Thu 7 Jun 2012
The world lost one of the greats today. Raymond Bradbury has been an inspiration to many of us here at Dumbo Feather. Only last week, I was sharing his letter to Snoopy on the perils of rejection far and wide. A few issues back, as Paul Jennings talked about his influence, I was proud to publish this short piece by Myke Bartlett alongside. We republish it today in memoriam. Rest in peace, Raymond Bradbury, as we will shuffle forever about the house you left behind. Making tea. Burning toast. Keeping things in order. —Patrick
Before he became a writer, Ray Bradbury wanted to be a magician. Indeed, the American author attributes the birth of his career to a carnival wizard—Mr Electrico—who once touched him with an electrified sword and commanded him to “Live forever!” Determined to obey, the young Bradbury rushed home and, instead of sharpening his much-loved magical tricks, immediately started writing. Perhaps he knew then where his best chance of immortality lay.
I like to think you can glimpse that same magic, that same electricity, running through Bradbury’s work. It was certainly a powerful prod. Some 80 years on, Bradbury is still alive and still writing, with 11 novels and more than 40 short story collections published across a half-century career.
He’s most often described as a science fiction writer, but it’s a label that seems to miss the point. As Bradbury himself has said, there’s little science to his storytelling. His stories peel back the prosaic to reveal an improbable, extraordinary world; one we always hoped might exist, somewhere in the periphery. This is what a magician does, after all; they trick us into believing the impossible is real.
For me, the best example of this is his 1963 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Like its protagonists, the book seems to inhabit some liminal space between adulthood and childhood. It’s about children, but perhaps not for them. The writing is practically musical, Bradbury’s prose singing and jangling in melodies perhaps too complex for young eyes and ears. If anything, it feels more of a tribute to childhood reading than a bookshelf comrade. Here is youth as remembered at a distance, instead of youth as lived.
Bradbury is, without doubt, a wonderful, economical storyteller. In his collections of short stories, the appeal of snappy tales such as “A Sound of Thunder” and “The Veldt” hinges on dark and memorable twists. Yet, in Something Wicked, Bradbury puts aside a tidy plot and allows himself to indulge in striking imagery and dazzling wordplay. Here, more than ever, he is a showman.
Indeed, I’ve read Something Wicked several times now but can never remember exactly what happens. Pulling its spine from my shelf conjures memories of mermaids in ice, haunting calliopes and the prickly promise of an electrical storm, but the story itself eludes me like some forbidden spell.
Bradbury’s love of magic might also explain one of the recurring themes threaded through his canon—the fear of technology, of the future. In his short story “The Pedestrian”, he portrays a future society brought to its knees by the household television. So hypnotic are these devices—dangerously new when the story was published in 1951—that the populace is effectively zombified. The police force is defunct as there’s no crime, everyone happily tucked up in the flickering light of these screen entertainments.
It’s a wonderfully Luddite fantasy, the sort that only a staunch defender of books might dream up.
It’s no great distance from there to Fahrenheit 451, which seems destined to forever follow Bradbury’s name in neat parentheses. It probably is his masterpiece, but it’s not a book that has ever excited me. For this I blame my English teachers, who would hold the novel aloft, as proof of their worth, banging us on the heads and sighing: imagine a world without books! Too often, we did.
These days, with economies collapsing around us and great cities setting themselves on fire, it’s not a stretch to imagine ourselves inside one of Bradbury’s dystopian futures. The twist is, however, not how relevant Fahrenheit 451 has become, but how quaint. It’s hard to imagine anyone caring enough to build a bonfire of books, given the screen’s utter domination. There’s a reason why, in the recent London looting spree, electronic stores were gutted while not a single bookshop was touched.
For me, here lies the appeal of Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s a world where magic happens, yes, but it’s also a world where salvation lies not in armies or science, but in libraries. Pitched in battle against Mr Dark and his carnival show freaks, young Jim Nightshade turns to his book-loving father for answers. The sweetness of its nostalgia lies not just in its powerful evocation of childish wonders, but of a world where books truly mattered. That is a magical place indeed.