Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal Mall

I admit to being both gratified and surprised by the impact that Ray Bradbury’s death is having on the cultural landscape. It’s not that his legacy doesn’t deserve the attention; I simply didn’t expect society to give a shit. He was, after all, a writer in a culture where a quarter of the population doesn’t even read books, and where those who do read an average of a measly four per year. He never wrote about a twinkly vampire or a boy wizard in his life. And yet, decades past his best work, Bradbury is too big to fit into a note, or even a column in the Obits. Just try finding a major newspaper that hasn’t devoted the better part of a broadsheet to the man’s memory. Even Obama paid public tribute, which astonishes me (not so much that the president would know of Bradbury’s works, but that he would risk alienating the pro-book-burning lobby in an election year by lauding the author of Fahrenheit 451). Bradbury casts such a long shadow in death. Which is as it should be. The man was a giant.

For a while, at least.

Remember his early work? Like that story about the sentient homicidal baby trying to kill its mother for kicking it out of the womb. Or that piece about the guy obsessed by the fact that he had a SKELETON infesting his own flesh, and declared war on it. Or the one about the corpse who lay rotting contentedly in the ground until he heard the crews digging up the bodies for cremation — no room left for bodies, you see — and dug himself out first, to fight back. “He came out of the earth, hating”, that story began, and it grabbed me by my twelve-year-old balls from the first sentence.

The eulogizers talk about Ray Bradbury, child-at-heart. They talk about the innocence and wonder of his lyrical prose, Halloween trees and Norman Rockwell evocations. Fuck that: the man was twisted. He could turn the most mundane daily ritual into a nightmare that would haunt you for decades: virtual realities that devoured parents, mail-order mushrooms that devoured children, psychic Martians bleeding out from the hands and feet, enslaved to the desperate wish-fulfillment psychosis of an invading priest. Every peaceful evocation of small-town Americana was a lie, a thin coat of bright cracking paint to hide the things with teeth that lurked in every cellar. At his best, Bradbury was a fifties-era David Lynch, only better; all the horror and façade, none of the self-conscious irony.

When he was at his best. Before some of you were born. Hell, before I was.

A couple of days back I chatted with The National Post on the subject of Bradbury’s legacy. If you read that piece you may notice something odd about the quote they used: “His early stuff was poetry and nightmare,” I said, but then went on to lament the loss of his edge in later years. They cut that quote in half, kept the eulogy and discarded the critique (understandably, mind you; I’m not complaining) — but the fact is, even giants get soft. With advancing age Bradbury traded in the darkness for homilies of hope and redemption. Fever dreams and squashed butterflies had all but vanished by the eighties and nineties; instead he served up sentimental tales about the ghosts of Laurel and Hardy (or was it Abbot and Costello?) bringing a sliver of warmth to modern suburbia. Time travelers stopped hunting dinosaurs and journeyed instead to Herman Melville’s deathbed, bringing comforting news of literary immortality to ease his passing. I devoured Death is a Lonely Business — a semi-autobiographical murder mystery in which even the hardboiled detective is working on a novel — when it came out in 1985. But when I read “The Toynbee Convector” a few years later, I figured it was time to say goodbye: a saccharine bit of wish-fulfillment which posits that people will get off their asses, make the hard choices, and fix the world’s problems if you just tell them that those problems are already fixed! Reading it, I had to wonder if the colossus who’d once shown such piercing insight into human nature might have been replaced by one of his own aliens, something that had never actually met a human before.

People get old. Fires burn out. Even giants get osteoporosis. It’s no denigration of the man to tell you that I haven’t read him in twenty years[1]: at his peak he was unmatched, and his peak lasted longer than most writers’ whole careers (it was actually more of a mesa, in fact). I’m already feeling my literary bones starting to crumble after a measly six novels and eighteen short stories, and next to the likes of Bradbury I’m as much of a giant as Tyrion Lannister.

Besides, twenty years is nothing. Some of those stories will stick with me for life, I haven’t read them since childhood and I still can’t get them out of my head. He came out of the Earth, hating…

Ray Bradbury has gone back into the earth, metaphorically at least. He did not, as far as I’ve heard, hate. According to the hearsay at my command he was a sweet and gentle man. According to all the words he burned into my hindbrain, he had a heart as black as obsidian, full of joy and terror in equal measure. I see no contradiction there; but I never met him, so I couldn’t really say.

It’s a nice change, though. A relief, for once, to be able to eulogize someone I never knew.



[1] Actually, that’s not strictly true: I reread Fahrenheit 451 just a few years back, to prepare for a TVO interview on Truffaut’s high-school drama club movie adaptation. I had totally forgotten that Bradbury had predicted the iPod (although he called them “seashells” in the book). I’m told that some still encounter the echoes of that interview late at night in the nosebleed frequencies, where I can still occasionally be heard wittering on about what a great movie Local Herowas.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday June 08 2012at 08:06 am , filed under eulogy, fellow liars, ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

31 Responses to “Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal Mall”

  1. Now I’m curious at to your opinion of Harlan Ellison.

  2. Yeah, I’m with you. I was surprised how emotional I was at the news of Bradbury’s death, but it all came from his early stuff that I read as a tween and early teen when authors can really hook you for life. Like you, I stopped reading him years ago except for revisits to his old stuff. Still, his old stuff is the stuff of legends, and how many people, in any field, can that be said of?

  3. Yes, bang on. At his best when poetry and nightmare. The two things that have persisted in me as the hooks good work can catch me by.

    Bradbury introduced me to science fiction. Although I read everything else by him I could get my hands on, what stuck with me was the collection October Country, which I should not have been reading when I was eight or so, like a number of other things I was reading when I was eight (among them, Blade Runner and The Handmaid’s Tale, neither of which entirely made sense to me because of biological facts I was unaware of at that time).

    It scared me so badly that just looking at the cover of the 1985 edition gives me a subtle feeling of nausea, although I happily reread it every time I find it again (funny, right now I’m not sure where my copy is, as it has migrated to the back of the double-stacked bookshelves). Many of his darkest pieces are in there.

    The Next In Line is the one that stuck with me forever, as nothing else I read at that age ever did. I don’t know if it was the corpses, the colonialism (didn’t have the word, just a vague nameless unease), or how the husband hated his wife. Certainly the corpses are what hit me first, what I can see even now when I think of it.

    Screaming.

  4. Daniel:
    Now I’m curious at to your opinion of Harlan Ellison.

    No don’t! If you say that same three times, he appears and starts dismantling your self-esteem with incisive, foul-mouth insults.

  5. To my very surprise, I found something to freshen my memories — the bitter-sweet story “The Rocket”: Mr. Bodoni, owner of a junkyard buys a non-functional (mockup) spacecraft, but he finds a way to take his children onto a trip to Mars …

  6. Total agreement re the dark side of Ray. Here’s what I posted on Facebook on Wednesday: “Ray Bradbury was a master of genuinely creepy stories: “Pillar of Flame,” “The Small Assassin,” “The Veldt,” “Mars Is Heaven,” “A Sound of Thunder.” Those and many others burned themselves into me long ago. They are a part of me, for better or worse. I think for better, but your mileage may vary. Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, thank you sir.”

  7. I’m not so amazed that he’s recognized at *this* particular moment. As you point out, he’s been pretty cozy for a couple of decades. Besides, eulogies are always easy. There’s something safe about praising dead people, who can no longer contradict your views or disavow your praise.

    On the other hand, I’m a little surprised by how much recognition he got from the mainstream all those years ago when he still had fangs and was quite alive enough to say whatever he pleased.

    There’s a half hour retrospective of his work called “Ray Bradbury, Story of a Writer” that’s available in full on YouTube that’s worth watching for exactly this point. Just to emphasize how long his career was, it’s a *retrospective* created in 1963.

    Anyway, watching the intro, it’s clear that he was commercially very successful and very much respected even then. But after that watch for the dramatization of one of his stories — it’s weird, it’s futuristic in a disorienting P.K. Dick mindfuck kind of way, a little cruel, and by the last line seems headed for apocalypticism.

    It batshit, but somehow there was room for it in the American psyche.

  8. “Time travelers (…) journeyed instead to Herman Melville’s deathbed, bringing comforting news of literary immortality to ease his passing.”
    Dang! Another good idea I can’t use. I was thinking about another person.
    I haven’t read all of Bradbury books. I remember the Martian Chronicles on my father’s bookshelves a long time ago. But, like Philip K. Dick, some good SF movies out there come from Ray Bradbury’s stories.

  9. I found Bradbury the summer I turned nine. Nine, ten, eleven, caught in his spell. It started with The Illustrated Man collection, then The Homecoming and everything after. between reading him on my own and having Stephen King’s short stories read aloud to me at bedtime, it’s no wonder I was such a strange child. After that, I found Vonnegut and started taking things a little less seriously.
    He may have peaked decades ago, but the look on his face when he saw the “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” music video was priceless.

  10. Hey Peter,

    I am curious to hear your thoughts on Prometheus once you get a chance to see it.

    Blindsight is one of my favorite books and I feel that it is strongly influenced by the original Alien – one of my favorite sci-fi movies.
    Am I wrong here?

    I wish Riddley Scott would’ve hired you to write the script for the new movie. I think it would have been a lot smarter and creepier than what I saw last night on the big screen. Although I will say that it was visually breathtaking and Michael Fassbender’s David was amazing. Definitely worth seeing for those two reasons.

  11. D, what *was* his reaction? I’ve often wondered if he’d be horrified, delighted, embarrassed by that video.

  12. geoffrey wall: Blindsight is one of my favorite books and I feel that it is strongly influenced by the original Alien – one of my favorite sci-fi movies. Am I wrong here?

    You’re not wrong; I’ll admit that the inside of Rorschach owes more than a little to the viscera of the alien derelict.

    I’ll be seeing Prometheus on Thursday. I’ll keep you posted.

  13. I too stayed up late as a child, poring over my father’s inches-thick signed hardcover of Bradbury’s short works. That was my introduction to the author, and still influences how I feel horror should be written (genre in general, probably). A lot of it scared the shit out of me. I still don’t think it’s good enough if it’s not really affecting the audience, in a way that they’ll take away like scar in the gut.

  14. You’re such an awesome writer Peter. I read only a few of Bradbury’s…but I learn so much just reading your post. :). I like Tyrion Lannister as interpreted by Peter Dinklage (one of my favorite actors).

    I hope to see Prometheus soon.

  15. Peter Watts: You’re not wrong; I’ll admit that the inside of Rorschach owes more than a little to the viscera of the alien derelict.

    I’ll be seeing Prometheus on Thursday.I’ll keep you posted.

    I’ve got my ticket for the IMAX premiere screening this Wednesday here in Quebec City; whether or not it lives up to all the hype, it’ll certainly look awesome.

  16. Peter Watts concluded: It’s a nice change, though. A relief, for once, to be able to eulogize someone I never knew.

    So true, but I’m awfully sad it was Mr Bradbury. I had to throw my own hat into the ring among the probably thousands of others offering eulogy.

    But you’re right: Way back in the day, that man could get seriously creepy. In his collection From the Dust Returned, he chronicles the Elliott Family, of which the famously reprinted Uncle Einar is one. These vampires and shapeshifters and telepaths might be far from twinkly — indeed, they’re a slightly less-comical-and-cuddly version of the Addams Family — but usually they manage to inspire a sort of wonder at the Dark Side. How many slightly weird kids ever thrilled to the notion that perhaps these were people with whom they felt much kinship? Plenty, I am sure.

    Yet one of those short stories, damned if I can recall the name at the moment, was really quite seriously dark. Less a story about one of the Elliotts’ abilities or triumphs over adversity, and more about revenge. Cecy the telepath plays a deadly game of mindfuck on one of the Elliotts who reveals their secrets to those who came to destroy. Cecy is someone you don’t want to be angry with you when she gets into your head. Yet Bradbury “outs” himself as one of the Elliotts, and in fact Elliott was one of his early pseudonyms.

    Bradbury collaborated with Charles Addams (Addams Family cartoonist and originator), and with Robert Bloch, among others. Bloch is one of those writers hardly known in the modern day, but he could put a shivering chill on a steam radiator when he was writing from the darkness. I should mention that there’s an exceptionally thorough “reading group guide” out there, from the Kalamazoo Public Library. And if this is typical of that library, I do believe I shall soon be moving to Kalamazoo.

    Regards to all,

  17. “That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.”
    ~ Ray Bradbury

  18. Oh, Mr. Bradbury, I loved your stuff, good and bad. I remember being shocked listening (late 90’s?) to your reading of all of 451and a commentary section afterward. You sounded like an old man at that point, which you were, even though you had been eternally young in my mind. I found that unsettling. Even freakier was the commentary – “Make love to me,” you said, talking about what you wanted your writing to accomplish. Weird, but true. Some of your writing was so good, it was _erotic_, in the best possible sense of the word. Like sunrises are erotic, or kindness. It was that good.

    Bye, Ray. I’ll always love you.

  19. I have to admit that I am very unfamiliar with Mr. Bradbury’s work. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything by him. I am ashamed and want to change this. It seems that most people agree that his earlier work was his best so could you (the people of this board) recommend some of his earlier work?

    Peter, you specifically mentioned some of his short stories but didn’t give their names. Could you, or anyone else for that matter, give me the titles of these stories. “He came out of the earth, hating” really caught my attention and would love to give it a go.

    Thanks, and RIP Mr. Bradbury.

    Greg

  20. A person probably ought to read “Fahrenheit 451.”

    The short story collection called “The Martian Chronicles” contains, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” which I always liked.

  21. “Looking back over a lifetime, you see love was the answer to everything.” Ray Bradbury

    I saw it on Twitter, so it must be true. (Despite the obvious attempt to unseat ’42’).

  22. Greg: Peter, you specifically mentioned some of his short stories but didn’t give their names. Could you, or anyone else for that matter, give me the titles of these stories. “He came out of the earth, hating” really caught my attention and would love to give it a go.

    That one was called “Pillar of Fire”. The killer-baby story was “The Small Assassin”; “Skeleton” was great too. The one about the shape-shifting Martian was in “The Martian Chronicles”, but I’m not going to tell you which story because you really should read them all in order. “A Sound of Thunder” is considered a classic, and is an incredibly prescient metaphor for chaos theory (right down to the butterfly flapping its wings in China), decades before chaos theory even existed.

    There are others; but if you don’t like those, you don’t like Bradbury.

  23. Peter (and Hljóðlegur),

    Thanks for getting back to me. I’ll definitely give these a go once I find them.

    Speaking of great lines, I finished Starfish today. “Lenie Clarke has been activated” gave me goosebumps. Awesome. Going to start Maelstrom tonight. If only Tor would release a paperback copy of Behemoth…

    Thanks again.

    Cheers,

    Greg

  24. Greg:
    If only Tor would release a paperback copy of Behemoth…

    If only. The last book of the series and the only one I don’t have in dead tree format.

    The collector in me is… unhappy.

  25. Fairly recently, the SciFi channel released a pretty good update on “A Sound of Thunder”. It revisits Bradbury’s original story though it’s hardly a scene-by-scene translation. In terms of actual Science Fiction with perhaps more emphasis on the science than on the fiction, this is not bad and it has the interesting touch of dealing with the paradoxes (stepping on that butterfly will probably have much greater effects than changing the results of a political election!) by having the time travelers return to a present that isn’t much changed at first, but which starts to unravel around them in really disquieting ways. (There are some CGI monsters/beasts in this, which I consider unsettling on almost every level.)

    I don’t know if you want to go to the trouble or take the risk (maybe you shouldn’t) but supposedly you can download it here.

    That being said, if you get The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes, R is for Rocket and the Martian Chronicles, you would have a most excellent and fairly complete sampler of Bradbury’s short fiction. As mentioned elsewhere, the novel Fahrenheit 451 is indispensable, as much so as Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. If that sort of anatopia interests you, you might also want to see Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, generally thought to be the basis of the film “THX 1138″.

    Fahrenheit 451 is so influential it has been repeatedly reprised in film and occasionally in literature. Possibly the closest thing to it in recent film is EQUILIBRIUM, though that was probably most popular as a martial-arts movie due to some inspirational work from Christian Bale and additionally from Sean Pertwee.

  26. Kind of seems the appropriate spot (The Puppetmasters, etc.)

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/09/remote-control-minds/

  27. Yeah I know that’s Heinlein. Don’t know how I could have made that error.

  28. A giant indeed. One of the most prominent giants out there. I vaguely remember RB quoted as saying that if one were to go into space, he (RB) could easily predict anything that could happen on the space ship. That, and a good friend of mine once posited that RB was dark to the point of not liking people at all.

    I totally buy the first assumption; after all, space travel mindfuckery is probably a bigger problem than space travel tech hiccups. But I have trouble agreeing with the latter: no matter how twisted the characters were, to me RB remains an endearing presence.

    This may or may not be a sign that I am also twisted quite a bit.

    So… learning of RB’s demise from the blog of the sci-fi author at one time deemed too dark to be published in Russia is perhaps very fitting.

    Long live RB.

  29. Whoever:
    Kind of seems the appropriate spot (The Puppetmasters, etc.)

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/09/remote-control-minds/

    Sony’s way ahead of these guys: they started patenting TCU back at the turn of the century. (I even wrote a story based on it.)

  30. Peter Watts: Sony’s way ahead of these guys: they started patenting TCU back at the turn of the century.(I even wrote a story based on it.)

    Fuck, I had completely forgotten about that one. Now someone needs to write one about how politicians get one for their mistresses and turn them all obedient uberfloozy.

  31. Whoever: Fuck, I had completely forgotten about that one. Now someone needs to write one about how politicians get one for their mistresses and turn them all obedient uberfloozy.

    Or better yet, how a bunch of social progressives hit every board meeting and political rally in the country with a weaponized broadcast of “Stop being selfish assholes and try being nice to people for a change”.

    In fact, forget the story, let’s just do that. Where did I put that EM emitter…