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: 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.
 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.