowd" (May 1943)
"The Scythe" (July 1943)
"The Ducker" (Nov. 1943)
"The Sea Shell" (Jan. 1944)
"Reunion" (Mar. 1944)
"The Lake" (May 1944)
"There Was an Old Woman" (July 1944)
"Bang! You're Dead!" (Sept. 1944)
"The Jar" (Nov. 1944)
"The Poems" (Jan. 1945)
"The Tombstone" (Mar. 1945)
"The Watchers" (May 1945; reprinted Summer 1973)
"The Dead Man" (July 1945)
"Skeleton" (Sept. 1945)
"The Traveller" (Mar. 1946)
"The Smiling People" (May 1946; reprinted Fall 1973)
"The Night" (July 1946)
"Let's Play 'Poison' " (Nov. 1946)
"The Handler" (Jan. 1947)
"Interim" (July 1947)
"The October Game" (Mar. 1948)
"Black Ferris" (May 1948)
"Fever Dream" (Sept. 1948)
"There Are No Ghosts in Catholic Spain" (Summer 1983)

Ray Bradbury's Letters to "The Eyrie"
Nov. 1939 
Mar. 1940 
Nov. 1943 
Jan. 1945 

Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 described a dystopian future and served as a warning against those who would destroy culture and civilization by destroying books. Some sources refer to Fahrenheit 451 against the backdrop of the Cold War. I think those sources have gotten it wrong. Fahrenheit 451 has transcended its time and may be more relevant now than it was six decades ago when first published. In any case, the cover illustration for this edition of the book is fitting. Burning books is equivalent to burning the man, who is clothed in leaves from a book as a knight (even a Quixotic knight) is clothed in armor. He shields his face, perhaps not so much against the heat as in grief over what has befallen him and his society. As the light from the fire fades, darkness will encroach, and that will be the end.

Ray Bradbury lived a life devoted to the written word. May books and the work of Ray Bradbury never die.

(Cover art by Joe Mugnaini.)

Though Monarch Worm devours our heart,
With Yorick's mouth cry, "Thanks!" to Art.
--"We Have Our Arts So We Don't Die of Truth"
by Ray Bradbury

Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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