At the end of February 2012, I was sitting in a bar in the Chicago Hilton, discussing Ray Bradbury. I was staying at the Hilton, and in a moment of Bradburian weirdness, I had been put into the suite where President Obama saw on TV that he had just won the U.S. presidential election.
On that occasion, the immense, many-roomed suite must have been full—of family, of security folks, of political staffers—but I was in it all alone, and it was not the best place to be while dwelling on things Bradburian. It was too easy to imagine that there was someone in the next room. Worse, that someone might be my evil twin, or myself at a different age, or it might contain a mirror in which I would cast no reflection. It took some self-control not to go in there and look.
In February, however, the Chicago Hilton was not crawling with secret servicemen talking into their sleeves but with four thousand writers, would-be writers, students of writing, and teachers of writing, all of whom were attending the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs where I was to give the keynote address, and every single one of whom would have known who Ray Bradbury was.
. . . .
I was greatly looking forward to meeting a writer who had been so much a part of my own early reading, especially the delicious, clandestine reading done avidly in lieu of homework, and the compulsive reading done at night with a flashlight when I ought to have been sleeping. Stories read with such enthusiasm at such a young age are not so much read as inhaled. They sink all the way in and all the way down, and they stay with you.
But then Ray Bradbury died. He was ninety-one, but still—as with everyone who has always been in your life and is then not there any more—his death seemed impossible. People don’t die as such in his work, or they don’t die in the ordinary way. Sometimes they melt—the Martian in the story of that name dissolves, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one of Bradbury’s influences. Sometimes they are done to death by aliens, as in The Martian Chronicles story “The Third Expedition.” Sometimes they are hunted down by mechanical hounds for the crime of reading books, as in Fahrenheit 451. Sometimes people don’t entirely die: revenants and vampires are not unknown in Bradbury’s work. But Bradbury’s people seldom just expire.
Any writer who delves as deeply into “horror” writing as Bradbury did has a complex relationship with mortality, and it’s not surprising to learn that as a child Ray Bradbury was worried he would die at any moment, as he tells us in “Take Me Home,” a sidebar in the June 2012 New Yorker science-fiction issue. “When I look back now,” he says—in what, ironically, was going to be his last published piece—“I realize what a trial I must have been to my friends and relatives. It was one frenzy after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another. I was always yelling and running somewhere, because I was afraid life was going to be over that very afternoon.”
But the flip side of the mortality coin is immortality, and that interested him as well. At the age of twelve—as he told us on his website—he had a definitive encounter with a stage magician called Mr. Electrico. This was in the age of traveling circuses and the like, and Mr. Electrico had a unique act: he sat in an electrified chair, thus in turn electrifying a sword he held, with which he in turn electrified the spectators, making their hair stand on end and sparks come out of their ears. He electrified young Bradbury in this manner, while shouting, “Live forever!” The child had to go to a funeral the next day, a close encounter with death that led him to seek out Mr. Electrico once more to find out how this “living forever” thing was to be done. The old carny showed him around what used to be called the freak show—complete with a tattooed man who was later to morph into the Illustrated Man—and then told him that he, Ray, contained the soul of Mr. Electrico’s best friend, who had died in World War I. You can see how all this would have made an impression. Right after his baptism by electricity at the hands of Mr. Electrico, Bradbury started writing, and he didn’t stop until his own death.
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I had to break off in order to attend a poetry event. At the party afterward, I told a writer friend that Bradbury had died. “He was the first writer I read all of,” he said. “When I was twelve or thirteen. I read every single book—I sought them out. I read them cover to cover.” I said I thought that a lot of writers—and a lot of readers—had most likely had the same experience. And that they would be writers and readers of the most diverse kinds—poets and prose writers, all ages, all levels of brow, from low to high.
What accounts for Bradbury’s reach—his scope, his influence? And—dreaded question, but one that critics and interviewers are always asking—where would you locate him on the map of literature?
My own view is that in his best work, Bradbury sinks a taproot right down into the deep, dark, gothic core of America. It’s no accident that he was descended from Mary Bradbury, convicted as a witch in 1692, during the notorious Salem witchcraft trails, for, among other things, assuming the form of a blue boar.