The Bradbury Chronicles

BOOK: The Bradbury Chronicles
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THE BRADBURY CHRONICLES

SAM WELLER

DEDICATION

TO RAY

LIVE FOREVER

EPIGRAPH

Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.

—
RAY BRADBURY

CONTENTS

Dedication

Epigraph

 

Introduction

1. Remembrance of Things Past

2. Glinda the Good

3. The Theory of Evolution

4. The Sorcerer's Apprentice

5. Welcome Back to the World

6. New Frontiers

7. Hooray for Hollywood

8. Learning to Fly

9. Futuria Fantasia

10. Pulp Heroes

11. The Poet of the Pulps

12. Down Mexico Way

13. Dark Carnival

14. Love and Marriage

15. The Red Planet

16. The Illustrated Man

17. The Golden Apples of the Sun

18. Fahrenheit

19. The White Whale

20. Return to Green Town

21. Something Wicked

22. The American Journey

23. Remembering the Future

24. Wicked Redux

25. Cathode Ray

26. The Time of Going Away

Epilogue

Illustrations

Selected Bibliography

Index

Acknowledgments

P.S.: Insights, Interviews & More …

  
About the author

  
About the book

  
Read On

Selected Books by Ray Bradbury

Notes

Praise for Sam Weller and the Bradbury Chronicles

Copyright

About the Publisher

INTRODUCTION

L
IKE MANY
in my generation, I am a lifelong, card-carrying member of the Intergalactic, Time-traveling, Paleontology, Mummies, Martians, Jack-o'-Lanterns, Carnivals, and Foghorn-coveting Ray Bradbury fan club.

But truth be told, Ray Bradbury belongs to all generations, not just my own. The G.I. Generation, for example—veterans of World War Two, read Ray Bradbury's early pulp magazine stories on the muddy battlefields of war-ravaged Europe. Baby Boomers blasted off to Mars with
The Martian Chronicles,
stumbled into the freak show tent with
The Illustrated Man,
and ran across the grassy fields of Green Town, Illinois, in
Dandelion Wine
. And they didn't just read his stories, they listened to them over the nighttime airwaves, as Ray Bradbury became a fixture in dramatic radio. Generation X discovered Ray Bradbury all over again, reading his lyrical prose in junior high and high school literature classes. More important, we read his stories when we
weren't
in school. Those tales of stainless steel rocket ships and of a fireman who burned books in a dark, dystopian world were at once brilliant, luminous, and, to wax Gen-X eloquent, incredibly cool.

A new generation is claiming Ray Bradbury yet again. This time as a legend, an American literary icon who has taken his place in the pantheon occupied by the ghosts of literature past, Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens, Poe. Certainly, some critics in the literati might scoff at the very notion that Bradbury, a so-called writer of “science fiction,” is even in the pantheon at all. But these critics have long since missed the rocket ship, they hardly appreciate Ray Bradbury's metaphors, his musical language, and most important, the myths he has created. Indeed, they have mislabeled Ray Bradbury altogether. He is much, much more than simply a science fiction author, as his life story illustrates.

The millennium babies will discover Ray Bradbury for themselves the way we all have—by picking up his books. And it is certain that this new generation will lionize him for themselves, in their own way, because he belongs to all the generations. So many of us are members of the fan club.

I suppose I joined while I was still in the womb, when my father read Bradbury aloud to my pregnant mother in 1967. Eleven years later, I read my first Bradbury book, a frayed paperback copy of
The Illustrated Man
I found on my father's bookshelf. On the cover of the book was a painting of the Illustrated Man himself, sitting naked on a wooden crate, his tattooed back to the viewer. The landscape around him was eerie, dreamlike, molten red. I remember staring at that cover endlessly. Every year after that, under every glowing Christmas tree, my father made sure there were Ray Bradbury books wrapped up all shiny, waiting to be opened, waiting to be read. To my mother's delight, I often had my nose buried in books.

In my early twenties, I found myself back home in Illinois caring for my mother, who was dying of cancer. My parents had separated, my older siblings moved away. I was in that house with all that illness and all that sorrow and my mother, in her early fifties, was struggling to live. She was able to sleep only a few hours at a time, and in those rare moments of peace, I would retreat into my bedroom. I remember a winter night, as I was looking out my window, large, wispy snowflakes drifted down, illumined by the glow of street lamps. It was then that I first listened to an audiobook copy of Ray Bradbury's
The Toynbee Convector
. I put the tape in my small cassette player and, with the lights off, listened to Ray Bradbury, in his comforting voice, read his own words. It was pure magic and so very cathartic for my soul, which enjoyed a brief respite from my mother's illness and all that sadness. There was a profound melancholy to one of the tales—“Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned,” and in that moment, I felt a kinship. I was not alone.
I was not alone.

Is that not what good storytelling is? To help us to relate? To help us understand the universal truths? To me this prose poet saw beauty in sorrow.

Eight years after my mother passed away in 1992, this book was born. I was at the Tribune Tower, pitching stories to the editor of the
Chicago Tribune Magazine
. I proposed a celebratory profile of Illinois's native son, stepchild of Mars, Ray Douglas Bradbury, the gatekeeper to that chimerical underworld known as “the October Country,” Librarian Emeritus for the Athenaeum of the Imagination. My favorite author was turning eighty that year. What better time to recap his amazing life? My editor approved the story, and I was off to Los Angeles to visit Ray at his home, a sprawling, multilevel house painted, quite appropriately, dandelion yellow. As I bounded the dozen or more stone steps up to the front door, skittish cats darted out from the surrounding shrubbery. The doormat at the top of the steps was silk-screened with images of carved Halloween pumpkins hollering “Boo!”

When the Bradburys' longtime maid escorted me into the foyer, the first thing I noticed was the painting. It was the original molten artwork from the paperback cover of
The Illustrated Man
that I had so loved as a teenager. I had arrived.

The man I encountered on that fine Los Angeles afternoon on Memorial Day weekend in the year 2000 was nothing short of miraculous. Since his stroke seven months earlier, he moved cautiously. Physically, this great, jolly blurt of a man had been slowed down. But here he was, hobbling to and fro with the use of a four-pronged cane, talking at light speed, pontificating, philosophizing, positing solutions for the future of all humankind, and, most of all, referencing the past with reverie and respect. I thought this man was a great contradiction, a beautiful paradox. He wrote of the far future, but did it with the machines of old, cog-and-gear ironclad throwbacks to Wells and Verne; he wrote of the far past with a pained longing, as if to tell us all that our future would only be well served if we looked to yesteryear. Indeed, he was a contradiction. Ray Bradbury was a nostalgic visionary: He predicted the past and remembered the future.

The Bradbury house was a veritable shrine filled with what Ray liked to call his “metaphors.” These were the symbols, the charms,
“the talisman,”
he said with a laugh, of his life and career. Each room was jammed wall-to-wall with the runoff of Ray's staggering collection of everything under the sun and the moon and, for that matter, Mars. That afternoon, gold-dusted sunlight beamed in through wide, white wooden shutters, illuminating a Tutankhamen-like realm of Bradburian treasure. The original cover artwork to the first edition of
Fahrenheit 451,
drawn by Ray's old friend and collaborator Joseph Mugnaini, hung on one wall. Lucite awards and shiny metal statuettes, accolades gathered over the decades, lined the fireplace mantel in the living room. In a hallway, just a few months after my visit, Ray would place the lifetime achievement medal he received in November 2000 from the National Book Foundation for his Contribution to American Letters, affirmation of his transcendence into mainstream literature. In a closet sat a thick stack of acetate animation cels, hand-painted originals from
Dumbo, Cinderella, Pinocchio,
and many other Disney classics given to Ray personally from none other than Walt Disney. Virtually every flat surface, every table and chair in the house, was piled high with mountainous stacks of papers, old photographs, story starts, newspaper articles, manuscripts, and plastic milk crates holding countless files. There were toys in every room, too: Giant stuffed animals perched on sofas; tin rocket ships and windup robots waited in corners to come to mechanized life. And in nearly every room, built-in bookcases groaned under the tremendous weight of thousands and thousands of books.

Sitting in the house for the better part of an afternoon, I watched and listened with incredulity. Part Peter Pan, part percipient sensei, this man, seventy-nine at the time, had the energy of a herd of stampeding tyrannosaurs. He was finishing two novels, a chapbook, a collection of short stories, a complete collection of his poetry, as well as numerous essays and theatrical plays. He was a creative juggernaut. He loved life and living and wanted to take full advantage of his remaining days. He yearned for life with a yearning the likes of which I had never before encountered and doubt I ever will again. He was in a constant sprint against mortality, striving to complete one project after another. But more impressive than his prolificacy was his outlook.

“If you start every day saying, ‘I'm going to lose,' what kind of a day is that?” he asked, living his own words as an “optimal behaviorist.”

“I don't believe in optimism,” he explained. “I believe in optimal behavior. That's a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don't know what you can do. You haven't done it yet. So that's optimal behavior. And when you behave that way you have a feeling of optimism. You see, there's a difference. Not to be optimistic, but to behave optimally. At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes.”

Ray Bradbury and I hit it off almost immediately. Ray liked that I had read all his works. He never cared for fame or fortune, and he certainly disliked the word “celebrity.” What fueled him on was admiration and appreciation. When strangers approached and told him, “You changed my life,” he often cried. This was the case on December 14, 2001, the day Los Angeles mayor James K. Hahn pronounced “Ray Bradbury Day.” When the festivities at City Hall were over, and Ray was headed home, a disabled man emerged from the crowd and said, “Thank you for changing my life.” Ray was profoundly moved. At the 2003 San Diego International ComicCon, I was pushing Ray in his wheelchair when from the sea of conventioneers, a young African-American man approached Ray and knelt down at his side. “I grew up in South Central,” he said. “But I never joined a gang. Because I had you. You and Asimov and Clarke.
You
were my gang. Thank you.” Ray's eyes filled with tears when the young man shook his hand and walked off, disappearing into the flowing crowd.

On the day of my first visit to Ray's house, I told him my own story, how he had first nurtured my imagination, then, later, how he had brought me comfort in the darkest time in my life, when my mother was dying. More than anything, Ray reveled in the idea that he had somehow affected, changed, altered the course of, or made better the lives of his readers.

We hit it off for other reasons, too. Having grown up in the same region, we both had northern Illinois mud under our fingernails. When we talked of the color of Midwest sunlight in September we both understood and smiled. When Ray learned that I had published an essay in a Chicago alternative weekly on John McCutcheon's 1912 paean to late autumn, “Injun Summer,” he rummaged through a stockpile of bric-a-brac in a side room and produced a framed copy of McCutcheon's short story and cartoon.

I would like to think that Ray saw in me an enthusiasm that mirrored his own. We both reveled in the wonderment of ideas. We both loved the initial stages of story conception, and, as writers, shared a belief that good story is everywhere: One just has to, as Ray would say, “witness and celebrate” it.

On that first visit, I also met Ray's wife of more than a half century, Marguerite Bradbury. She emerged from a back room of the house, wearing a blue housecoat and a pair of slippers, and in her raspy, nicotine voice said, “I have ears like a cat and I have been listening to your entire interview.” She went on to say that she was impressed, that she'd found the questions intriguing. In the years that followed, over the course of the hundreds of hours of conversations I had with Maggie Bradbury, we forged a close, tender relationship. And I became acutely aware that Maggie's support, belief, and hard work enabled Ray's early career to blast off. Ray was the first to admit that Maggie was the intellectual of the duo. Fluent in four languages, she was a voracious reader, a lover of history books, mysteries, biographies and, most of all, the works of Marcel Proust. The day of my first visit, I spotted Maggie reading a biography of Proust in French. In my frequent trips to Los Angeles, I also had the privilege of meeting Ray and Maggie's four daughters and their eight grandchildren. All of them welcomed me into their midst without hesitation, with generosity and kindness.

When that initial interview in 2000 was over, Ray invited me to call him. He gave me his fax number and told me to write. We stayed in touch, fostering a weekly correspondence. A few months later, I was in Los Angeles again and paid him a visit. Within six months, the idea for this book was hatched. As a journalist, college professor, and Bradbury researcher, I was dumbfounded to discover that no full-fledged biography of Ray Bradbury existed. “I have too much life left to live,” Ray reasoned, stating that a biography constitutes the bookends of life and his final bookend was a long, long ways off.

In the months that followed, as Ray and I exchanged letters and talked, I was able to convince him that a Bradbury biography was long past due. His story needed to be told. One day, over lunch at the Pacific Dining Car in Santa Monica, he agreed, and from that day forward every three or four weeks, I flew from Chicago to Los Angeles and spent some of the most magical times imaginable, listening to a man whose life is nothing short of astounding. We drove around Los Angeles in his limousine, dining late into the night in Chinatown. We went to his plays, produced by his own company, the Pandemonium Theatre. I watched him lecture to captivated audiences at libraries and in churches and before civic groups. I accompanied him to book signings all over Southern California. We went often into Hollywood, where, one bright day, he turned to me and said, “Do you want to see my star?” We laughed at how absurd and even egomaniacal it sounded, and then went to stand over his star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, given him on April 1, 2002. He guided me through the Hollywood Forever cemetery, where he used to wander as a teenager—at play among the granite pillars of Hollywood's old guard. We drove downtown and admired the architecture of the new Disney Concert Hall, a muscular monolith deftly integrated into the surrounding cityscape. The building's design evoked the forward-thinking structures of the World's Fairs of Ray Bradbury's childhood—futuristic, inventive, everlasting.

BOOK: The Bradbury Chronicles
13.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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