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Ray of light, Ray of darkness

Remembering the 'Midwest surrealist'



Man is in love/ And loves what vanishes


I had two chances to meet Ray Bradbury; when I was living in L.A. the elderly author made two public appearances, and I allowed circumstances to make me miss both. It was not that I was fooling myself, exactly—Bradbury was quite old, and I knew I would not have many chances to meet him. And yet, Bradbury seemed strangely immortal, as old and frail as he was. An institution who had discovered the trick for living forever and would serenely sail on with his twinkling eyes and kind wit until doomsday. In a way, I suppose he will.

But what version of Bradbury will live on? The one canonized by school boards? Who will dutifully place Fahrenheit 451 and Dandelion Wine in front of ninth graders, explaining that the former is a Very Important Piece of Science Fiction, and trying to fend off the out-and-out bewilderment that the latter’s ultra lyrical style might cause? I can see this Bradbury well, all smiles and stern lectures. As good natured, harmless, and irrelevant as a fat housecat in a sunbeam.

I hate the picture of this Bradbury. The man was a storyteller.

He rolled into town at the head of the procession of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. The stories he told crawled with life, like those he left on the body of the Illustrated Man. There was wonder and lyricism and beauty in Bradbury’s work, but there was danger as well. His work was like the image of the Dark Carnival he returned to again and again throughout his career. It brimmed with life and activity and the promise of things beyond the realm of ordinary experience—but consider any part of its whole for too long and you could get lost in it.

Of course Bradbury himself was as guilty as anyone of emphasizing the warm grandfatherly side of his persona over the other. He was not a flawless writer, and at his worst his impulses toward poetic, impressionistic surrealism could combine with his lyricism to create some awfully gooey purple prose. He suppressed publication of his earliest collection of short stories, Dark Carnival (which Stephen King hailed as “The Dubliners of American fantasy fiction”), which collected the stories from his early days as a pulp writer, when he was, shall we say, unsentimental about his characters’ fates. (In one of the best of his pulp-era tales, an undertaker performs karmic realignment on his subjects after death. So the three old biddies who couldn’t stop gossiping end up decapitated and sewn together mouth to ear, to continue their kvetch throughout eternity.) Though many of the stories ended up reprinted (in revised form) in the collection The October Country (including the chilling “Small Assassin,” perhaps his best work of horror), a good dozen remain locked away.

But he could never keep the imp out of his work entirely. The one who slipped “Usher II” into The Martian Chronicles, in which a group of censors meet their bloody end at the hands of the works they have struggled so long to suppress. He’s the one who wrote the eerily prescient “The Veldt,” the pulp classic “The Jar,” and the genuinely upsetting “The Next in Line.”

But emphasizing this aspect of Bradbury, the one who loved Halloween Orange and Monsters and stories that ended with a long drop in an empty elevator shaft, is also a distortion of who the man was. Because it was no more the sum of him than was the sentimental Bradbury mentioned earlier. He was both—and other things as well. He was, above all, a complete writer. Bradbury himself always resisted such categorization; though his publishers always insisted on calling him “The Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer” on his book covers (a label that Stephen King groused “made Bradbury sound like one of the freaks in the shows he writes so often about”), Bradbury insisted that the only science fiction he ever wrote was Fahrenheit 451. Nor was he a horror writer, a fantasist, or a naturalist. He was all of these things and none of them. He embodied; he was not limited. Probably the closest he came to being summed up was as “a Midwest surrealist.”

His completeness stemmed from a strain of Americana that is all but extinct now. He showed so many different faces to people because he had so many facets to show. He was at once someone mired in the past, where he wrote about his own boyhood in Illinois with a wistful tenderness, and one who dreamed of its future. As a writer, he was instrumental (along with Jack Finney and Richard Matheson) in re-centering the genre story on ordinary people, yet he took the fantastic to new levels. He was one who saw the potential for darkness and light in his native land intermingled—like the protagonists in Something Wicked This Way Comes, one born one minute before midnight, the other born one minute after, and the both of them completely inseparable since.

Bradbury could go dark, yes; in many stories he portrayed the whole of humanity as having a death wish. He understood the fascination and allure that the darkness held as much as anyone; he made its appeal plain (not to be confused with genuine evil, with which he wrote about with clear-eyed disgust). But that was only a component; at his core, he was a man who, in his own words, “had committed optimism.” He wrote about mankind’s darkest impulses, but he believed in its best.

He committed optimism, and he committed wonder, too. Wonder at the light, wonder at the dark, wonder at possibility. A wonder he maintained until the day he died. As such, I feel it is only proper to give the man himself the last word.

“As for my gravestone? I would like to borrow that great barber pole from out front of the town shoppe and have it run at midnight if you happened to drop by my mound to say hello. And there the old barber pole would be, lit, its bright ribbons twining up out of mystery, turning, and twining away up into further mysteries, forever. And if you come to visit, leave an apple for my ghost.”

Bryce Wilson writes “Blast from the Past,” which appears each week in New Times’ film section. Check out his blog at thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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