Some writers, artists and musicians make an indelible first impression, so that we remember exactly where we were, who we were with and what we were doing when we first encountered their work.
Others, however, are more subtle — creators who seem always to have been a part of the DNA of our imagination, whose stories or films or songs have taken root and sprouted seeds in our conscious and subconscious minds.
That’s how I feel about Ray Bradbury, the noted fantasy writer (I won’t say “science-fiction,” although much of his work is billed as such because he chose to pepper his stories with rocket ships and alien worlds), who gave us the gifts of “Fahrenheit 451,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Dandelion Wine,” to name only a few.
Oh, I suppose if I thought about it long enough, I could remember where his work and my life first intersected. It might have been in junior high, when I discovered his wonderfully creepy “Emissary” in a magazine at a school book fair. It’s the story of a sick boy, his loyal dog and a sympathetic teacher who visits his bedside. When the teacher dies suddenly, the dog goes digging in the graveyard to fulfill his master’s wish to see her again.
The story is a paean to youth, a melancholy reflection on innocence lost (why DO people have to die?) and a flesh-crawling exercise in terror, all perfectly realized in a few short pages.
But was that before or after I read “The Martian Chronicles,” the book of short stories that inspired a television mini-series? Or before I discovered the time-travel classic “Sound of Thunder” adapted as a comic book?
I don’t know. Bradbury has always just been there, timeless and seemingly immortal, a Mount Vesuvius of creativity who could be counted on to erupt every few years with another collection of stories or essays.
Beyond the work, however, there was Bradbury himself, consummate fan of the fantastic and ardent supporter of reconnecting with one’s inner child, a muse to whom he attributed all his success.
“When it is a long damp November in my soul,” Bradbury wrote, paraphrasing Melville, “and I think too much and perceive too little, I know it is high time to get back to that boy with the tennis shoes, the high fevers, the multitudinous joys, and the terrible nightmares. I’m not sure where he leaves off and I start. But I’m proud of the tandem team.”
Bradbury was an unapologetic believer that life should be about joy, that if something vexed you, it wasn’t worth your time, but that if something inspired you, you should pursue it with all your mind and heart. He is sometimes criticized as treacly and simple because this theme recurs in much of his work, but truly, I’m hard pressed to think of a better recipe for happiness.
As a teacher, I came to an additional respect for Bradbury because his stories and pronouncements never failed to ignite response. Students scoffed at his contention that he remembered his own birth and circumcision. We had to research eidetic memory to learn the phenomenon was real, although many remained unconvinced of Bradbury’s claim.
But by far the biggest reaction came from “Fahrenheit 451,” the prophetic novel of book-burning and censorship that is second to only “1984″ as the consummate dystopian fiction. A few years ago, we were listening as a class to the novel on cassette when we realized the tape had characters spouting the occasional “damn” or “hell,” while the printed page did not.
“How ironic,” remarked one student. “They censored ‘Fahrenheit 451.’”
Indeed they had, something Bradbury himself was unaware of for many years, until other students (not mine!) made him aware of the changes. In a 1979 coda to the novel, he proudly announced that the book was being reset, “with all the damns and hells back in place.”
Elsewhere in the same piece, Bradbury offered my favorite anti-censorship quote: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
Bradbury died last week at the age of 91. His passing reminded me of one final quote, from an appreciation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, that Bradbury wrote in 1975:
“I went home to Mars often when I was eleven and twelve and every year since, and the astronauts with me, as far as the Moon to start … Because of (Burroughs) and men like him, one day in the next five centuries, we will commute forever, we will go away…
“And never come back.
“And so live forever.”
Mr. Bradbury, thanks for the memories, and have a nice trip.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on June 14, 2012, in The Alliance Review.