Last Tuesday, one of the most prolific and talented writers of speculative fiction died at the age of 91. That writer was Ray Bradbury. I call him an author of speculative fiction because his work can’t be defined strictly along the lines of sci-fi or fantasy or horror or mystery. A lot of the time, his work is very like sci-fi. There are spaceships and aliens and other worlds…but there’s something different. Something almost…dreamlike, something vaguely Gaiman-esque about his tales. Even though he predates Neil Gaiman, they share similar dream-states in their writing where things aren’t always what they seem and never what you would expect.
About a year ago, I was reading a book called Dwellers in the Mirage by A. Merritt and I told a friend:
“For some reason, books from the 1940s and 50s, the ones with the cheap, thin card-like covers and aged-tan pages and that tiny font that looks like Times New Roman but somehow subtly isn’t…they always give me a feeling of dreamlike detachment, like the book is a hallucination, or a flock of cleverly disguised birds about to fly away.”
The book responsible for this impression is my dad’s 1953 copy of Fahrenheit 451. I don’t remember if this was the first Ray Bradbury book I ever read, or if it was just the first one I can remember reading. I know there was a copy of The Martian Chronicles in the house that I read around the same time, but I suppose it doesn’t matter which came first. I think I read Fahrenheit 451 when I was 9 or 10, years before I ended up reading it in middle school for English class. I’ll admit that, at the time, I didn’t understand a lot of the subtly and finesse of the book, but I got the basic idea. Fahrenheit 451 sparked my distrust of authority, public institutions, and the government. The idea that a government would outlaw books and then burn those books along with anyone possessing them terrified me. The idea of outlawing reading was unthinkable! It also sparked my sometimes uncontrollable desire to hoard books, especially old ones, because you never know when they might just “disappear” from record. I am fanatical about having hard copies of everything, thanks to Fahrenheit 451. I still have the same copy I read all those years ago, and every now and then, I’ll flip through the pages and experience the wonder and fear again, as a reminder of the importance of the tangible.
The Martian Chronicles was my first experience with a collection of short stories. I remember being confused when I first read it that each “chapter” had a different set of characters, a different presentation of the planet Mars. I was confused, but intrigued and decided to keep reading. When I finished the book, I finally figured out that it wasn’t a continuous story, but a collection of stories placed in one book. That was the first time I realized that a book could have more than one story in it. (Childhood collections of fairytales and bedtime stories didn’t count because those were for children. The Martian Chronicles was a book for grown-ups!) I’d heard of “short stories” before, but “anthology” was a new format for me. I understood only a few of the stories, but some of them were very beautiful while others left me with a cold chill and a deep fear of hypnosis. (“The Third Expedition/Mars Is Heaven” and “The Earth Men” are good examples of the latter. “Ylla” was very beautiful, but it also made me sad.)
Eventually, I even learned that I didn’t have to read the book from beginning to end either. If there was a short story I liked, I could just flip to that page and read just that section without messing up the story. I didn’t learn this until 6th grade when I was a shelver in my middle school library. While there, I found three more collections of Ray Bradbury stories: Golden Apples of the Sun, R is for Rocket, and The Illustrated Man. I especially liked Golden Apples of the Sun because of the higher fantasy element in many of the stories, such as “The Fog Horn,” “The April Witch,” and “The Golden Kite, The Silver Wind.” One called “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” reminded me a lot of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and was the first horror story of Bradbury’s that I remember reading. A lot of his tales do have elements of horror in them, not the gruesome kind of horror, but the chilling, spider-crawling-down-your-spine psychological kind of horror. (Which I prefer anyway, and I honestly think it takes more skill to execute well. Anyone can write a lot of blood. Psychological horror is difficult.)
The Illustrated Man holds a lot more horror and sorrow in it. At least, that is the overall impression I’ve retained over the years. “The Long Rain” has a…”happy” ending, I suppose, but it’s a horror story. The strongest image I keep from that is of a man standing in the rain with his head back, allowing himself to drown. “The Veldt” is a chilling tale of brutality where illusion and reality overlap, and is one of Bradbury’s most famous short stories. “Kaleidoscope” chronicles the last hours of men falling to Earth after their rocket explodes, the last things they talk about before burning up in the atmosphere. These are not happy stories, for the most part, but they do have an eerie kind of beauty to them in the way they are written. There is something about his use of words that detaches you from your own life and….doesn’t quite “immerse” you into this new realm, but it does….attach you to it. It’s a mixture of humanity and alien identity and poetry and philosophy all wrapped up into one. I’ve never read anything that reads quite like the way a Ray Bradbury story does. And reading any of his work always puts me in the mood to write, especially short stories, even though I’m no good at them.
As much as I love Ray Bradbury’s writing, I actually have only read a small portion of his work. I have read The Stories of Ray Bradbury in its entirety after my 8th grade teacher read us “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” (another Mars story), and contains some of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, such as “Frost and Fire,” “Uncle Einar,” and “A Sound of Thunder.” I also have copies of S is for Space, The Halloween Tree, and a new collection TheToynbee Convector, which I have not read. But I plan to. If you haven’t read any of Ray Bradbury’s work, or maybe only a few stories, I recommend trying some more. They are prime examples of exemplary storytelling combined with eerie lyricism and haunting imagery. I have been blessed at having the opportunity to read them.
Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for sharing your worlds with us.
Rest in Peace.