Ray Bradbury – 1920-2012

There is a scene in the Disney film version of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” that burrowed deep into my psyche when I first watched it as a teen. Mr. Dark, a carnival operator who feeds on human suffering and pain (played by Jonathan Pryce), has Mr. Halloway (Jason Robards) cornered in the library, trying to get him to reveal the location of the two main characters, young Will and Jim, who are hiding in the library.

Mr. Halloway, who fears his advancing years, is tormented by Dark, who offers him his lost youth in exchange for the boys. To underscore the limited duration of the offer, Dark grabs a book and, using page numbers as different ages Halloway could become again, begins ripping out the pages. Each one glows brightly and falls to the floor, only to flicker out and lay there, a dead, crumpled husk. At first Dark takes his time, describing the joys of each particular age, but soon the pages are flying faster and faster until he declares Halloway lost and literally throws the book at him.

It was a powerful scene, and it scared the bejeebies out of me. There was almost no blood, and very little violence; just the interplay of two excellent actors and a powerful metaphore. The scene has stuck with me better than any other scene from a horror movie I can remember. There is something visceral about it that struck chords within me I didn’t know were there.

That was one of my earliest recollections of Ray Bradbury’s work–and one that he claims was only “fair” (he wrote the screenplay, but it was ghost-finished by someone else). I also remember “The Sound of Summer Running” in one of my elementary readers, though it didn’t impress me as much then as it does now. How could it? Kids never appreciate the magic of their childhood while they’re still experiencing it.

I read “Farenheit 451” like every other American schoolkid, and was duly appalled by a society that would burn books. I read “The Pedestrian” and wondered over a world where going outside for a walk could become such a rarity. Bradbury was always that warning voice out there, predicting a future that would not be pretty.

Then a friend introduced me to “Dandelion Wine” and it began to make sense why Bradbury was so worried about the future. He came from a past that should never have been lost. If “Something Wicked” struck a chord, “Dandelion Wine” struck a whole symphony. What’s more, Bradbury was able to create a past for me that I never experienced. Yes, I had a much more free and open childhood than kids these days, but I was about fifty years too late for the Green Town described by Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury was a master of his craft. He didn’t just write, didn’t just describe–he evoked. For him there was no difference between poetry and prose. Words, to him, were worth a thousand pictures. They could be tasted, smelled, heard, felt. He wasn’t simply getting messages into your brain so much as setting off bombs.

I haven’t read a lot of Bradbury’s work, though I’ve read much more than I listed here. I regret that. But only because I missed out on other experiences I might have had. I’ve had my experiences with Bradbury, and they are cherished.

Yesterday marked the day that there will be no more Ray Bradbury to read. As sentimental as I get, I’m not usually affected by distant death. But Ray Bradbury mattered to me. Even though I didn’t spend nearly as much time with him as I might have, he showed me that writing had power, that writing mattered. He’s one of the ones who convinced me that writing wasn’t just something people do for fun, but something so much more.

It’s perhaps because of that I haven’t written more. It’s a hard standard to live up to when you’re not even sure that you matter, that you have anything to say. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t read Bradbury more than I have. It’s taken me a long time to realize I don’t have to be Bradbury, I don’t have to be Card, Asimov, Tolkien, or anyone else. And it’s certainly not Bradbury’s fault. Had I ever asked him directly I doubt he would have told me anything to suggest I should ever write like anyone other than myself, and for my own reasons. I think he would have been alarmed to find me listening too much to the college literature professors who taught writing as Art-with-a-capital-A.

He’d probably have told me to ignore them, and just go to the library and read. And then write. A lot. Though he’d have said it better.

Mr. Bradbury, you will be missed. I’m just glad you left so much of yourself behind.

I’m thirty years late in realizing that.

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