Me and you and Ray Bradbury
In recent years, following his stroke, Ray Bradbury continued to write stories, which appeared in national publications, by talking to his daughter over the phone. He’d call her up, long distance, and, in essence, talk the story to her; she would transcribe it. He’d go over the result with her later. His hands no longer worked well enough to type, but he was still a storyteller. He said being a writer, telling stories, kept him alive—and he lived to be 91. Vitality was a key component of Bradbury’s writing, so it’s no surprise he turned to writing to shore up his vitality. His stories hummed with life—they always did.
I met him a couple years ago at a bookstore signing, when we were in the same anthology, The Bleeding Edge, (along with Norman Corwin, Dan O’Bannon, Richard Matheson, R.C. Matheson, Jason V Brock, William F. Nolan, Gary Braunbeck, Nancy Kilpatrick, James Robert Smith, Cody Goodfellow, Joe R. Lansdale, S.T. Joshi, Earl Hamner, Jr., George Clayton Johnson, Christopher Conlon, Kurt Newton, John Tomerlin, Frank M. Robinson, Lisa Morton, and Steve Rasnic Tem). Many of us there signing copies of the book, together—Bradbury was in a wheelchair, was having some minor problem speaking, but he did manage his autographing, and was grimly professional about it. He seemed to be soldiering through the day. But he was there for it. He was a professional writer, meeting scores of people, lined up to talk to him, each one beaming at him because he’d imparted extra life to them, at some point. Or he’d shown them how to appreciate the life they had.
I’d “known” Bradbury since boyhood, having read all his books; having been much affected by Dark Carnival, The Martian Chronicles, The October Country, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451—and I was struck, I remember, by Dandelion Wine. It’s not something I’d normally have gone in for, back then: a novel of small town America, set in 1928, all in one summer. It was a celebration of boyhood—a bit like Tom Sawyer but episodic and based on Bradbury’s own experiences—and it vibrated with life. He celebrated youth, in that book; readers felt the summer sun on their necks, smelled the rubber of sneakers running on hot sidewalks, felt the joy of a warm, sweet July evening, experienced a kind of sensual energy, almost Dionysian, that made us feel nostalgia for someone else’s youth. I was a boy, reading it—but I wanted to be that boy! Dandelion Wine made me appreciate my own youth, my own summers, more—it helped me recognize the benevolent side of life. Like the wine made from summer dandelions, distilled, Bradbury’s eternal summer fairly glowed with vitality. I was a melancholy boy—and it gave me hope for life.
Of course Bradbury never neglected the dark side—he was one of the masters of the horror story, a great influence on The Twilight Zone, on Stephen King, and Peter Straub. Life has dark energies too—and we heard them vibrate like minor chords played on a grand piano in his under rated novel Something Wicked This Way Comes… He was also a switch hitter—no, not that kind. He could switch effortlessly between horror and science fiction and mystery. Somehow he owned those genres. Other people got pigeonholed. Bradbury was too big for the pigeonhole.
Ray Bradbury was about all of life. The light and the dark of life; the tragic, the ironic; the cruelty of it, the beauty of it. Sometimes he merged those into one work: Fahrenheit 451 was a paean to the beauty and significance of books, of literature; it was also an observation of the dark side of human nature, the fascist lurking deep down inside us…
His prose had a liquidity, like blood running hot through a man’s veins. And blood pulses with life.
So we’ve lost him, he’s died—but if ever there was a writer who is still here with us afterward, it is Ray Bradbury.
John Shirley is the author of numerous novels, story collections, screenplays (“THE CROW”), teleplays and articles. A futurologist and social critic, John was a featured speaker at TED-x in Brussels in 2011. His novels include Everything is Broken, The A SONG CALLED YOUTH cyberpunk trilogy (omnibus released in 2012), Bleak History, Demons, City Come A-Walkin’ and The Other End. His short story collection Black Butterflies won the Bram Stoker Award, and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year. His new story collection is In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley. His stories have been included in three Year’s Best anthologies. He is also a songwriter (eg, for Blue Oyster Cult), and a singer. Black October records will soon be releasing a compilation of selected songs, BROKEN MIRROR GLASS: Recordings by John Shirley, 1978-2011. The authorized website is at john-shirley.com