The 'Martian Chronicler' Reflects
LIKE a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, author Ray Bradbury has watched his creations come alive .... In 50 years of writing, since his first story sale in the summer of 1941, his monsters and spacemen and silver rockets have leapt off the printed page into our lives.
From the nightmare midway of his mind, his characters stalk movie and television screens, jostle elbows in theater houses, and kick up a ruckus in countless anthologies and school textbooks: "The Martian Chronicles," "Dandelion Wine," "The Illustrated Man," " Fahrenheit 451," "Something Wicked This Way Comes." To millions of readers all over the world they are as familiar as the magic name "Bradbury." Alive....
"In a sense, the stories don't belong to me anymore," Bradbury chuckles. He's promised to talk to me by telephone today from Los Angeles.
From our 24 years of correspondence and meetings, I can readily imagine him now, tossing his mane of thick white hair, his eyes twinkling behind the thick glasses. He's talking from his fabled basement office, surrounded by a kaleidoscopic clutter of toys, movie posters, paintings, books, and manuscripts.
"Every Christmas for the last five years, there's a teacher in Tokyo who teaches a class in my book, 'Dandelion Wine.' His students write me every year with variations on my stories. They extend them. They do sequels. They write haiku!"
Bradbury's voice seems to inscribe exclamation points onto the air. He speaks as he writes, in a kind of fervent, poetic chant. I've seen him hold audiences spellbound by the hour.
"I've just had a letter from the north of Ireland, of all places, from a young woman who says she gets out 'Dandelion Wine' every summer and reads it and cries and laughs. Evidently it doesn't matter what part of the world you're from or what the weather's like - if you have that moment of summer...."
"Dandelion Wine," first published in 1956, remains his favorite book. Like many of his stories, it is set in the "locomotive-hungry country" of Green Town, Ill. Modeled after his birthplace, Waukegan, Ill., "Green Town" ranks with other famous American literary towns, like Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" and Sinclair Lewis's "Gopher Prairie," Minnesota, as a metaphor for the crucial intersections in childhood of youth and age, innocence and experience, good and evil. Through its tidy clockwork str eets and neighborhoods slashes a dangerous ravine, a "pit of jungled blackness" where a small boy first learns what it is like to be alone, to feel fear and doubt, and to discover, worst of all, that there is no solace in growing up.
Bradbury was 12 years old when he left Waukegan in 1932. His father, a utility company lineman, moved the family to Tucson, Ariz., and later to Los Angeles. But Green Town has never been far away. The flicker of its summer heat lightning and the shiver of its ravine nightmares still tick in his pulse and his imagination. No matter how far into deep space his characters travel, as we learn in the classic story "Mars Is Heaven," always just ahead, somehow, is Green Town.
"If you're fortunate, you grow up in a small town like that," he muses. "It was my root system. And I lived within a block of that wonderful ravine where we kids played all summer. All you had to do was step out of your house and you almost fell in. Just about. My brother and I would run through there at night after seeing 'The Phantom of the Opera.' Now, that path has been renamed for me. It's the 'Ray Bradbury Park' now. It used to scare 201&gt; me. And now I 'own' it!"
THESE days, although he returns occasionally to Waukegan, his "midnight visits" are confined to his stories. They sometimes scare even him. Like "The October Game," a story so horrific that its jolting last sentence will forever make you reluctant to turn on the lights in a darkened room.
"Yeah," he admits, "I refused to have it published for years. It was written many years ago before I had a family or wasn't even engaged to be married. It was what my writing is all about - having an outlet for the violence, the destruction that's in each of us. Most great saints were once great sinners, yes? Now with four daughters and seven grandchildren I look back and don't approve of the story. But if everyone else likes it, well, let them read."
Bradbury's longtime friend and illustrator, Joseph Mugnaini, remembers the genesis of many of the stories. Mugnaini's remarkable pen-and-ink line drawings and prints have given them exotic flesh and form. To many readers they have become an inseparable part of the Bradbury magic.
Mugnaini was a struggling artist at the Otis Art Institute in 1952 when Bradbury saw his work in a Beverly Hills gallery. They met and something clicked. Over the years they have collaborated on "The Golden Apples of the Sun" (1953), "Fahrenheit 451" (1953), "The October Country" (1955), and "The Halloween Tree" (1972), among others. "I was building my house when Ray first called me up," Mugnaini recalls. "And a friend of mine drove Ray over - we don't live very far apart. He was very open and enthusias tic. He would feed me some sketches of his own, then we'd decide on some of them and I'd elaborate on them and go from there. His own drawings are very interesting - a little like James Thurber, only more sophisticated. The very first story I illustrated was 'The Sound of Thunder.' "
LIKE the errant children of Dickens' imagination, Bradbury's characters sometimes get away from him. "I've done so much I don't remember. I keep finding short stories that I wrote 20 years ago and say, ' 201&gt; when did I do that?' When you put down at least one idea every day for years, you don't remember. My subconscious, whatever that is - nobody can tell me - decides what is happening, day by day. I'm not in charge."
Indeed, he once satirized the process in the story. "Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby's Is a Friend of Mine": "In the story a fraudulent Charlie Dickens goes on a long journey across country on a train and in despair at his own mediocrity throws all of his poetry and prose off the back of the train. During the following month a bumper crop of corn grows up along the railroad tracks!" He adds wryly, "All of his mediocre ideas - corn!"
Now other writers are taking up Bradbury's characters and themes. One example of this is a forthcoming 50th anniversary anthology called "October's Friend," edited by Martin H. Greenberg and William F. Nolan. "It's a collection of stories, sequels, pastiches, and tributes by dozens of writers celebrating Ray's first 50 years as a professional writer," says Nolan, a longtime friend and bibliographer. "We'll find out what happened to characters Ray wrote about decades ago. I have Richard Matheson and his son, Christian, Isaac Asimov, Robert Sheckley, and F. Paul Wilson, among others. We're all saying - Hey, welcome to the party! Here's a toast to you, Ray! And here's how we love your work through the years!"
Talk to any of these writers and you get the point. F. Paul Wilson, author of "The Keep," told me he is contributing a sequel to, of all things, "The October Game": "I remember I was 13 when I read it. It was an August night and I sat there and read that story and came to that last line - and then the temperature just dropped 20 degrees. My mouth - the jaw just dropped. I decided that was one of the most important stories in my own gen- esis as a writer."
I'll never forget my own privileged glimpses into that fertile imagination. It was late in 1980, and Ray had invited me to meet him at his office in the headquarters of WDI, the "idea center" of Walt Disney Enterprises in Glendale, Calif. He had been hired as an "Imagineer" - what Disney called a combined engineer and poet - to work on the initial concepts of the "Spaceship Earth" attraction at Walt Disney World. Ray guided me through the honeycomb-like building, each room bursting with paintings, minia ture models, and audio-animatronic robots. "You leave here one night after handing these artists ideas scribbled down on paper, come back next morning and all this is waiting for you," he explained. "I conceive it, they build it. Then they send the blueprints to Florida for the final construction."
GIGANTIC murals encircled us - history at a glance, capturing the loping stride of his imagination. In a seamless narrative a caveman donned armor, rode off to St. Peter's Cathedral, and looked toward the star blinking overhead - Explorer I. There in that room that day Bradbury's face shone like a light. "Then we can visit the moon," he breathed, "go past the rings of Saturn, on past Jupiter, and then we'll track a comet. Put ourselves onto the tail of the comet where we'll see starships from other part s of the solar system carried along for millions of years...."
Ray has visited the finished "Spaceship Earth" exhibition at EPCOT many times since its completion, of course. "Two years from now will be the [10th] anniversary of the opening of EPCOT," he says. "And I hope to get out there to freshen up the material. It's a great big idea-centrifuge, you know. And you go in there as children or as adults, you get excited about what has happened in the past, what's going on in the present, and what can possibly happen in the future. You learn how to live better, to bu ild better cities and then build them in yet other places - as in my work consulting with the builders of malls. Most cities have fallen into ruins and we have to redo them. EPCOT is a prime example of how to do it."
I ask Ray if he feels greatly changed from the 20-year-old boy he was when he sold his first story 50 years ago. He laughs. "I was a sap," he says, "just like every other 20-year-old kid. It's a miracle if we live to be 22 or 23!" He paints a picture of a grinning boy on roller skates writing jokes for Burns and Allen radio shows (his latest novel, "A Graveyard for Lunatics," is dedicated to Burns), selling newspapers on street corners to earn enough to buy his first $10 typewriter, enthusing over horro r movies, and devouring Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian stories and Flash Gordon comic strips. During his last year in high school he discovered the Los Angeles Science-Fantasy Society, where he met Robert Heinlein, Henry Kuttner, Jack Williamson, and Leigh Brackett. "We all became friends. I was a dreadful pest, but they put up with me. Every time I mention certain stories to Jack Williamson he winces with pain!"
Then came that first sale in 1941 to "Super Science Stories," a story called "Pendulum" (co-written with Henry Hasse), for which he received from agent Julius Schwartz the grand total of $13.75. But the real breakthrough came in the late 1940s when he left the pulp markets like "Weird Tales" behind for the prestige magazines like Mademoiselle and Vogue.
"They were publishing good fiction," he explains. "They were women's magazines with fine story editors who published work by Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. A young assistant at Mademoiselle found one of my stories in the 'slush pile.' It was about a family of vampires, called 'The Homecoming.' He gave it to the story editor and said, ' 201&gt;You must publish this!' That young man was Truman Capote, and Mademoiselle ended up changing the whole magazine to fit the story!"
IN "The Martian Chronicles" (1950) he found his big theme. Future space travelers, he predicted, will be "impatient Gullivers" that colonize other planets, only to "bludgeon away the strangeness" in order to recreate these worlds in our own image.
"The history of the world is a history of people going to places where they're not wanted," he says to me now, reflecting back upon the book that made him famous. "I mean, Cortez in Mexico and South America, the white man across America. Our history is full of terrible stories. Every country has a history of beating up on someone. When they're traveling, when they're invading, when they're exploring. Even on Mars, yes? What we must do for now is make sure that we don't pollute the moon or Mars in some w ay that we can't even imagine right now."
Bradbury plans to mark the year 1991 the same way he has observed every day of every year since he was 12 years old - "the ritual of everyday writing." New projects include a memoir of John Huston based on their time together in Ireland in 1954 when Ray wrote the screenplay for "Moby Dick." "He was a living metaphor, outrageous, outsized, loud," Ray recalls. "A very strange man." And there's a new collection of fiction, tentatively called "Green," also based on his experiences in Ireland. "I've been thi nking of combining the two projects, but I don't know how to pick up the dragon. Which end is the tail and which is the head?"
From other hands will come more projects. In addition to "October's Friend" there will be an anthology of hitherto uncollected work from editor Donn Albright, "Bradbury: Bits and Pieces." According to artist Joe Mugnaini, there will be a new animated film version of "The Halloween Tree." There are ballets, musicals, dramas, and even oratorios and operas of "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit," and "Fahrenheit 451" on stage in Edmonton, Alberta; Chicago; Los Angeles; and Lond on. And the television series "Ray Bradbury Theater" continues its run on cable.
HOW does he react to the publicity and the celebrity of being the world's most famous writer of imaginative fiction? "He loves it," says Albright, who knows him as well as anyone. "If you go out to dinner, all of a sudden you'll feel a draft on your neck and there are kids behind you wanting his autograph. He loves to be loved. He says that very openly." And yet, as Bradbury admits to me now on the phone, the constant demands on his time and attention can get wearisome. And these days he grants fewer in terviews.
If his stories live on in our hearts, it is because the faces of his characters - spacemen, monsters, citizens of Green Town - are really our own. "The great thing about science fiction," he says, "is that you write about things, and people think you're talking about something else. Actually, you're talking about them! But you've disarmed them. They don't want to be preached at or they pull back. They don't want to deal with reality head on. Tell them a story. Do it with metaphors. And they'll listen!"
As we conclude our conversation, I feel like I always do after talking to Ray - ready to lift my arms and shout new greetings to the world. He does that to you. Every time. "Ray," I blurt out impulsively. "If anybody can beat this mortality rap, it's you!" Immediately he replies, "I'd like to beat it another 20 years, at least. I've got a lot of things to do. [I hope I'll] live to be at least 90 and talk to you again!"